For the last four years that I have taught at Penn State University, I have used the first day of class to take an informal poll of my students. “Complete the following sentence,” I say, “using whichever of these four answers comes closest to describing you:”
“The reason I am at Penn State is…”
A. To get a degree so I can get a good job.
B. My parents expect me to go to college, and I don’t want to let them down.
C. I don’t know. College comes after high school, so here I am.
D. To satisfy my thirst for knowledge.
Semester after semester, the results of the poll have been extremely consistent. Typically about 80% or more of the students answer A. Answers B and C garner 510% each, while answer D has never received more than 5%. “In other words,” I tell them, “you are not here to learn.” I explain to them that I have no judgment behind this evaluation, that it is just a fact. “If we ignore this fact, we’re going to be pretending to each other all semester. You see, the problem is that even if you are not here to learn, I am indeed here to teach. What are we going to do about this?”
For four years I have been struggling to find an alternative to the usual response to this near-universal situation at the university. The usual response is, since the students don’t want to learn, to make them learn, using the motivational apparatus of grades and the habits of obedience, emotional dependency, and so forth. This strategy appears to work, at least until the day after the final exam, when they forget everything they “learned”. Everybody—students, teachers, and the institution—go on pretending that an education is happening.
By bringing this issue out into the open on the first day of class, we were able to enjoy an unusual level of authenticity and trust. That honesty, however, only brought deeper levels of my own hypocrisy to light. The first level of hypocrisy I discovered had to do with the fact that I was still assigning grades. Hiding my culpability behind the locution, “I have to”, I made the choice to give grades in order to keep my job. Now, why was that more important to me than my stated reason of “why I am here”to teach? I chose to give grades because I was afraid. I was motivated by the very same survival anxiety that motivated the students who answered A.
Of course, that wasn’t my sole motivation, nor my deepest motivation. I’d made much more money in my previous profession. However, it soon became clear that the grading was a systemic poison that corrupted every aspect of my relationship to the students. How can you have an authentic relationship with someone while you are holding the equivalent of a gun to their head? Because that is what it is. They believe that the grade will have some bearing on their future success, security, and well-being. Grades are also an embodiment of judgment, yet hadn’t I been telling them that I hold no judgment over their motivations and decisions? Hadn’t I told them, I do not want to make you learn, I think it is the teacher’s job to make class so fascinating that you choose to come of your own free will? I felt like a fraud, and some of my students felt betrayed at the end of the semester. I could hardly look them in the eye.
My assertion “I am here to teach” led me to discover an even deeper level of hypocrisy. After a couple years, I realized that my desire to teach was accompanied by a crippling agenda of “being smart”, looking good, and being right. One day I was talking about the perils of genetically modified crops, when I looked around the room and saw two-thirds of the faces had glazed over. I stopped and asked, “Okay, let’s be honest here. How many people in this room frankly just don’t give a shit about genetically-modifed crops?” Over half raised their hands. So the next day I took another poll. I gave them a horrifying, heartrending article on acid rain, and after they’d read it I asked for their response:
A. I really care about this issue and I feel motivated and empowered to do something about it.
B. I guess I care about it, but I feel powerless to do anything about it.
C. To be honest, for some reason I really don’t care. Maybe I should, but I don’t.
D. I’m not worried about it. It couldn’t be that bad, and even if it is, science will find a solution.
As expected, most people chose B and C. (At the beginning of the semester there probably would have been a lot of D’s.)
Here I had been, pretending to be speaking to people, pretending to be in a dialog with them, and most of them didn’t care about what I was saying. I wasn’t actually speaking to them. I wasn’t respecting them as listeners. It was as if I’d been speaking in Chinese, and they’d been nodding their heads until they eventually glazed over, and my mouth kept motoring on. And please don’t think this was only because I was lecturing too much. The group activities, the partner activities, the assignments, all had the same air of phoniness, of going through the motions.
As these realizations became clearer and clearer, I would console myself by emphasizing my successes. Hey, at least I was reaching some of them, right? And hadn’t I received dozens of letters with words like, “This class changed my life” or “This is the best class I have ever taken” or “You have voiced what I have always known to be true in my heart”? Wasn’t I one of the most popular teachers on campus? Yes. I suppose I could have rationalized my continued presence at the university. However, none of these considerations could erase my feeling that I had violated my own integrity. And when I decided to leave the university, and vowed never again to participate in a coercive institution, I experienced a tremendously exhilarating feeling of freedom and self-determination.
For four years, I’d been saying the equivalent of “your integrity is golden”, and I didn’t even believe it about myself. Now, as I move toward other settings of teaching and learning and relationship, my words have power. My integrity is golden. This is the tremendous learning that I received in my four-year experiment as a college professor.
—Charles Eisenstein, October 2006