My older daughter, who is in kindergarten, is one of the gentlest souls I know. She goes around our house picking lady bugs off the floor and putting them on window sills so that we don’t crush them when we walk. A few days ago, while in the girls’ bathroom at school, she was kicked by another girl, between her legs. As soon as it happened, my daughter went screaming to the teacher and told her what had happened. Thankfully my daughter was fine, after a visit to the nurse’s office and an ice pack.
I contrast her behavior with that of college students, who often deal with much worse – hazing (and not just in fraternities and sororities, but also in athletics, theater, and even a capella groups!), ridicule, binge drinking, drug abuse, depression, assault, rape. The only difference is that college students suffer in silence, most of the time. It is a sad irony of our educational system, that as our kids go through it, they learn to be silent instead of outspoken, they learn to look away instead of blowing the whistle. One of my students recently gave me the following example from her elementary school years. During “circle time” the children in her school could either report something good that another student had done, or report something bad that another student had done, with one small difference: when reporting a good deed they could state the person’s name but when reporting a bad deed they were not allowed to mention anybody by name. My daughter and her friends, similarly, are learning, from their teachers, that “tattling” on other kids is a bad thing, unless the other kid does something “really, really, bad”. But how can kids make the distinction between what is “really, really, bad” and what isn’t? Given the right conditions, even adults can’t make the distinction – from lay people willing to administer electric shock to strangers, to soldiers willing to torture and abuse prisoners. But perhaps the problem isn’t so much that we can’t make the distinction between good and bad, but that we have many reasons to stay silent. As one of my students recently told me, “Snitches get stitches”. But a five or six year old in kindergarten hasn’t learnt yet that in order to keep her friends she should cover-up their bad behavior. But kids learn quickly.
In a recent lecture at my college, Michael Kimmel, author of “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” pointed out that precisely at the moments that our students need some adult intervention in their lives, we, as coaches, administrators, and professors tend to disappear. Think about the coach, for instance, who tells his/her team regarding “initiation rituals”: “Don’t discuss this in front of me. I can’t know anything about this.” The message from adults is clear. Be silent—at least in front of us. That a five year old has a louder voice and is willing to use it much more readily than an 18 year old, should be of concern to us. And we should ask ourselves: What can we do to change this culture of silence? What is our responsibility as educators when it comes to teaching students to use their voices, to speak up, to refuse to suffer in silence?
I’m not saying that we all need to become intimately involved in our students’ lives and try to change them. But those of us in the social sciences and humanities at least, know that the subject matter we deal with is intimately connected to the lives of our students. The method and message of our teaching can be potentially transformative. Engaging students in the kind of education where their experiences and perspectives matter, and where they are encouraged to speak, question, participate, argue, disagree is one small way of encouraging a new identity in our students: one that is not based in silence, conformity, or passivity.
Once we acknowledge that we as educators have an immense responsibility on our shoulders, to listen to our students, to not treat them as another face in the crowd, to not make them into passive beings, we make the move from education that merely results in a degree to an education that is personal, transformative and meaningful. The kind of education where “life” becomes part of the subject of teaching and teaching becomes a part of “life”. Perhaps this is how we teach our students to regain their voices that we as educators encouraged them to silence a long, long time ago.
Connecticut in the USA
Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. Her forthcoming book, Women’s NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs and examines the strategies used by them to ensure not just their survival but an acceptance of their messages by the larger public. She can be reached at email@example.com.