Opinion
Education Opinion

The Airplane Seat Theory of Education

By Nancy Flanagan — October 06, 2014 3 min read

Perhaps I’m fascinated by the recent kerfuffle over reclining airplane seats because I’m leaving shortly for a vacation which will involve flights. Long flights. Long enough to bring one of those fleecy neck pillows--and to hope, fervently, that the person in front of me is not an Aggressive Sustained Recliner (ASR).

Six years ago, coming home from Amsterdam, I was seated behind a large man with neck tattoos, a thirst for beer (which necessitated raucous shout-outs to the flight attendants, until they stopped serving him) and--he let everyone around him know--long legs. Which he needed to stretch. As you may have guessed, he was an ASR. All the way back--crashing into my open laptop--all the time. For eight hours, with an occasional backward slam to make sure he was as flat as possible.

I have never considered investing in the Knee Defender solution, although I find ASRs way more annoying than crying babies (been there--there’s little you can do) and even uber-chatty folks who ignore your frozen smile, open book and earbuds. On a flight home from Denver once, I ran into an uber-chatty man who simply would not stop talking. It emerged, perhaps twenty minutes in, that his wife had just died, and he was returning from a visit with his daughter and grandchildren. He was a sad camper, just trying to figure out how to go on. He talked about the home they built, their family, their vacations, her cancer and even, eventually, the funeral. I was the nice lady who listened. He hugged me when I got off the plane, and I wasn’t sorry that he’d been seated next to me. In fact, I thought it was providential.

Here’s what I always wonder, when I encounter or hear about ASR types: what were they like in second grade? Did they shout “pick me!” and wave their hand, even as another child struggled to come up with an answer? Did they elbow their way to the head of the recess line? Did their parents let the teacher know that, as taxpayers, they expected some control over assignments as well as special consideration for their child’s unique talents?

Buying an airplane seat is buying a pass into a temporary airborne community, where everyone has to get along, for a limited time. Beyond being a good citizen, there are safety and health reasons for damping down your personal preferences and cooperating with fellow travelers. It’s not about you and your needs--it’s about that temporary community being able to function smoothly, getting you where you need to go. There are also explicit and understood rules everywhere in education, designed to make temporary communities function well--class size limits for schools, immunization requirements to prevent whooping cough in kindergartens, one kid at a time on the tall slide so nobody falls.

I was startled to see that 30% of all air passengers in a survey thought bringing infants on a plane was rude, and 36% thought they had no obligation to the person behind them. What are we teaching children, I thought? Paying for something entitles you to disregard others?

Perhaps the systematic weakening of public education comes from American’s increasingly me-first take on living and learning with others:


  • I should get to choose who my child attends school with, since I pay taxes.
  • The taxes I pay should support only the learning I care about.
  • I don’t have children in school, so I vote no on school funding.

And on and on. When did we stop cherishing our small communities in favor of looking out for number one? When did we lose the idea that we have accomplished great things collaboratively, as a nation of small communities--the GI Bill, the Hoover Dam, the middle class--not as individual, high-profile wealth-producers?

Schools, too, are temporary communities, that function best when the folks involved understand the importance of consideration for our fellow humans, which leads to the rising tide that lifts all boats.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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