You’ll thank me one day…

May 28, 2010

I never thought I’d be turning to Rousseau or Nietzsche for solace. Yet a colleague has shared with me a couple of articles that tackle the issues I am struggling with: namely, the question of compassion for students (see my previous blogs for elaborations upon this).

In the last few weeks I have had a couple of students visit me to share their view on my teaching practices. These few but vocal students declare me to be a poor teacher and unfair marker who has created stress and unreasonable pain, and consequently damaged their health, their relationships, their jobs and their lives. This leaves me shaken to say the least.

Baker, Brown and Fazey (2006) suggest that such behaviour by students is reinforced by the culture we live in where “the private conduct and distress of the individual is a matter for political intervention” (p. 33). I am fascinated by these turns. I am reminded of one student who accused me of racism because I had awarded a “fail” grade to him (despite the class being 50% international students – including those with the top grades). Another referred to receiving a low grade as a form of “bullying”. I know these are particularities and do not represent the views of most students. I also have colleagues telling me to “toughen up” and reminding me that I’ll be worrying about these things long after students have forgotten my name and most of what they’ve been taught. Yet it still gets under my (thin) skin.

I have a strong commitment to alleviating suffering – it’s why I’m vegan, it’s why I’m an environmentalist, it’s why I fight for animal rights. It’s why I work for social justice and why I do the work I do. Accusations that I might actually be causing someone harm and suffering are not ideas I can easily shrug off.

However there is a counter argument amongst our great philosophers that is worth turning over for a while:

Starting with the work of Avi Mintz, the argument is made that pain is a necessary and therefore desirable component of education. Mintz suggests that too many educators are caught in trying to mitigate pain rather than allow it. In doing so, they fail their students. Building on the work of Rousseau, the argument goes that the suffering we find in students is actually good for them, and instead of being alleviated, it should be promoted.

I’ve been dwelling on this for a couple of days now. Hanging out in a School of Social Work means I bump into so-called “strengths-based” approaches on numerous occasions. If I’ve understood Jonas correctly it would seem that educators, under the guise of a strengths-based approach to teaching, provide students with lots of affirmations – supporting their ideas and rewarding their efforts. Yet a truly strength-based approach to teaching would take a different form. It would see individuals as strong and capable, rather than weak and pitiable. The strength to be celebrated is the strength of the individual to overcome current barriers and hardship to become more powerful and virtuous. Nietsche makes an important distinction in the role of pity in education. He does not reject the concept of pity altogether. Instead he argues against the alleviation of immediate suffering. In other words, if, feeling pity for a student, I alter their grade and award a higher mark, then although I am alleviating their present suffering, I am also eliminating their chance for learning and development. Thus I would be doing the student an enormous disservice in the longer term (Jonas, 2010).

Coupled with this, Mintz (2009) notes the emergence of the “self-esteem” movement within schools, that has sought to make self-esteem the central educational issue. The result has been termed “the new illiteracy” with teachers pandering to students’ interests and sacrificing genuine intellectual interests. Drawing on the example of maths teachers who “rescue” their pupils from pain by supplying answers too early in the stages of problem solving,  Jonas (2010) suggests that what is required is not the end of suffering per se – but the increase in self-mastery in students. Such a skill requires facing hardship and difficulty. If teachers become overly concerned about students’ wellbeing they may avoid challenging their students to ensure that their learning is smooth and comfortable. In turn, students learn to avoid challenges. Mintz (2010) suggests that such a move is anti-intellectual and represents a collapse of the belief in human potential. Taking this idea even further Jonas suggests that to eliminate suffering is to actually eliminate the possibility of virtue and happiness (2010, p. 52). Interpretting Rousseau, Jonas argues that,

“to encourage pity on the wrong occasion is to demean individuals and debase their potential for growth. Pity in this sense backfires because it hurts human beings. The only way to help individuals is not to pity them for their suffering but to help them overcome it.” (p. 51).

In this sense, pity is not a feeling at all – but rather a reasoned decision about how best to assist an individual become more autonomous. For both Rousseau and Nietzsche the goal of the educator is to develop self-mastery in him or herself to such a level that they can overcome their feelings of pity for a student, to enable the student to develop their own self-mastery.

However the problem I have with this is that it starts to feel very paternalistic. Who am I to say that this student needs to suffer in order to learn? Or that this activity – seemingly torturous to a student  –  is actually in their own interest. I don’t know students well enough to make that call.

Jonas extends the ideas of Rousseau and Nietsche, suggesting that we need to focus less on how teachers determine when and how to show pity, and instead to focus upon how students can guide teachers in those determinations. “Students can learn, in other words, how to educate teachers on when to act on their feelings of pity” (Jonas, 2010, p. 57). However as Jonas notes, to do this though, requires a particular kind of classroom – one where the teacher’s role shifts to developing a culture of self-mastery and the desirability of suffering in the classroom.

(“Glorious failure” anyone?)


Baker, S., Brown, B. J. & Fazey, J. A. (2006). Mental health and higher education: Mapping field consciousness and legitimation, Critical Social Policy, 26(1), 31056.

Jonas, M. E. (2010). When teachers must let education hurt: Rousseau and Nietsche on compassion and the educational value of suffering, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 44(1), 45-60.

Mintz, A. (2009). Has therapy intruded into Education? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 43(4), 633-647.

Image Source: Sculpture from my garden.


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