Today was the weekly philosophy class. It got off to a rough start. The AP came in just as the late bell was ringing to inquire after some paperwork I had failed to hand in. This ate up a good 5 minutes of class time. I did not even get enough time to write the do now on the board, leaving my class to sit there twiddling their thumbs during the course of my conversation.
On top of that, there was a trip that took a whole bunch of kids out of the building. I had a rump of about 15 students who certainly resented being there while their school chums were off gallivanting around the big city. The fact that it was raining did not help matters either. I do not know what it is about rain that depresses the mood of a class. Would they rather be outside?
Once the AP left, I wrote the do now on the board. It took a lot of prodding and cajoling to get the class to work. It is an elective class worth a quarter of a credit. A high grade is usually a fait accompli for anyone that shows up the required once a week. Needless to say, the students did not have much motivation to tackle the thought question I wrote on the board.
One of the great things about teaching is that a class can start off badly and end off fantastic. That is what happened today.
I wrote a series of four phrases on the board that each stated something about human nature. They were required to either agree or disagree with each statement and give their reasoning. We had a discussion about the statement where the students brought up some very good points. Then I asked them the big question:
What do each of these statements have in common?
It was a strange question because these statements did not seem to have anything in common at all. They each related to totally different aspects of human nature.
“They all talk about what people do?”
“Good. Now, how are they similar in the way they do this?”
I cannot remember the exact responses, but a few students said things that almost hit the mark. In order to get them there, I wrote the word “laws” on the board. I explained that we mean laws not as in legislation, but as in natural laws like the laws of physics. I know most of these kids. Many of them are AP students and they can handle this stuff.
So then a student says “they all treat people the same.”
I wrote the term “existentialism” on the board and then the name Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I explained a little of who he was and then wrote the title of one of his books “Notes from the Underground.”
“In Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky talks about treating people like piano keys. What do you think he meant by that?”
Another great round of responses ensued. By this point, I think we had redeemed ourselves from our rough start.
The turning point came when I asked, why do you think people make these laws of human nature? Why do they try to make people into piano keys?
The response of the day is usually the response you do not expect. That is what happened when a student raised her hand and said: “It makes it easier to control people.”
Before I go on, let me just point out that my goal in every lesson is to talk as little as possible. I ask questions and then elicit responses. After each response, I will ask follow up questions and the lesson flows seamlessly from there. It does not always happen this smoothly but that is always the goal.
Then again, I am a history teacher. I think it is in the genetic code of a history teacher to go on rants. Sometimes I get into rant mode and it is really tough to stop me. Over the years, some of my rants have become legendary. Even the students that tend to look down the entire period in order to escape notice usually follow me with wide eyes when I go a-ranting. They seem to enjoy the passion, not to mention the momentary break from note-taking.
So that thoughtful response about controlling people started a rant brewing inside of me.
Paraphrase: “This is what some subjects try to do. Look at economics. It boils things down into equations and numbers. It takes human activity and reduces it to calculation.
“You heard about the newspapers printing up the test scores? (I know they were “value added” scores, but I did not want to get bogged down in explaining what that means. There is a difference between a rant and a tangent.) That assumes that you can judge what students learn and what teachers teach by a test.
“What if you were tired on test day? What if you plain did not want to take the test or read through a bunch of questions? Do you think what you know should be judged from a test?”
It was a rhetorical question of course.
“So they just think that test scores are everything?”, someone asked.
“Exactly. And then people open up the newspapers and assume that these numbers have any bearing on reality. In America, that is how things work. The media says something and people believe it. There is no digging deeper or questioning.”
“There was a German-Jewish philosopher named Hannah Arendt. She had to leave Germany because Hitler had started mistreating Jews at the time. She settled in America and started writing. A few years later, a Nazi named Adolf Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem and she was sent to cover it. Her articles were collected into a book Eichmann in Jerusalem.”
Students started writing the name of the author and book despite the fact that it was an aside, not part of the notes.
“She describes Eichmann as a thoroughly ordinary man. He honestly sat there during the trial and believed he did nothing wrong. (I should have mentioned that he actually thought he was a friend to the Jews, but I forgot.) His defense was that he did not kill anybody or order the killing of anybody. He merely authorized trains to take Jews to the concentration camps.
“It was his job.
“Hannah Arendt described this as the ‘banality of evil’. Banality means ordinary or boring. Evil does not usually take the form of a creature with a pitchfork. Instead, it is found in the ordinary actions of ordinary people.
“Eichmann was inoculated from any moral compunction because it was ‘his job’. As far as he was concerned, he was just following orders and there was nothing he could do. Even though all he did was sign papers authorizing the transfer of Jews to death camps, those actions had dire consequences. His thoughtless, mechanical decisions helped cause the murder of millions of innocent people.
“This is what we have today. Imagine someone who loses their job and cannot pay their mortgage. The bank eventually comes and forecloses on them, throwing a family out into the street. Of course, whoever signed the foreclosure is just doing their ‘job’. After all, if you don’t pay your mortgage, the bank has a ‘right’ to evict you. However, as the result of someone doing their ‘job’, someone’s life is destroyed.
“It is this kind of thoughtless, amoral stuff that happens all of the time in society. Same thing with the banking crisis. Bankers were just doing their ‘job’ pushing crap loans and other financial services that they knew to be bunk. That was not their concern. They were not technically breaking the law, and their job is to make money for the bank. In the end, their actions ended up pushing the economy off of a cliff. That is the banality of evil.”
After class, one student asks me, “so why do you give tests?”
“Because I have to. But I try to make up for it in other ways. Most importantly, at least I recognize that it is part of my own form of banal evil.”
Will this pedagogically unsound rant show up in my “data”? Who cares.
Will this rant help make a difference in the lives of some students in the long run?
In this data-driven age, it is more important than ever to prevent our kids and teachers from becoming piano keys.