What Does A Teacher “Do”? Secular Education’s Disparate Aims

What Does A Teacher “Do”? Secular Education’s Disparate Aims May 19, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. As a child, the moment I realized my father and I had different political views, my views on education changed, too.

To be clear, my father first inspired a great deal of enthusiasm for politics in me. I was raised to believe strongly in one’s responsibility to be politically engaged. Since he also aggressively advanced my scientific and literary education from very early on, I also owe to him my love of learning and voracious appetite for reading.

But the transition from “sponge” to “person with opinions different from their teacher’s” was just as critical to my growth–and now, as an educator myself, I’m acutely aware of how difficult it is to support others in the same. Even with the best of intentions, that moment when someone follows your premises to different conclusions is critical–because it’s the moment when your reasons for educating others become most clear.

It’s the moment when you must confront whether you’re simply teaching dogma after all.

The Parrot and the Pause

See, my father was trying to explain fiscal-conservative principles regarding taxation. (I believe I was nine, and that this happened during the 1995 provincial election–but memory’s a bit slippery, so, around there.) To simplify matters, he proposed a community filled with people who worked hard to earn money for their families, and who shared part of those paycheques for collective expenses pursuant to safety and security: the police, the fire department, the hospitals. Logical, because everyone had a vested interest in security, right? But then some citizens wanted to build a swimming pool in the region, and that was fine and well, but… who should pay for it?

I remember blurting out the answer I knew he wanted to hear: “The people who want the swimming pool!”

And I remember immediately realizing that this was, for me, the wrong answer.

But my father had already offered my mother a triumphant “see? even a kid gets it!” look of personal triumph.

And at that moment I realized the point of the exercise had been to parrot belief–which made me especially confused, so I kept all follow-up questions to myself, and puzzled over them in private. Questions like–

But how do we decide what we share costs for and what we don’t? Don’t Americans pay separately for their healthcare?

Also, can’t everyone benefit from a swimming pool? What about the public-safety value of teaching people to swim? Isn’t that why I’m being forced to take swim classes I hate?

Also, a swimming pool takes a lot of time to construct, and then it’s a building that future generations will take for granted, maybe like the hospitals we do now in Canada. How does true democracy function if one group of people in the past gets to decide what will be taken for granted in the future?

Now, I doubt my thoughts were as well articulated at the time, but this notion of generational democracy was a routine preoccupation for me back then. Because if none of us is truly starting from scratch–if we’re all just responding to the parameters outlined by preceding generations’ social contracts, and from those parameters setting the social contract for the next generation–then why did so many politicians campaign as if full individual autonomy was even a possibility, let alone a right?

And yet, after that night, the question took on a different flavour, because I realized then that the same conceit of many politicians was held by educators, too; because parents and teachers alike who pride themselves on creating curious minds are nevertheless coaxing those minds to certain ends. Whether you raise up a child to be relentlessly inquisitive or decisively tribal, you are advocating for a particular school of thought with significant sociopolitical ramifications. To some extent, you’re choosing for them.

Leading the Horse to Water

…Which isn’t a bad thing, per se. But it’s not something we’re particularly honest about in the secular world. Speaking just about the religious question, we advocate for children learning to “think for themselves.” We want them to have “open minds–but not so open that their brains fall out.” We know, in particular, that a child who isn’t raised with religion will be baffled that people even believe in such notions (e.g. all three of my nephews had a moment, around the development of self-awareness for their mental inner worlds at 3.5 to 4, when they asked Aunt Maggie why other people believed there was life after death and a god–so if there’s a grand omnipotent being communing privately with all “souls” in the cosmos, it sure as heck missed the chance to reach a family of atheists by speaking to them through a small child!).

And yet, for many atheists, the absence of declarative religious education isn’t sufficient. Many atheists raise their children not just to be “freethinkers” or “secular”, but also to share in the adults’ mockery of the religious from a young age. And that’s just as troublingly tribalist, because it teaches children to arrive at their beliefs by parroting others, and to delight in how that emulation delights their parents in particular.

Likewise, some secular educators employ their tribalism in staunchly patriotic or ethnocentric ways. Folks like them want the next generation to grow up with full allegiance to charisma or institutional might, even if a traditional Abrahamic god is not involved in the language they employ. Some might not even realize they’re doing this–let’s call them the Captain My Captain! subset: the teachers who thrill their students by telling them to tear up stodgy old textbooks and follow their counsel instead. But all centre themselves in their teaching, and in so doing encourage their students to look for other leaders who will offer them the same, unwavering direction outside school, too.

Likewise, some educators, like my father, have specific bugbear issues that lessen their general focus on independent thought. My education at his hand gave me to believe, for instance, that he wanted the next generation to grow up resistant to welfare-state policies; and to advocate instead for privatization in pursuit of economic independence. (There was a reason, after all, that Ayn Rand’s Anthem and George Orwell’s Animal Farm were my first novels!) Single-issue educators might not even realize how many other, more moralizing conditions are wound into their central concerns, but nevertheless, if those secondary worldviews are ever challenged, the teacher-student relationship can struggle for years thereafter.

As for me, I want the next generation to grow up with a sense of responsibility to pursue whatever social state leaves the fewest people possible in lesser states of being. I’m not even sure if I’d call that a liberal/leftist position, either, because to me such an aim also makes good economic sense. (For me, true fiscal conservatism would include rehabilitative prison models, complete with access to the arts and education, so that convicted criminals could reintegrate more easily into local economies after serving their time, thus reducing the recidivism rate; and it would also provide comprehensive universal healthcare, so that individual citizens can be self-sustaining, actively contributing members of society for as long as possible.)

Suffice it to say, then, there are many varieties of secular educator. But so long as the atheists among us are fixated on the supposed “battle” of teaching children the critical thinking skills that we’re confident will ensure their own avoidance of religious belief… we’re not really addressing the larger issue, are we?

The question, that is, of whether we truly want the next generation to think for itself, or if we’re all simply desperate to mold it in our own image.

Also, what would the former sort of education even look like, if we could manage it?

The Perils of History

Granted, the first thing an educator has to let go of, if they truly want the next generation to come to conclusions for itself, is a fear of students failing to learn history, and thus being doomed to repeat it. Surprise! We who know our history still repeat it. (Remind me: how many genocides has the world witnessed since “Never again”?)

I certainly chafe at ahistoricism in secular storytelling, because it’s so often developed by commercial enterprise and political groups to sell specific entertainment and news items as novel, groundbreaking, heretofore-unheard-of social events.

But history is itself a weapon–not some blanket salve against future Holocausts, terrorism, and plagues–because every educator can lean on historical precedent for most any point of view. And every educator does.

What matters more, if independent thought is truly your outcome, is teaching the process: the history, that is, of how we’ve come to believe in what we currently hold to be true. This approach isn’t easy, though. It involves showing your students your steps, instead of declaring certain facts to be true–and when in doubt, being honest about that doubt. “You know, I’m not sure, so let’s look it up together” goes a long way to showing others not only how to learn, but also that learning is lifelong. That good learners at any age adapt to changes in circumstance, and are always open to new intel.

But but but, this is too advanced for small children!

Poppycock. Even the youngest child old enough to ask a question about the world is old enough to hear in your answer some variation of, “Well, some people believe X after having done experiments for years, and some people believe Y after reading other people’s opinions online,” followed by “How would you look for an answer?” and a discussion about where to turn for firsthand and solid secondhand information.

(Fun bonus points: this approach has also, in my experience, curtailed the infinite regression of “Whys” that comes with simply providing a child with blunt facts. Young people want to be included, and they thrill at opportunities for self-empowerment that still have you engaged and on-hand in the process.)

Education for Dogma vs. Education for Independent Thought

Again, though, the above methodology is also extremely political. In suggesting that I want the next generation to exert independence of thought, even if it comes to different conclusions, I’m essentially advocating for a generation less likely to vote conservative–at least, the way that conservative parties currently lean the world over. (After all, there’s a reason that conservative parties tend to gut public education of all but what it purports to be the essentials–namely, the dictated “3 R”s. In my lifetime I’ve yet to see a conservative party actively encourage the study of society among youth.)

I should also note, though, that even if independence of thought produces fewer contemporary-styled conservatives, it does not preclude either future tribalism or more oppressive forms of self-organization, like fascism or Big-Brother communism. Human beings relentlessly fall into this kind of groupthink, so for all that I’d aim to teach empathy and discourage cults of personality, there is always a chance of a more “liberal-leaning” education still producing extremists. (Yay, humanity.)

Ultimately, then, the question before humanists is also about process rather than specific outcomes. Simply put, how much do we want to emulate formal religion? We know that declaring the existence of a god and an afterlife is critical to childhood acceptance of the same… but does secular teaching deviate far enough from such behaviours?

And if you believe, as I do, that secular education should differ–that, spiritual or atheist, we should all avoid dictating any knowledge to the next generation, or emphatically coaxing them to follow our lead simply to please our egos and support our worldviews–what might we seek to change about our practice of the same?

It’s easy to talk about creating independent thinkers… but ask yourself how you handle a) the discomfort of someone in your educational care disagreeing with you, or otherwise challenging the positions you hold most dear; and b) the joy of hearing your own views repeated back to you by someone you know wishes to please you.

Discomfort is an obvious red flag for educators of every religious and non-religious stripe, and from every position on the political spectrum.

But for those of us who want to empower the next generation, delight should be as well.

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  • guerillasurgeon

    I was I was never a great fan of sports stadiums, paid for by everyone, used by businesses these days to make a profit. Although to be fair our local one publishes its accounts and is apparently making a profit. Not sure where the money goes though.
    ” nevertheless coaxing those minds to certain ends.”
    One of the few advantages of being old when you study – and most of my professors are about half my age – is that you can resist if you wish being pushed in a certain direction. To some extent. When I was a kid there were always people who wanted to know the received wisdom – funnily enough mostly Christians of some sort. I think they like things in black and white. But I do try to get as much information as I can before I make a judgement when I’m doing an assignment, and my conclusions have generally been received quite well. But then my bibliography is usually more than and A4 page – because that’s where the fun is right? So occasionally they can say I’ve relied too much on so-and-so, they can’t say I haven’t read widely.
    Occasionally I have been asked for advice by other students, and I’ve had a few already marked assignments to critique, and I am a bit annoyed that the bibliographies are the minimum required almost always. Can’t criticise too much because that’s what I did when I was their age to some extent. Except when the subject really grabbed me. These days I discovered that if you put enough effort into something it usually becomes interesting anyway. But second and third year students using the word “majorly”, not bothering to run a spellcheck through which is hardly rocket surgery, and wondering why they get a C-. They don’t always seem particularly inquisitive put it that way, but these days they’re paying for their education – it used to be more or less free – and they just seem to want results ASAP so they can move out and get a job. Can’t say as I blame them, when I was a kid a general education was considered good enough for most things, not so much now in our neoliberal society.
    “Many atheists raise their children not just to be “freethinkers” or “secular”, but also to share in the adults’ mockery of the religious from a young age. ”
    The only time I remember having a religious conversation with my son was when he came home from primary school with some stuff he picked up from kids there, and all I said was “Well – we don’t actually believe in that.” He’d already figured out that Santa Claus probably was a myth, considering the number of them that he saw around the place at Christmas time, so I think he just filed it away under that. And that was essentially that. Mind you as I’ve said before, we don’t tend to talk a great deal about religion in NZ.
    But while I sometimes mockery the excessively religious on this site, I don’t do it in real life. But then in real life it’s hardly ever discussed. New Zealanders are far too polite on the whole. One of my son’s friends has some sort of evangelical qualification from some sort of religious organisation, but I doubt if his friends actually discuss religion when they are doing their RPGs on Sunday nights.
    Oh God, wandering. Never mind, my paper starts in a couple of weeks and I should be more focused.:)

  • After my 4 year-old & I had a conversation about death, she asked me to confirm whether people are reborn as different people after they die. I was baffled at how intuitive the concept of reincarnation seemed to her but I pointed out that, since she has no recollection of a previous life, even if she’d had one it wouldn’t matter at all right now.

    I generally try to ask her for her best guess about the answers to her questions but she nearly always responds with “I don’t know” 🙁

  • Major Major

    I know this is a little late, but your mention of Dead Poets’ Society got me thinking about how Hollywood has tackled teachers in film. Maybe you could do a post on white savior complex in those types of films wrt teachers among students of color?

  • Positivist

    I too am an educator. I teach a range of university courses but the funnest ones to teach are invariably those that get students to explore multiple perspectives on social issues. These “idea potlucks” are especially fun because I feel like I’m helping students be equipped for tackling social problems as well as helping them construct a conceptual framework that resonates with them and that they can articulate to others. I tell them “I don’t care what you believe, but you need to know why and what you believe and you need to be able to articulate those ideas cogently and be able to appreciate the perspectives of others who see things differently.”

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    That’s a really good idea, and ties in well with what I’m contemplating right now about eco-tourism’s failings for precisely the same reason (i.e. the white saviour complex). Thanks for the suggestion, Major Major!

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Oh, there’s something truly invigorating about “idea potlucks”. I’m lucky with my adult students; they have a wealth of experience in one language that they’re seeking the confidence to convey in another, so we get into some wonderfully chewy material. Still, there was a particular joy to humanities classes back in my Canadian teaching days, which I will always remember fondly… even as I also remember, with horror, the post-secondary educators who treated their students as passive vessels instead. That said, Positivist, somehow I’m not surprised you’re also a post-secondary educator, and I don’t doubt your students are thoroughly enriched by your pedagogical approach. Thanks for the work you do!