Teaching Them a Lesson

I hear some version of the comment, “I [or we] just need to teach them a lesson” on a regular basis.  Someone will say, “Well, they just need to learn [or realize…” or even “They just better wake up and see…”  Sometimes such comments will even come out of my mouth.  It’s often not clear exactly what we’re trying to teach students in those situations, but I think it’s one of two things, both of which are problematic.

Before I talk about the problems, though, let me say that I do agree that we should teach students more than the material in our classes.  I’m a rather strong proponent of that, actually.  Given that I teach a number of first-year students, for example, I believe part of my job is teaching them how to be students in college, so I talk about behavior in classes and meeting deadlines and the like.  Thus, don’t hear my comments below as evidence that I would argue that my job is solely to teach them English.

The first thing I think we mean when we say they need to learn a lesson is that we want them to behave the way we want them to behave.  I don’t mean that we want them not to text in class or something, but that we want them to think and act like us.  That could be political (I’ve written about that here), but it could be much broader than that.  Especially for those of us who teach in the liberal arts, we want to push our students to think outside of the bounds they used to think.  We like that approach until they start thinking in ways that are bothersome, and we really don’t like it when they start rebelling against us in the same way that we had been encouraging them to rebel against other ways of thought.

Just this week, a student performed an act of petty rebellion.  It really didn’t have much of an impact on anyone or anything, and only about four of us professors even noticed it (probably about 10-15 students knew about it).  One of my colleagues was shaking her head about the decision, and I simply commented, “Well, we want to teach them to think for themselves, but we don’t like it when they don’t think like we do.”  It’s at these points where we often decide to teach them a lesson, and that lesson is that they shouldn’t think for themselves; they should think how we want them to think (see this Zits cartoon for what we’re really thinking).

The other, more common, use of teaching them a lesson is when we want to talk about “the real world.”  We say things like, “When they get in the real world, they’ll learn how it really is” (I love the circular logic there, by the way).

First, I find it interesting that we don’t believe our classes exist in the real world.  That means that much of our lives is also not spent in the real world, though we would never argue that.  I would disagree with the majority here and argue that my classes are very much a part of the real world.  I and my students bring our real world problems, and we try to connect the literature we read to the very real world lives we lead.

Second, and more important, most of us have never lived/worked in the “real world” we talk about.  We tell students that when they’re in the real world, employers will do x, y, or z, but we were never employers in that real world.  Many of us went straight from college to graduate school to a job teaching.  We might have taken a year off here and there or we might have worked part-time jobs along the way, but we never had a career in that real world to know what we’re talking about.

I have a colleague who went to college later than most of us.  Before that, he served in Vietnam, and he worked as a motorcycle mechanic.  He’s clearly the exception to the traditional academic path.  I have never heard him talk about teaching students a lesson nor have I heard him tell a student about the real world.  Those who did live in the real world know that it will teach whatever lessons it needs to teach whenever and however it needs to.

Last, whenever we talk about teaching students a lesson, it’s almost always some sort of punishment.  If a student is turning something in late and we’ve decided that this is unacceptable, we say that we’re going to teach that student a lesson.  That lesson, I suppose, is that the real world does not accept lateness, and they need to learn that now rather than later.

It’s true that punctuality is important, and students should learn to do things in a timely manner.  I would agree that is a lesson we need to teach, and I enforce deadlines in a rather strict fashion (though I do so for reasons that have nothing to do with the mythical real world).  However, the real lesson we’re teaching here is that the world does not have mercy.  That’s not only a lesson I disagree with; it’s a lesson I don’t believe is true.

Again, let me say that I agree that punctuality is important, and I enforce deadlines.  However, there are times where mercy is the better response, and, even when we are having to exact penalties for late work (or whatever lesson we’re teaching them), we can do so with kindness, not with the idea that we are teaching them a lesson.

My few forays into that real world have shown me that people there are kinder than in academia.  I received mercy on a regular basis from people I worked with and for, even when I was late.  Sometimes, the rules were enforced, but sometimes they weren’t.  They taught me the real lesson that people are sometimes quite good and kind, so I should hope for such treatment and treat others that way, but not always, so I shouldn’t count on it.  Perhaps that’s the lesson we should teach our students.


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