As a substitute teacher who takes subbing jobs in public schools all over New York City from Washington Heights, to Harlem, to Astoria, to Fort Green and back, I see a great deal of setbacks that are making it nearly impossible for this city’s teachers to teach without wanting to run screaming from the classroom and never looking back. Much has been written about school reform, the common core curriculum, the insane amount of state testing, lack of administrative support, lack of proper funding, the ridiculous Danielson Rubric which creates a no-win situation for many teachers being evaluated. I myself have written about some of these things in my frustrated as an educator when I was teaching full-time. But I feel that one of the things which doesn’t get talked about nearly as much, probably because it is a systemic problem we don’t quite know how to address or deal with effectively, is the culture of apathy and anti-intellectualism from many of the students in our schools today, particularly in middle and high schools. It is a problem that has multiple levels of awful.
I see students at an alarming number of schools (not all of course, but many) who not only brazenly disrespect their teachers (and the administration), but who also show absolutely zero interest in learning or trying to improve their academic performances in any way, shape, or form. They refuse to stop going on their phones, obsessed with social media (which is a larger issue not just with teens, but with society as a whole, myself included), and texting each other constantly. If you try to either get them to put their phones away, or take the phones away yourself, I have often seen some students get very aggressive towards the adult who tries to. They swear at adults, ignore them, throw things at them, or simply refuse to do ANY work at all. It is appalling how these children speak to adults: with total disregard for their standing as an authority figure, or mentor. They seem to have no concept that a teacher is not a peer, and that teachers (and adults in general) are supposed to be respected and listened to, not harassed, and yes, often bullied by young people who simply don’t want to do the work and don’t understand why they should.
The kinds of classrooms these students are in varies. Some of them are classrooms in extremely poor communities where there just isn’t the funding to bring more resources into the classroom to get the students more focused and interested. Other classrooms have quite a lot to offer in that regard, but the students still lack the interest. Keep in mind, I am not talking about students who clearly have physical or learning disabilities, severe autism, or ADD, or ELL students who are still adjusting to the language and culture. I am talking about your typical average teenager who can read and write at a normal level, and whose comprehension is average to above-average. I have seen this mind-boggling disinterest over and over again. There is a wide range of apathetic teens in terms of economic background, racial makeup, and socio-cultural makeup. It is throughout the city, students of every stripe, color, and creed. I have also seen many classrooms where students are perfectly excited to participate, to learn, to grow, and who are very respectful to their teachers as well. But that has been the minority, sad to say. Why is this attitude problem so widespread? I think one part of the problem (because there are a multitude of factors in this problem that I can;t possibly get into in one blog post) is consequences.
Many of these students do not, I believe, refuse to place importance on education because their teacher isn’t trying to make it interesting or exciting; 95% of the teachers I see go above and beyond trying to get the kids engaged (though the amount we educators try and are pushed to bend over backwards to “entertain” the kids in order to get them to want to learn is a little bothersome to me, to be honest. We’re supposed to be preparing them for the real world, and work is not always entertaining. Sometimes it’s just hard work). I personally feel that they’re opting out of seeing the importance of how much education can help them because, as my husband (who comes from a different culture than the American one) pointed out when I discussed this with him, quite aptly, these kids already feel (and in some cases, know for certain) that for many of them, it won’t necessarily help. The fact is that many of these kids do come from hardscrabble backgrounds where they have seen violence, crime, and live in economically depressed areas where no one has a decent education and no one climbs out from the suffocation of that world. The system has repeatedly failed their families and the people in their neighborhoods. Why bother trying when you’ll just get screwed over? I empathize with that, but I do think we need to start finding ways to subvert this ‘deck is stacked’ mentality that seems to pervade, and get these students to understand the consequences of NOT giving a rat’s ass about their education. What are the consequences of not trying? They’re pretty big. Yes, the odds are often not in their favor, especially students of color. That’s a given. But by educators working harder to show examples of people who did make it out of difficult circumstances and who bettered themselves by getting an education, and applying it to the real world, we can help battle this terrible cynicism that plagues many of our youth.
The other part of the consequences issue is that kids across the board are living in a world where the people in power seemingly have total impunity. These kids are completely plugged into what happens around them. They are exposed to national news and global news and politics in a way no other generation of young people has been before. They are constantly bombarded with images of Wall Street crooks going free, big banks being bailed out after ruining the country by treating our economy as if it’s just a big gambling bender in Vegas. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney literally got away with murder by lying to our country in order to start a war with another country we had no business being in. Jordan Belfourt lied to people to get their money, and he had a Martin Scorsese movie made about his life that completely glorified what he did. Sure, he went to jail, but he got out and now makes money off of his tell-all book that comes off as bragging rather than a recant. I recently watched ‘The Big Short’, a film about the housing crisis; and while it does wonders to explain how the economy collapsed and condemned the big banks for their corporate greed, the heroes of the film were still people who got filthy rich off of other people losing all their savings. Our students see policemen killing young black men who were proven to be unarmed, and the policemen not getting charged with anything. They see Bill Cosby accused of drugging and raping over 50 women and having nothing come of it. Kim Davis refusing to do her government job because of religion, even though the Constitution demands a separation of church and state, and NOT GETTING FIRED FOR IT. Even internationally, look at FIFA. Only recently were they charged with anything, and they’ve been racketeering for decades. Look at war criminals in places like Indonesia, Uganda, Syria, Zimbabwe, the Philippines.
One of the things I found most horrifying about the film ‘The Act of Killing’ [a 2012 documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer which has paramilitary gangsters who were part of the Indonesian anti-communist death squads of the 1960’s reenacting the murder and torture they committed for his cameras] was the fact that the perpetrators of genocide are STILL IN POWER there! They rose to power, and then became elderly statesmen through a culture of fear and genocide. They proudly brag and boast about their inhuman acts of barbary for all the world, reenacting these atrocities with glee for the cameras because they know NOTHING is going to happen to them. They have total impunity. One of the mass murderers Oppenheimer interviews says at one point that he would gladly appear before the Hague if he were brought up on war crimes. But he felt it was unfair that they get to dictate what the term “war crimes” means. “The definition of ‘war crimes’ is always determined by the winners. I won. I am in power, and the Communists are not, so I get to determine that what I did was my duty, not a war crime.” It’s pretty hard to argue with that logic, even when it is clearly morally repugnant. Because the truth is, the definition of war crimes are defined by the winners. The paramilitary groups won in Indonesia. They get to stay in charge, not the victims of their campaign of terror. That’s the way it works.
With a world that seems to eschew accountability for anyone who makes it into power, a world that our students are much more exposed to than we are probably even fully aware of, why would they care? What’s the worst that could happen if they tell us to fuck off, that they didn’t do their homework because they just didn’t want to, that it doesn’t really matter what they do, the cops are still going to kill innocent teens that look just like them, the bankers are still going to inflate the market and bet on it and lose and still come out millionaires, the politicians are still going to lie and cost soldiers their lives and they’ll go on being powerful, the war lords are still going to run their campaigns on fear and terror and no one will come after them.
With a world like that, is it any wonder that it has bred such a pessimistic and apathetic generation? If culpability is a mere thing of the past, such apathy can’t come as much of a surprise. The bigger issue is how do we fight it in our schools? Can we even try to?
I refuse to believe in the idiom of “Why bother?”, and I know there are also thousands up thousands of students who aren’t like this, who are genuinely intellectually curious kids who do want to learn, and who do understand and respect that teachers are trying to help them, not oppress them or bore them. I have seen quite of few of those in my educational travels as well. But the truth is, we need to start giving better examples to our students of what the consequences are when you DON’T apply yourself, and how to work at overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles when society makes it twice as hard for you to succeed. We need to give them a reason they can understand and relate to that will make taking their education seriously a reasonable request.
You see, all hope is not lost, it’s just that hope is in need of some accountability too.