Monday, June 21, 2010

Rankism and the Well-Earned Disrespect of Some Teachers

In the ancient world, teachers were not respected. “He’s either dead or else he’s teaching somewhere” was a comment made in a comedy fragment about someone missing from a gathering. And Lucian relegated a dethroned king to Hades to sell salt or old boots . . . or to become a teacher.* Making money on the market—teachers were paid a fee for their services—was disparaged. Not until the Judeo-Christian influence did teachers begin to gain respect.

Today, teachers are admired, not just for the service they provide to educate the young, but for their seemingly tireless dedication to long hours of preparation and their equally seemingly tireless patience to answer repetitive questions. Unfortunately, not all teachers return the admiration to their students, colleagues, and administrative assistants, which leads to sniping complaints from outsiders about privilege and long vacations.

The root of this lack of respect is what former Oberlin College president, Robert Fuller, calls rankism or the abuse of rank (1, 2). The disrespect is deserved, for the rankism manifests itself as expressions of power over and taking advantage of those not at the same level of authority. For example, a professor may write an email explaining why an administrative assistant should drop everything and copy his receipts from a recent academic trip. The assistant works for the chair of the department, not the individual faculty, but the professor goes to great length to explain why his time is more valuable than the assistant’s—not in the least noticing that in the time it took him to compose and edit the email he could have copied his own receipts. Such manual labor, apparently, is beneath his dignity, but not that of the “lowly” administrative assistant.

Other forms of condescension by senior faculty include failing so much as to say hello to a part-time instructor or interrupting without apology a conversation between a part-time instructor and the chair of the department, with the part-timer seeing nothing but the interrupter’s back. Political power play is how some might cynically or even approvingly describe the senior professor’s behavior. Childish disingenuousness might be another description. Or the behavior might be characterized as the desperate quest for approval of a defensively frail ego because, as I have written before, the stakes in the academic world are so small.

Rankism toward students is legion. In the absence of corporal punishment, verbal abuse has become the tool of putting students in their places. An “appalling lack of civility” is how Charles Silberman in 1970 described the contempt that teachers and principals exhibit toward their students. Sarcasm, ridicule, and just plain rudeness seem to be the preferred means of pulling rank today, such as sternly telling a ten-year-old that she is still a child until the age of eighteen. This ignores and devalues the intelligence of the ten-year-old who knows well that one does not automatically become an adult by celebrating a birthday; it also ignores and devalues the maturity of the ten-year-old who considers a child to be younger than six. The effect of the rudeness is to deflate developing self-esteem and silence opposition or disagreement.

One of the worst forms of rankism that a teacher can pull is to talk in class negatively about others who are not present to defend themselves. Such behavior is beyond rude and childish. It is unethical. It certainly is none of the students’ business what the teacher thinks about other students, teachers, or administrative assistants. But such behavior does happen in the cocoon-tenured environment of the academic world. The teacher will not be fired, but the students and administrative assistants who are talked about may be harmed. Sometimes, unfortunately, that is even the intent of the negative talk.

Fuller’s campaign against rankism is to establish a new meaning of equality. It does not mean, he says, equality of ability, knowledge, intelligence, or position or rank. It means equality of dignity. It means treating others, regardless of age or rank (or race, gender, nationality, etc.), as human beings. In the military world, a soldier’s general is a commander who treats those under him with care and kindness. A player’s coach exhibits the same toward his athletes. Kindness and respect are what those in authority need to exude toward those in a lower rank. It means being nice.

*Cited in H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, part two, chapter  5.

1 comment :

David said...

* Universal suffrage

This is the idea that everybody, every member of the school, student and staff, has a vote. It is really a simple idea, as opposed to the idea of democracy as it is sold in Academia, in the heart of our educational system, where the idea is a Greek one: democracy is for the privileged. Confusing the issue of subject matter with the issue of political power.

[Excerpt, Greenberg, D. (1987) "Subtleties of a Democratic School ," The Sudbury Valley School Experience.]

See also: The Market Gives Privilege to No One.