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Najera GS: When we corrupt ourselves

Over 70 years ago, the great educator Robert Hutchins warned a graduating class about corruption. "I am not worried about your economic future," he told them. "I am worried about your morals…Time will corrupt you. Your friends, your wives or husbands, your business or professional associates will corrupt you. Your social, political and financial ambitions will corrupt you. The worst thing about life is that it is demoralizing."

In an unforgiving world, where the ecstasy of intellectual wonder slams into the concrete and practical necessities of life, we constantly need to hold on to that innocence. I bring up this issue because I am in classes with you, dear reader, where we  struggle to reconcile the theories and ideas with everyday practices. The beggars on Thayer St., a drive downtown, the failing schools — they all charge against our idealism and threaten to make pessimists out of all of us.

I was in fifth grade when I first went camping with schoolmates. All the other children had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I was stuck with fried taquitos my mother made. Worse still, I brought them in a "Food4Less" plastic bag instead of a lunch box. When it was time to eat, I was ashamed of my tacos. During this instance, the urge to conform was visible. I could easily compare my tacos to the "normal" peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But the corruption is most egregious when it is invisible.

I found myself recently in a meeting about students' progress for the semester. The conversation centered around the students' home lives and their failure to stay during detention. A list was developed of who would stay after school and whose parents would be called. Then the group turned to setting up calendars with each other. I thought it went very well.

When I later tried to brag about how involved the group was, someone asked a simple question — did you guys talk about your own teaching? I was dumbfounded. No — the conversation was about the students' "Fs" and the punitive consequences of their failure. It never crossed my mind to confront the fact that my own teaching led to that failure.

Albert Einstein held that the theory decides what you can observe. In other words, once you know what you should see, that is all you can see. For this reason, he injected a cosmological constant into his theory of general relativity. Sure, we are not all Einsteins, but like him, we make fundamental assumptions and build on those assumptions.

If I come to believe that I am powerless to teach children, then I will confirm this by pointing to all the student failures. This is how we corrupt ourselves — by embracing faulty assumptions and developing habits out of them. If, on the other hand, I believe that any child can learn, then I will focus on their successes.

As Michel de Montaigne put it, we are held captive by the authority of our teachers. A teacher, for now, is anyone who controls your access to knowledge. Sometimes teachers are assigned to us, and at other times we choose them by admiring them.

When we respect someone's intelligence, we are prone to second-guess ourselves before we second-guess them. The assumption here is that they know more than we do and that we must defer.

I admit, I am held captive by the minds of many people. But, dear reader, we are captives by choice. When the teacher's insight ceases to be sufficient, we can and should abandon it in favor of another. The trouble is that this can happen in a negative direction. Through peer pressure, we can be held captive by bad teachers and bad habits. Our bosses, our colleagues, our husbands — their opinion holds authority in our eyes. Because of this, they can corrupt us. And we can corrupt them.

Hutchins was right in being worried. The traits he emphasized — courage, temperance, liberality, honor, justice, wisdom, reason and understanding — are hard to come by through our social networks. That is our challenge, dear reader — to withstand the corruption of our morals and to resist the temptation to give up on our ideals for practicality's sake. I failed the other day in that meeting. To help me get my spirits up, I recall what Chet Newland, who teaches at the University of Southern California, told me once — that there is no distinction between the best theory and the best practice. They are one and the same. It is something I hold on to for when the acidity of the "real world" most threatens my ideals. But when I am really dragged down, I put on Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares." Nothing does the job as well as 30 minutes of Ramsay demanding, "Where is the fire in your belly?!"

Hector Najera is a graduate student studying education.


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