Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Great Devoid

Came across a link to a very poignant piece at the Belmont Club today. In so many, many ways, I now know why my students are the way they are: devoid of passion, of fight, of the will to speak for themselves in front of their peers. Enthusiasm is derided as silly, while the epitome of success is cool.

The essay may have referred to Americans, but make no mistake, it applies equally accurately to Singaporeans.
More and more, we Americans like to watch (and not to do). In fact watching is our ultimate addiction. My students were the progeny of two hundred available cable channels and omnipresent Blockbuster outlets. They grew up with their noses pressed against the window of that second spectral world that spins parallel to our own, the World Wide Web. There they met life at second or third hand, peering eagerly, taking in the passing show, but staying remote, apparently untouched by it. So conditioned, they found it almost natural to come at the rest of life with a sense of aristocratic expectation: “What have you to show me that I haven’t yet seen?”….
The bo-chup attitude so prevalent in secondary schools and JC is a direct result of this. I can't really say experience, even vicarious ones, are bad, but one must know when to abandon second hand experiences when prudent. No wonder students often act like they know it all, then mess up because the details were never shown to them, and they refused to listen.
The classroom atmosphere they most treasured was relaxed, laid-back, cool. The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. Nor should she create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lost their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embarrassment. Embarrassment was the worst thing that could befall one; it must be avoided at whatever cost.
It's hard to get passionate about chemistry, I would willingly admit. But what about civics, or moral education? Where is the atmosphere of conflict where students put their beliefs and their logic to the test? There is often a hidden subtext to our civics lessons: don't rock the boat. Students bitch and complain about Singapore and life here. Fine, that's okay, I do that too, but when I query them (politely even!) on what they would suggest, they clam up. They refuse to examine the situation, refuse to think, refuse to say anything which could expose them to the very sort of embarrassment cited in the article.
To the young, I thought, immersion in consumer culture, immersion in cool, is simply felt as natural. They have never known a world other than the one that accosts them from every side with images of mass-marketed perfection. Ads are everywhere: on TV, on the Internet, on billboards, in magazines, sometimes plastered on the side of the school bus. The forces that could challenge the consumer style are banished to the peripheries of culture. Rare is the student who arrives at college knowing something about the legacy of Marx or Marcuse, Gandhi or Thoreau. And by the time she does encounter them, they’re presented as diverting, interesting, entertaining—or perhaps as object for rigorously dismissive analysis—surely not as goads to another kind of life.
How much do our students know of their intellectual heritage, beyond what they were supposed to study for GP and PW? One of the themes for this year's PW, pioneers(or something like it), is an excellent one, I felt. It behooved the students to read and find out about the titans who have shaped our world and made it what it is today. Far too many young people pass by life ignorant, or worse yet, unwilling to learn. And even if they do learn, what of it? Do they think about how relevant their newly gained knowledge was to them? How was it important? How should that knowledge be used?
Immersed in preprofessionalism, swimming in entertainment, my students have been sealed off from the chance to call everything they’ve valued into question, to look at new forms of life, and to risk everything. For them, education is knowing and lordly spectatorship, never the Socratic dialogue about how one ought to live one’s life.
We've focused so much on the As and Bs that we've forgotten that just as important, perhaps more, was that education was less about knowledge but more about getting the correct values in life. We use disciplinary measures to try to instill such values in students, but I've yet to see a serious lesson plan to discuss values. The few moral education lessons I've seen are often prescriptive, telling them what to do, and less on the whys, which I think is always more important(and interesting).
As I read those evaluation forms and thought them over, I recalled a story. In Vienna, there was once a superb teacher of music, very old. He accepted a few students. There came to him once a young violinist whom all of Berlin was celebrating. Only fourteen, yet he played exquisitely. The young man arrived in Austria hoping to study with the master. At the audition, he played to perfection; everyone surrounding the old teacher attested to the fact. When it came time to make his decision. The old man didn’t hesitate. “I don’t want him,” he said. “But, master, why not?” asked a protégé. “He’s the most gifted young violinist we’ve ever heard.” “Maybe,” said the old man. “But he lacks something, and without this thing real development is not possible. What that young man lacks is inexperience.” It’s a precious possession, inexperience; my students have had it stolen from them.
I look at my niece, a precocious child, and more aware of the world than my generation when we were at her age. She is already exposed to so much more than we were. Will inexperience be taken away from her before she is ready to deal with its loss?


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