2017: the year of cruelty?

July ’17: I started this in mid-February, but can’t quite recall what sparked me off on this particular tangent. But reading it this morning, with all the brouhaha about tuition fees and student debt, brexit-bobbins, and the escalating levels of may-hem, it still seems fairly relevant. Just because society is getting harsher (and at times crueler), doesn’t me we have to be harsher in teaching.  I’m also not sure if this is finished or whether I had another paragraph I had to brew over a while longer, but here it is anyway:

I’m brewing a post that follows on from Helicopter Lecturers and Spherical Students but that’s not what occupies me this morning and I need to get it out of my head. If 2016 was categorised by celebrities deciding they’d had enough of this planet, 2017 looks to be headed down a far crueler and darker route. It’s nasty so far and it goes beyond just a different philosophy of government and a natural rebalancing of opposing views. There are things in the workings that frankly cross the line into evil. But the philosophical nature of good and evil in the cosmos are best left for Ambassador G’Kar and I will turn my attention to cruelty in education.

Hmmm, cruelty in education? It’s not something we would hope anyone would set out to do deliberately and we’d hope that anyone we know would take steps to avoid it happening inadvertently.  And yet, I’m not sure we do. Cruelty is a very strong word, very emotive so perhaps harshness would be a better description of what I mean. If we wished to frame things more positively, this could be a post on the role of kindness in education (and some might go further and call it love but that’s another very strong word, and one I’m uncomfortable with in the context).

I think we see students as grades on a page all too often*, and we neglect to consider our broader context in our students lives. They don’t just show up, open up their heads, get knowledge and skills poured in by us, assessed by  us, then leave to make a meaningful contribution to society. And as uncomfortable as I am by the concept of role models, academics are role models to students. This is both positive and negative. What sort of example do we set? What sort of example and expectations do the prevailing cultures and modes of working of HE currently set for our students? And how do you shield students from careerism at all costs? The notion that it is insufficient to get a decent job and work reasonable hours, one must have a plan, a career, goals, mileposts, markers and a life long structure of assessment against which a life might be judged. Seriously, it’s OK to earn enough to live on and do something else (I am a big fan of UBI).  I don’t claim to fully understand the mindsets involved in wanting the best for offspring at all costs, but I know that the world needs plumbers, fruit pickers, bus drivers, and waste handlers irrespective of participation in higher education.


*July 17 – while anonymising marks by student identity numbers brings clear benefits in avoiding unconscious bias, it also dehumanises the process. Instead of grades and names, you’re confronted with lists of numbers. It’s all to easy to forget that actual people with hopes, dreams, strengths, and failings lurk behind those little streams of digits. Perhaps everyone is just treated more harshly in the name of equality.



One Reply to “2017: the year of cruelty?”

  1. I agree…. Modern education does have something of a factory production line feel to it, with students that he cogs in a process that produces workers. It is the same in school teaching, it’s not enough to be good at teaching, chasing promotion is on the agenda from the moment a young teacher qualifies.

    On Wed I walked past one of my 2nd year tutees on the street on campus. He had been in to view his Sem2 exam papers and had taken his mum with him. I said ‘hi xxxx’ as they walked past and his face lit up. As much as possible we need to humanise their time in our ‘care’, tutorials are as much for checking everything is ticking along as they are for getting concepts across.

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