A Teaching Philosophy as Revolutionary Manifesto

A Teaching Philosophy as Revolutionary Manifesto August 22, 2018
Sixteen hours of travel and four hours of sleep left me particularly jet-lagged and head-achy as I arrived in Hong Kong on Monday. I am starting a semester-long position as a Visiting Instructor at the Centre of Buddhist Studies at Hong Kong University. I will be teaching courses on two of my favorite topics: Buddhism in Contemporary Society and Buddhist Ethics. As it turns out, the readings on the two have a relatively large amount of overlap (largely because Peter Harvey’s great Introduction to Buddhist Ethics has great material for both). For the Buddhist ethics class I’ll also be using Damien Keown’s Very Short Introduction to Buddhist Ethics for something more recent and with a little more theoretical material up front, and a few selected essays from the very new Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics. I’ll write more about the classes and more as time allows over the semester.
For now I wanted to think out loud a bit about pedagogy and the condition of teaching today. Having taught since 2006, I’m quite aware that learning conditions have changed rapidly in recent years, sometimes for the better but quite often for the worse. As a teacher, this is certainly alarming. But even as just a citizen, a human, I’m worried. The complexity of daily life and the demands placed on young people is far beyond what even I experienced (born in 1980). One outcome of this seems to be increased stress, pharmaceutical dependance and a host of mental health problems; and another is a society less capable of cutting through bad information for what is important.
For some people, celebrities are the go-to people for advice on nutrition (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop) or medical advice (Jim Carrey on vaccines) or how to vote. Even worse, people are turning more and more attention to superficial distractions (including, at times, blogs like this) and away from important conversations about community relations, societal harmony, and a balanced relationship with nature – I’m increasingly worried that global climate change is destroying human lives and communities in ways we are all deeply ignorant about and will threaten entire civilizations much sooner than we anticipate. (If that gets anyone to take that issue even a bit more seriously than before, I’ve redeemed any superficiality elsewhere here.)
Today I read a perfectly lovely essay by Gary Laderman, chair of the department of religion and a professor of American religious history and cultures at Emory University. The essay is called Why I’m Easy: On Giving Lots of A’s. The heart of the essay for me was in these three paragraphs:
“But seriously, I do have a master plan, and there is a method to my mad generosity. Most of the students in my courses are in the wonderful age group of older children becoming young adults, 18 to 22 or so. They are mostly privileged and well off, though increasingly diverse on all fronts: class, race, ethnicity, gender, international, and so on.
Something else most all share: They are on drugs, either prescribed or not — and I’m including the legal drugs (alcohol, cigarettes, vapes, and so on). They are also in the midst of serious existential struggles — around identity, family, self-worth, purpose, direction, and so on. You remember that age, don’t you? I certainly remember my own troubled path at their stage. Some say it’s much worse these days, as rising suicide rates would suggest.
So part of my plan is to try to show love and empathy rather than contempt and derision, as some of my colleagues do. Hell, students already have enough stress and uncertainty in their lives as they adjust to living on their own, making new friends, feeding themselves, and taking crazy-making courses on “orgo” (that’s organic chemistry, I think), microeconomics, American politics, brain and behavior, marketing, and other preprofessional touchstones in the intellectual and practical training of young people who really have no idea what they are getting themselves into when they choose their majors.”
This alone represents a revolutionary manifesto, or at least the beginnings of one. It is a revolutionary return to a love-centered pedagogy in a world where students are being turned into mere numbers, often preceded by dollar signs, and professors watch whole departments disappear – especially humanities departments, which don’t draw in the most dollars, er, I mean students.
And, as Professor Laderman writes, the revolution succeeds – a rare victory story worthy of repeating, and, hopefully emulating. His classes draw more and more students and, as he was told by one student, “Your classes are the easiest, but I also learn the most.”
A double victory!

An Uphill Battle

This mirrors much of my experience and approach over the years, except that I’ve often taught in places where most students are definitely NOT well-off (and for them I have even more love and empathy when it comes to missed classes, assignments, and, occasionally, their need to simply give up for a semester). However, there is also an important analysis to be done between the ability to show such love and empathy and SECURITY – he has tenure, I’ve had temporary jobs where I could afford to not worry much about assessments (and we’re both white men, which helps).
I wonder if our ever-more neoliberal education system is driving professorial insecurity which is in turn hurting students. This has been an area of growing interest among professionals in higher education and especially people studying it. As Camille Kandiko Howson of Kings College, London writes:
The influence of globalization on higher education can be viewed through neoliberal ideology; this encompasses ideologies of the market; new institutional economics based on cost-recovery and entrepreneurialism; accountability; and new managerialism (Ball, 1998). Neoliberal managerialism in higher education is a concept related to corporate cost-cutting and the commercialization [of] universities (Bauman, 1997; Deem, 1998; Miller, 1995).
The neoliberal economic agenda is leading to decreasing funding for public services around the world; in education, this agenda attempts “to weaken public control over education while simultaneously encouraging privatization of the educational service and greater reliance on market forces” (Berman, 2003, p. 253) (paper here, pdf)
Put simply, higher ed is shifting away from a community-oriented endeavor, led by educators and supported by taxpayers, and toward an individualistic-oriented endeavor led by students (and a managerial class) and supported by debt accumulation. If you are of a ‘libertarian’ or similar mentality, you might think that this is how a student gets the best education, however, ongoing neoliberization of higher education, “is highlighted by the attempts of colleges and universities to transform their basic functions of teaching, research, and service into revenue generating operations” (Saunders 2007).  
Even your best, rational, individualistic student is entering into a worse educational institution than one which existed 10 or 20 years ago. The great educators are having to turn their formidable intellects toward money making and seat-filling and away from research and student contact. Good professors, of course, fight this and some succeed, but they have to see that everywhere around them the holes in the boat are getting bigger and the ship is sinking.
And it is in precisely this environment that many good professors begin treating students like the enemy, with “contempt and derision.” This might seem like a seemingly innocent way of “venting” for increasingly burnt-out professors, but it is also a symptom of a larger problem.
So while Professor Laderman’s philosophy here is revolutionary, it is still just a revolution of one.
What is needed is not just a realization that the students need and deserve love and empathy, but that the whole system is fractured by an ideology of cold, calculated financial interest. It is a system where the biggest winners to date are not students, or professors, or the public, but the banks who are servicing America’s 1.5 Trillion dollars in student debt.
* Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash
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