Given the unsettled state of many economies right now (Greece, Italy, most of Europe), the recent upsurge in popular protests (the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement), and in general humanity’s need to squabble amongst itself for gain, I think it’s a good time to remember what all of this arguing and fighting actually accomplishes.
Very, very little.
For every success like some of the Arab Spring revolutions (debatable), you have a mess like Syria, where no one is helping and nothing is changing. What is it exactly that the Occupy protestors have done so far? In general, clog up public spaces and irritate those people who aren’t rabid for their cause. Nothing economically has changed because of that.
One of the reasons this strikes me is because my profession has a great deal of this in its history. Especially in North America, there’s this great popular sentiment and wishful thinking that attempts to denigrate the current state of education, regardless of past or present progress. It’s never good enough – if the teachers aren’t being too greedy about their wages, they’re whining about class sizes, say people; if the system isn’t wasting money on frivolous technology projects, it’s mired in bureaucratic inefficiency and hoop-jumping. Even in individual schools and classrooms this can be a problem, particularly with challenging classes and students.
For example, it is a regular course of a teacher’s job to have meetings of some sort with parents/guardians of students who are in one way or another not learning or showing their learning in a way that is identifiable. This may be because they have an undiagnosed special need, because their in-class behaviour is overly disruptive, or that they have some sort of inner emotional turmoil that is interfering with life. Regardless, these meetings happen, and the temptation is to look at it, from both sides, as a ‘winning’ situation. As in “If we can just get Student X to listen better, we can win the battle to help her learn”. Or “If Student Y and Z can both agree to just ignore one another, we as teachers can win this war of behaviour that we are having with them”. Go even further up in the chain of command. “If we win this negotiation, the government will give us the funding we need to make this system better.”
I’m just starting to realize that this is not the way to be thinking about it, and I think that many people still think of situations like this, and similar situations in their own or others’ lives, as a winning game. If you’re at all versed in game theory, a zero-sum game. Zero-sum means that nothing you achieve is done without a cost to something else. Every time you get a point, someone else loses one.
This sort of game also helps people categorize others as opponents. This subset of people is on my side, those ones over there we don’t want to bother to listen to. Opponents can be denigrated, cast out, and ignored. You shouldn’t concede to an opponent, and you certainly shouldn’t make peace with one.
We see this sort of thinking in labour negotiations with unions all the time. The evil management wants to keep our benefits and wages down so that their can sip Dom Perignon and smoke big Cuban cigars; the greedy, bloodsucking workers want so many benefits and wages that they’ll bankrupt the company.
I don’t think it has to be that way. Whenever I get asked the incredulous question of ‘Why on earth would you want to be a teacher?’, I believe people are still thinking of the world as a zero-sum game. Some people just can’t believe that there are places and times in the world where no one outright wins or loses in any outcome. The hours of time and sometimes thankless treatment in difficult classes seems like it’s too big a point loss to be recoverable.
Many people who believe that the right to free speech is paramount over all others think this, I feel. “If our right to free speech is infringed upon even for a moment, everyone loses!” they cry.
And here I stop and find myself trying to write this post in a way that doesn’t make it out in the end to be an attack, an offensive, a way to win in the end.
What I really wanted to say is this: there’s not always a way to ‘win’. You can’t save every student if you’re a teacher, and you can’t always ensure that everyone’s rights are 100% respected. If you look at the world through the lens of ‘winning’, you will never be happy, because this world, and the people in it, are not perfect. Instead of looking for a way to win every situation, try to simply not lose. I think that’s a very different thing. Stand your ground so that you don’t lose everything important, but don’t be so blinded by a mythical victory that you fail to do the most good possible.