More Than Meets the Eye, I

Ever since I saw it, I’ve been wonder about this Tweet, which appeared in my stream Wednesday morning:

“Teaching, is not just a job. It is a human service, and it must be thought of as a mission.”- Dr. Ralph Tyler

Oddly enough, the Tweet itself has vanished.  But the quote is all over the Internet – here and here and here, among 4 million potential Google hits, with the kinds of clip art and layout (little apples and chalkboards, Comic Sans font of course) that are generally associated with teachers.

Dr. Tyler was an interesting guy, too, deeply bound up in the history of 20th-century educational systems and structures.  I haven’t seen the quote in context, so I don’t want to address what he meant by it.  But when it stands on its own, decontextualized, in a list of “Inspirational Teacher Quotes” – or on a page surrounded by virtual apples, chalkboards, and alphabet samplers – there’s something about it that bothers me.  There’s more to it, I think, than meets the eye, and something about the hidden implications bothers me … a lot.

But what?  What bothered me when it showed up in my Twitter stream Wednesday morning?  Why was it still on my mind on Friday, and why wouldn’t it go away over the weekend?  You’d think, with my passionate commitments to joyful learning and building meaningful thing together, that I would love the quote.  To be fair, I do like parts of it.  I agree, completely, with the first sentence.

Teaching is certainly more than a job.  I don’t know any teachers, even poor Ms. X and Mr. Y, who’d disagree with that.  Even when they complain about their “bad, lazy students,” they still – however reluctantly – drag themselves into their classrooms, read the PowerPoints slides they made (or downloaded, or received with the textbook), hand out and grade the worksheets, “key in” and post the grades, come early to school and stay late.  Ms. X and Mr. Y may not work effectively all the time – to be fair, no one works effectively all the time – but they certainly work hard.  Hard and long, like the good little worker-bees Frederick Winslow Taylor hoped to produce – except that Taylor was looking for the “one best way” to do each task most scientifically and effectively.  Unfortunately, Ms. X and Mr. Y don’t buy in when the “enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation” that Taylor deemed essential are applied to them.  They’d be delighted if someone – “those administrators,” maybe, or “those parents” they constantly complain about – would enforce things on the “bad, lazy students.”  But enforce things on them?  On Ms. X and Mr. Y?  How could anyone suggest such a thing???

That’s one big problem with scientific management in a nutshell: everybody wants to be the manager, and no one wants to get managed.  Everyone wants to perform human services on others, but no one wants to get served.  Everyone wants a mission, but no one wants to be the recipient of someone else’s mission.  Everyone wants autonomy, mastery, and purpose, as Daniel Pink reminds us.  Nancy Flanagan’s recent blog post about “common” vs. “choice,” which we discussed over the weekend on this Google+ thread, makes that crystal-clear.

Poor Ms. X and Mr. Y!  They definitely see themselves as performing a human service – and yet their students feel dehumanized and disregarded.  They do have a sense of mission – but somehow it keeps them disconnected from their students, not deeply connected as you might expect.  I’m afraid the idea of human service – and quite probably the idea of mission, too, the way Ms. X and Mr. Y define it – actually increased the disconnection, fractured the sense of community we keep talking about in Google+ threads like this one.  It’s hard for a service provider to sit down with others around the “Fire of Truth,” as Debbie says, to share conversation and food and life.  Service providers are supposed to be busy, and they’re not supposed to associate too closely with the poor, dependent, helpless clients.

And that’s another reason the quote bothers me: I’m afraid it encourages the factory-model approach, the angry contempt, the pain-punishment cycle.  “Those bad, lazy children don’t appreciate the service I’m providing them!  They don’t recognize my sense of mission, don’t appreciate all that I’ve done for them!  But they must … so I’ll show them; I’ll punish them until ….”

Until what?  Until they’re grateful? “Until morale improves” as the old saying goes?

Perhaps my students are as suspicious of the idea of human service and mission as I am.  Perhaps that’s why they’re (initially) suspicious of the idea of joyful community, afraid it’s just another pretty veneer covering the same-old-same-old.

What do you think?  Is there more to say about human service and mission – and that tiny, but loaded word must?   And how is it all connected with factory schooling and 20th-century paradigms?

Published in: on December 10, 2012 at 11:13 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] There seems to be a lot to say about the quote from Dr. Ralph Tyler that sparked yesterday’s post: […]

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