Saturday, March 24, 2007

Class Misrules

I wonder if it would be wise for a school teacher to hand out “class rules” of the following kind ie. with plausible-seeming objections attached. The idea is that they are highly likely to provoke students into thought, because they hold out the possibility of real gains (ie. a change to the rules) for anyone who thinks carefully about them.

Perhaps a student would not really consider this possibility as genuine, since a teacher who gives out rules like this (the student might reason) must be pretty confident that the counter-arguments are flawed. But even in that case it is surely healthy for a teacher to show that he or she is willing to at least consider the counter-arguments, rather than just presenting students with the sheet of unjustified rules that they have seen hundreds of times before. And the student’s suspicions about the teacher might be outweighed by the apparent force of those counter-arguments, causing the student to genuinely believe that there is something to gain by taking them up with the teacher. Or perhaps they might have no doubt that the teacher considers the arguments to be flawed; but still take them up with the teacher, or think about them themselves, to find out just how they are flawed.

I think the rules and the counter-arguments should be such that some of the former do require modification in light of the latter. It would lessen the value of the exercise if students went out of it with no sense that they could actually change things by producing good arguments in favour of their own view.

What would other teachers think? Would they be enraged to find that some idiot of a teacher had handed out a bunch of excuses and smart-alec replies to students, which those students will use against their long-suffering teachers at every opportunity? Hopefully they would not be enraged. But even if they were, one could hand out a sheet of counter-counter-arguments, to rip out at its roots the anarchic impulse to think

“The class rules are in bold. If noone comes up with good reasons to change those rules, then they stand. Otherwise, they won’t.

Arrive in class on time (this rule seems a bit fishy. Why should students come to class on time? If they can do this without disrupting anyone else, are they doing anyone any harm? You might say that they are doing a harm to themselves. But surely the best judge of that is the student, not the teacher. What does the teacher know about the many trials and temptations that draw a student away from class, and thwart their earnest attempts at punctuality? But this may not be a good reason after all, so the rule stands).

Wear a tidy uniform (but this seems a bit fishy as well. What does a person’s dress sense have to do with their school work? A school is a place for education, not for cosmetics. And students can become educated, and very well educated at that, without having the least regard for their clothing. Socrates was notorious for his bad dress sense. Perhaps this rule has something to do with giving off a good “public image,” at cafes and bus stops and places like that; the school wants to be judged well by the public. But why should we submit to being judged on our clothing? We keep hearing that it is shallow and materialistic to judge a person by what they wear: why shouldn’t this apply to schools as well as to individuals?)

Avoid profanities (But suppose that everyone used profanities all the time. Wouldn’t the profanities then lose all of their meaning, like any words that are used all the time, so that they would no longer really be swear words any more? So if everyone were allowed to swear, there would be no more swear words. So why should we ban them? If we ban them, we’re loosing a good chance to perform a public service.)

Do what the teacher says (But is it not true that people learn best when they do so on their own initiative? And teachers are always saying things like “use your initiative” and “take control of your own learning.” So wouldn’t it be best if students were left to learn independently of the teacher’s commands?)

Don’t be a smart alec (But isn’t it one of the aims of education to produce people who are witty and intelligent, who can think on their feet and are able to defend themselves? If that is the case, then wouldn’t it be better if students were allowed to practice these skills on the teacher?)

Always do the best that you can do (Well, that sounds like a nice little saying, but it is obviously wrong. Clearly it is not right for a person to “do the best they can” to become a thief or a liar. So this little saying gives people no good reason to do their best at school: perhaps school is a bad thing, like lying or burglary. One reason you might think school is a good thing is that if the student does well they will have a better chance of getting a good job. But that reason doesn’t work, because a person who does an average amount of work can get the same mark as a person who does a lot of work, even if they have the same natural capabilities. The marking scheme is so crude that often it can’t distinguish between those two people. So why not just do an average amount of work and leave yourself more free time to do other worthwhile things? You might say that is “shirking” or something, but isn’t it just good time management?)

Never talk while the teacher is talking (But the teacher talks while the students are talking. So why the double standard? You might say “because the teacher is giving out important information that everyone needs to hear.” But….but…well, see the next one)

Don’t disrupt other people’s learning with violence, excessive talking, etc. (But when the teacher says “you ought not to disrupt other people’s learning,” isn’t that a moral claim? And hasn’t the twentieth century taught us that moral claims are always relative, so that what is morally wrong for one person may be morally right for another person? Some African tribes think that it is morally right for young children to be forced into marriage at the age of fifteen. In New Zealand we think this practice wrong, but we tolerate it because we know that the African people have a different moral scheme to our own. Why don’t teachers take such an enlightened attitude towards their more talkative students?)

Students will be treated as adults unless they act like children. If they act like children, they will be treated like children (But if a person gets sick and goes to hospital, everyone says “just treat them normally, as if they are quite well; that way they will get better more quickly.” And if a person starts acting like a dog, it would be foolish to start treating him like a dog: if you do that, he’ll just become more and more convinced that he is a dog, so he’ll keep acting like it. If you treat him like a dog, you have made things worse, not better. And if you agree to that, you would be inconsistent if you treated people like children as soon as they started acting like children.)

Make sure you can back up your actions with good reasons (That’s a bit fishy as well. Suppose Jack thought that your idea of what counts as a “reason” is wrong. Then you would have to back up your idea of what a “reason” is. But what kind of things would you use to back it up? You would have to use “reasons,” of course; but what sort of things will count as “reasons”? You would have to use your own idea of what a “reason” is. But of course Jack will not be convinced, because you have assumed as true the very thing that you were trying to convince him about. It’s as if you were to say to Jack “The moon is made of cheese,” and then try to convince him by saying: “the moon is made of cheese; therefore the moon is yellow and has holes in it and is made from cows milk; therefore it must be made of cheese.” Which is clearly a bad argument. So noone can give any good reasons to believe that their idea of “reasons” is the right one. So every reason is as good as any other reason. So as far as reasons are concerned, any action is just as good as any other action. Isn’t it?)”