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The Contempt Syndrome

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A school board member cautions teachers not to let familiarity with their students breed contempt for their abilities.

Back in the late 1970s, when I was a shiny, new copy editor on a daily newspaper in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I first encountered what I have since come to think of as the "contempt syndrome." This syndrome afflicts more than just print journalists, however. It gets its name from the tendency of many different kinds of professionals to harbor contempt for the very people they purport to serve. Thus journalists tend to look down on their readers; politicians on their constituents; lawyers, their clients; doctors, their patients; and flight attendants, their passengers. Even teachers look down on their students.

No sane person starts out in a profession secretly despising those he or she is supposed to help. Rather, as the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. It took about six months on the copy desk for me to become familiar enough with newspaper readers to begin despising them for their morbid curiosity and lack of seriousness. I mean, if the readers of the Ann Arbor News were serious, would they have wanted so many stories about sex, crime, and the cabbage diet? Would they have voted for their favorite comic strip but not for president?

Everything about daily journalism (except the salary scale) is fast-paced, and disillusionment with one's clientele may take a lot longer than six months to develop in other, less hectic professions. But whatever the timetable, some degree of disillusionment does eventually set in. Now that I'm a journalism teacher I often feel toward my students as I once felt toward newspaper readers—fratricidal.

Obviously, this isn't an ideal way to feel, but you might feel the same way after spending an entire semester emphasizing to students the need for discipline and precision in their writing, only to receive a final paper containing in the very first paragraph the sentence, "There is much at steak here." Even for an occasional meat-eater like myself, such stuff is hard to swallow.

Anyone who teaches could tell a similar tale. In fact, every occupational or professional group could cite incidents that call into doubt the mental prowess of its clients. For example, my wife, coordinator of the immunization program in a county health department, once asked a young woman attending a clinic if she was sexually active. "No," the woman replied, "I just lie there."

The problem occurs when this sort of thing stops seeming funny and becomes merely another piece of evidence that most people are stupider than the average household pet. In the course of our daily rounds, all of us have had the misfortune of running into service workers—from accountants and doctors to toll-takers and sales clerks—who seem to hate the public. Their professional manner consists of glumness, self-interest, and a cold, creepy contempt for those who depend on their help.

You don't deserve to be treated contemptuously, and neither do I. Neither, I suspect, do our students.

But you don't deserve to be treated contemptuously, and neither do I (even if I am a school board member). Neither, I suspect, do our students. Is it really their fault that they don't read or write so well? Are they really to blame for their ignorance of history and their indifference to current events? Not when the American family has all the stability of a depressive who has skipped several doses of Prozac. Not when kids are encouraged by advertising and adult example to prowl the mall or watch unlimited television. Not when the culture at large puts a premium on consumption and leisure.

It is an unofficial but important part of my responsibilities as a school board member to listen to the concerns of parents about their children's teachers. Their stories, when they stop me in the supermarket parking lot or at the soccer field, are alarming. A 4th grade teacher who habitually ridicules a student for being quiet and shy. A middle school science teacher who returns tests late or not at all. A high school English teacher who reads The Scarlet Letter aloud to his class. What all these incidents have in common are teachers who despise, or at least don't nurture, the children placed in their care.

A contemporary ethical theorist with the apt name of Clifford Christians has argued that a society is only as good as its treatment of its most vulnerable members—the old, the sick, the poor, the disenfranchised. We might extend this list to include students, and not only those of younger age. One morning a couple of semesters ago, I was about to rip into a reporting class for being particularly unresponsive to my questions. From past experience, the students knew what was coming and dropped their eyes and slouched deeper in their seats. Then it hit me: I was alienating them. I can't remember whether our discussion of leads got any better after that, but I do know that my teaching has.

Two widely recognized ethical principles undergird my approach to teaching now: reciprocity and universality. Reciprocity refers to treating other people as you would want to be treated yourself, while universality refers to acting as you would want other people to act in similar situations. These aren't hard principles to grasp, just to practice.

They are hard to practice for a variety of reasons: because surviving the daily battle seems to require armoring one's heart; because the educational culture as well as the culture at large emphasizes outcomes over process; because the classroom has become a kind of Salvation Army drop box for every pressing social problem; and because schools are rigidly hierarchical institutions, with each layer—students, teachers, administrators, school board members—tending to be contemptuous of the others.

Does this mean that we should give up, that we should wave the white flag and surrender to the contempt syndrome? Never. If we can't learn to love, we can at least learn not to hate. And the first day of school can be today.

—Howard Good

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