Why Caring Matters
Wednesday 3 October 2018
A recurring joke – my children might prefer to say a ‘tired joke’ – at my family’s dinner table goes something like this: One of my son’s says, “Dad, could you pass the (insert American pronunciation) tomatoes.” I say, in reply, “why son, there are none”. He retorts, “but there are, Father. They are just by your elbow.” “Ah,” I say, “You mean the (insert British pronunciation) tomatoes! Why, of course.” I pass the red fruits, and then the banter begins to rally backwards and forwards. I tell my boys that English is not their first language, and they remind me that I am from Glasgow, a city where, to the uninitiated, English does not seem to be widely spoken. Before I can recover, they round on me, and the conversation moves quickly from fruit to vegetable, from tomato to potato. I speak my own accented English (who doesn’t?) with my children. Their mother speaks to them in Swedish. From the Meridian at Greenwich, the boys have been no further west than Spain and Portugal. Yes, they watch (too much!) American television, mostly on something called Netflix. I too watched American television as a boy, but neither my friends nor I ran around Glasgow sounding much like Starsky and Hutch. The real – the only – explanation for the American ‘twang’ in my children’s spoken English is the unintended consequence of young lives dislocated in various international schools.
More recently, on the eve of the Swedish general election, my oldest son was asked who, if he could, he would vote for. I listened pensively, pretending to read my book. My son collected his thoughts, and then he explained that he would vote for the Moderates, a party which, in simple terms, is on the political right and tends to endorse neoliberalism. I was horrified. An enthusiast for neoliberalism under my own roof! How had this happened? Why was I hearing this for the first time? In my moment of shock, it failed to occur to me that my son might be thinking for himself. Instead, I went on a cerebral search for a scapegoat. In a matter of seconds, I had found it. The boy is studying IB Economics! It has turned his head. If only his mother and I had convinced him to study Social Anthropology, or Geography at least.
School, we know, shapes young lives. Sometimes this moulding is intentional. More often, it is unintentional, a slow, incremental sedimentation that the naked eye struggles to detect. Knowing in the de jure sense that a hidden curriculum exists is of little comfort when its walking embodiment is your own child.
Undergirding the IB’s subject curricula are a set of values that are not hidden. On the contrary, the IB’s mission statement and its learner profile are at the forefront of what an IB education is, or ought to be. The IB, should you need reminding, ‘aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect’. This is a tall order, but one that all of us, as teachers, no doubt subscribe to, even if the state of the world does not always suggest we are winning. I have been teaching for a long time, and I would like to think that there are a few things that, over time, I have become good at. In my subject, I can teach a struggling writer to write better. I can teach a class something meaningful about how language works in texts. In a wider sense, I can work individuals and groups of youngsters to develop their knowledge, and I can give them strategies to think more flexibly and critically. In this way, then, I am confident that my teaching is informed by ideas and values that are fundamental to an IB education.
However, more recently, I have come to deliberate on the idea of caring – a tenet central to the IB’s mission statement. I think, with respect to inculcating this particular value, my teaching has often been a hopeless failure. I cannot confidently claim to ever have induced a student to care and to evidence this care in action. Some of my failures have been spectacular. For instance, I recall telling a distressed student that given the natural disaster that had very recently taken place, her tears for the break-up of her favourite boy band were seriously misplaced. Dichotomous choices, such as this one, are not the same as the choice to enunciate ‘tomato’ in any number of mutually understood ways, and do not permit trivial relativism. Nevertheless, and understandably, my supercilious admonishment did little to change the student’s mind, and I doubt contributed to an escalation of care for far-flung earthquake victims. At other times, I simply recognize structural impotence brought about by the realpolitik of circumstance. Encouraging students, or anyone, to evidence too much care about government brutality in the midst of a military dictatorship may prove counterproductive. On the other hand, are we only to care when it is safe to do so? Don’t we revere figures such a Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler precisely because they cared enough to act at significant risk to their own self-preservation? And, if, anyway, we care so much about the plight of others subjected to government brutality, shouldn’t we be amongst the first to scale the barricades? If we don’t, do we really care, and if we don’t care enough, why should our students?
To be less melodramatic, if a teacher is to champion caring, what are the limits of everyday classroom practice? I notice, in my role as an examiner, that Primo Levi’s holocaust memoir If This is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz) is quite widely taught. Presumably, there is, at least, some political or moral imperative informing this choice. If this can be assumed, do we simply leave students to their own thoughts, or is it preferable to seek to elicit a more profound conclusion, and from there foster a duty of care to prevent the reoccurrence of such events? It may be reasonable in the teaching of such a text to highlight more recent examples of genocide in, for example, Rwanda or Screbenecia. Is it equally reasonable for teachers to suggest parallels between Levi’s work and the political leanings of Pegida or the plight of refugees in a Nauru detention centre? If not, why not? If we choose not to make such links, is this because we do not see this as part of our work, is it submission to expediency, or is it because we do not care enough?
My questions, in the main, are neither flippant nor rhetorical, and I have few answers.
My thoughts about caring have also caused me to dwell on Part 2 of the course, language and mass communication. There, one might think, is territory ripe to train young minds to care. Television news, for example, is replete with crises and disasters. Can’t that become the classroom fodder with which to build compassion, and to shift from thought to action? Alas, I fear the opposite may be the case. As Milan Kundera wrote in his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “the bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth, until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.” Worryingly, Kundera’s prescience was written in a time before (in English) the expression ‘compassion fatigue’ had been coined, and before 24-hour news, a phenomenon financed by advertisers who demand bang for their buck, and invariably brings more and more sensationalised death and gore to our TV screens.
Whilst I don’t really know, I suspect that it was the undermining effect of emotional fatigue that, in a time before media saturation in a global age, lead Immanuel Kant to eschew morality based on sentiment for morality based on reason. Whist there is utility in this view, I struggle to accept it. I prefer to think that empathy is an essential antecedent to compassionate action. Why, if not born from concern, do we help others at all?
In the end, I remain gloomy about how well – or badly – I prepare my students to become citizens who care, and who respond to this visceral sense through engaging in action for positive change. To put this in terms of the IB’s mission statement, what good is a critically minded, apparently knowledgeable individual, who fails to care? Every time I throw the issue around, couching it in deeper considerations of literary texts and media texts, I hit roadblocks of the mind. I recognize too, of course, that I do not often represent an excellent role model, and this may be the biggest problem of all. Nevertheless, chinks of optimism remain: Firstly, I’d like to think that I care about my sense of relative failure, enough to want to improve. Secondly, if, like most or many, I am overwhelmed by compassion fatigue, I am heartened by the fact that it is only fatigue, for you cannot have compassion fatigue if you do not firstly have compassion. Thus, except for the most narcissistic amongst us, if most of us care, more or less, the only trick is to, somehow, turn this emotion to action that works towards the establishment of a better and more peaceful world. And so, in the spirit of realizing and IB education, we keep on working.