Tag Archives: Banality of Evil

THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON

Most people are just doing their jobs.

Most people are just doing their jobs.

If you have ever taught in New York City then you know who the School Safety Agents are. They are the men and women dressed in police-like outfits who patrol the hallways, oversee dismissal and are generally there to protect the safety of students and staff. I used to work alongside many SSAs during my days as a dean and I still have an appreciation for what they do on a daily basis.

The SSAs are part of the New York City Police Department. Because of this, they have wider latitude than teachers or deans to physically restrain students who are acting violent or threatening. However, they have much less latitude than police officers and must take extra care to respect the civil rights of students. They are in a tough position. On one hand, they need to maintain the aura of authority figures. On the other hand, they must earn the respect of the students in order to do so. This latter imperative usually causes some teachers to criticize SSAs for being too chummy with the students. It is a rare occasion when an SSA has a reputation for being too strict, although it does happen from time to time.

There was one particular SSA at a school in which I worked who was kind of strict on yours truly. I would even go so far as to say that his behavior towards me was downright rude and unprofessional. As far as his reputation with the students or other teachers was concerned, I haven’t the foggiest idea. All I know is that this man tested the limits of my patience.

One of my many nasty habits is cigarette smoking. All schools have a de facto smoker’s corner somewhere outside where teachers congregate to indulge their two favorite habits: nicotine and complaining. While it is unhealthy to blow cigarette smoke, it is pretty healthy to blow off some steam. I justify it by thinking the two balance each other out. The teachers at the school were vigilant about going to an inconspicuous place where they wouldn’t be seen by students. During those times when there were no students around, I went around the corner to catch up on my text messages and emails while inhaling yet another cancer stick; menthol 100s of course. This had been a thing of mine for as long as I could remember and I couldn’t imagine who I might have been harming aside from myself.

Yet, somehow, a new SSA at the school informed me that this was not the place to smoke. He approached me while I was indulging in the filthy habit and said he was at a “training” recently which taught him there should be no smoking anywhere near the school. Whether this applied to just staff or any random person I did not know. Rather than make a thing out of it, I dutifully took my business elsewhere without giving it another thought. In fact, I followed his directive for several days thereafter even when he was not around to enforce it.

That all changed one day while going out to grab a late lunch. My path took me right by my old smoking spot, the one the SSA said was not a smoking spot. I saw him standing there chatting it up with the head custodian, who just happened to be smoking at the time. Whatever the topic of their conversation was, it certainly was not about how the spot in which they were both standing was off-limits to smoking. I could tell this by the hearty laughter that punctuated their conversation. They were doing everything short of slapping each other’s backs. I thought to myself, ok, maybe the smoking ban was lifted just for the moment they were standing there. Or maybe the smoking ban was in effect for the time of day I happened to be caught. Or maybe the smoking ban was in effect just for me. Whatever it was, the parameters of this smoking ban were bizarre indeed and riddled with loopholes. The next day, I decided to reclaim my spot.

About a week or two after the smoking ban, I once again happened upon my favorite SSA. This time, I was heading out to grab a fast lunch that I could bring back to the building to eat while catching up on piles of grading. Teachers have this weird tendency to plan out every minute of their prep time. I used to have to schedule bathroom trips lest I forget and be stuck in a classroom for the next three periods. The relative productivity of my day usually depends upon getting the annoying stuff out of the way (eating, bathroom, correspondence [w/smoking], etc.) so I could focus on planning and/or grading.

To that end, I decided to avoid the crowds of students, who were meandering out to lunch through the front exit, by slipping out through the side doors which were usually free of traffic. Despite the relative ease of getting to this exit, I rarely used it because the doors opened out into a very narrow street. Any bystander walking along outside could get a face full of steel unless I slowly inched the door open to let them know I was coming.

As I was walking down the stairs, I saw our SSA standing on the landing between the second floor and the exit which was my destination. I said hello as I passed him (to which I received his usual non-response), reached the bottom of the stairwell and, just as I pushed on the iron bar to make my exit, he says “nobody is supposed to go out through that exit.” I thought to myself, gee, it would have been nice if you told me that before I reached the bottom of the staircase. Maybe you could have worked that into the conversation after my “hello” to you. I said to him “I thought you were standing there to make sure the kids didn’t cut out of school through this exit”, to which he shook his head “no”.

Now, after the earlier smoking controversy, I saw this man’s directives as mere suggestions. I certainly was not about to run back up the stairs so I could exit through the crowded lobby and fail in my mission to get back in time to get some serious grading done. Furthermore, I never knew it to be school policy for the exit in question to be off-limits to staff. So, I inched the door open and made my escape.

I started thinking about that last “no” he said to me. If he was not standing there to ensure that students did not cut out of school, does that mean he was stationed there to stop staff from exiting? Was he standing there to make sure people from the outside did not sneak their way in? The latter was sort of an impossibility, since the door could not be opened from the outside due to the fact that it automatically locked, had no handles and weighed around half a ton. As a former dean, I am sensitive to the need for a school to have secure exits locked to the outside world. That is why I was always sure to fully close the door behind me on the few occasions I used that exit. I would lean my entire body weight on it, listen for the thud that told me it was locked and did some quality control by trying to open it up again, to no avail.

Whatever his reason for being stationed on that landing, he obviously took it quite seriously. At the next staff meeting, the administration told us that we should avoid using that exit. Our SSA had obviously saw my exiting as a transgression serious enough to inform my superiors. Whether or not he mentioned me by name to them is still unclear. Perhaps his total lack of interest in me as a human being was my saving grace in this instance, since he most likely didn’t know my name.

Sure, both of these run-ins with this SSA were pretty petty. Despite the fact that he committed one of the cardinal sins of the schoolhouse by snitching on me, I still had the ability to swallow my pride and try to smooth things over with him. However, a few weeks later, we took one step further away from doing that.

I have a very strict bathroom policy in my class. Each student receives a certain number of bathroom passes each semester. They know not to burn them unless they have an actual emergency. Of course, allowances are made for students with medical conditions. All told, between the months of September and June for all 150 of my students, there are no more than 20 instances of students leaving my classroom for any reason. In short, it is a rare occasion that you will catch any of my students in the hallway.

Yet, it is simply unavoidable in some cases. One day, one of my bright freshmen was not her chipper, participatory self. She had a sullen, ashen look on her face. Around 15 minutes into the period she asked to go to the bathroom. I could tell this was an emergency, so I told her to just go without worrying about looking for and filling out the bathroom pass. This was the only time this student ever left my room.

No more than 5 minutes later, our favorite SSA returned her to class and said to me that she was “walking the halls” with her friend. I had never known this girl to be a hallwalker. If she was in fact walking the halls with her friend, then I was inclined to believe it was pure coincidence. Perhaps she just bumped into someone she knew on her way back from the bathroom. In order to verify this, I asked the student if she had made it to the bathroom. She said she did. At this point, the SSA told me that I needed to give her a pass if she was to leave the room. This is the type of dressing down that adults are just not supposed to do to other adults in front of students. It does not matter if it is an SSA, teacher or administrator, it is unprofessional to admonish a colleague in front of students. Besides, hadn’t I earned the benefit of a doubt after years of not ever producing any hallwalkers from my room? Surely if someone from my class was “walking the halls”, there is a reasonable explanation. The most likely explanation is that the hallways are the only path from classroom to bathroom. There is no other way to reach the bathroom except through the halls. Case closed.

I really never found out what this SSAs shtick was. He was transferred to another school shortly thereafter. Whenever I think of him, I think of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In short, you give someone a role, especially a role with a little power, and they will likely use it in all types of creative, malicious ways.

The other thing I think about is the movie Idiocracy. In a future where the world is as dumbed down as humanly possible, the police know nothing more than how to bark out simplistic orders and blast people with pepper spray. It can be argued that Idiocracy is already here. During my time at Occupy, I saw first hand many officers who had no affect and seemed to know nothing more than how to bark out the same order over and over again.

However, these seemingly trivial run-ins with a seemingly trivial person had me reflect on some serious lessons. Every year I take a class period to tell my students that my goal as their teacher is to develop their sense of humanity through the study of history. The school system would like me to play the role of a transmitter. It not only places me in a position to transmit the knowledge it wants me to pass down, it places me in a position to transmit a certain set of values.

It wants me to tell children that the harder they work, the more rewards they receive. It wants me to transmit the value that success means making money. It wants me to transmit the value that the goal of education is so they can go on to be the type of workers our corporations want to hire. Through these values, students will learn that hard work will eventually get them much success, which means money. The further implication of this is that those who have money now must have worked hard for it. The wealthy earned their keep and are entitled to every last dime they have.

In short, the school system is designed so that I as the teacher pass on the idea that the system that exists in the world today is not only good, but natural. No other system can be imagined. No other system is desirable. Work, work, work, work with the nebulous carrot of “success” dangling in front of you. Most of us are destined to be the hamster in the wheel: working furiously but never getting any closer to the carrot called “success”. It is really ingenuous, this school system of ours. In the end, it functions as little more than a 13-year exercise in brainwashing. It makes us all complicit in our own subjugation.

The more robotic, thoughtless people exist in the world today, all the better for the system. As the great Jewish philosopher Hanna Arendt described, the Nazi state was built on thoughtless, robotic individuals. Most Germans were complicit in a murderous system, yet nobody felt any responsibility since everyone was just doing their “job”.

If I want students to get one thing out of my class, it is that a combination of critical thinking and empathy helps ward off the banality of evil of which we all seem to be capable.

Sure, the banality of evil can be a Nazi official from the 1930s. Much more often, it comes in the form of that SSA watching out for smokers and hallwalkers. He is a relatively harmless example of the banality of evil. As a matter of fact, most people are relatively harmless examples of it. Their biggest crime is the fact that they are incapable of going off the script. In the aggregate, however, so many people committing small acts of thoughtless evil amounts to one gigantic, evil system.

The best type of revolution against this sytem is not violence. The best type of revolution is the slow but steady awakening of peoples’ humanity. It is the one-at-a-time awakening that shows people that life doesn’t have to follow a script. It is the type of revolution designed to reprogram the very DNA of the system by reaching its most atomic, and most necessary, constituents: our children.

This is my most important lesson for both my students and myself. I do not want to be a teacher, not in the sense that the system defines that term. Instead, I want to be an anti-teacher.

Rants From The Philosophy Classroom

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.”

“Exactly”

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.”

WOW!

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?”

Damn

“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.