Friday, May 19, 2006


After working on a kids' show last week, R was giving P and myself a ride to the train. We had taught a workshop together in the winter, whence the show we'd just performed had sprung. P and I are experienced teachers; this was the first time R had really worked with kids. R and I are white women; P is a Mexican man. The residency we'd taught was at an entirely African-American elementary school. After a while of casual conversation, we got back to the kids we'd taught back in the winter. P reminisced about particular children who'd been happy with our performance. R said, "I need to do work with kids again. I need to do something altruistic."

I said, "I wouldn't call working with kids altruistic."

She: "Then what is the word I'm looking for?"

I: "What?"

She: "What's the word I'm looking for? You know, like for working with underprivileged kids . . ."

I: "Oh, no, I think you meant what you said. I just don't agree with you."

Silence ensued until P managed to change the subject and mitigate the tension.

I could probably have handled that better.

But it just ticks me off so goddamn much. "Banking education," Freire calls it--the notion that educators are making deposits of valuable knowledge into students, otherwise known as empty vaults. As if you're so superior that you're the only one in the exchange who has anything to offer. Anyone who has simultaneously taught and cared about teaching knows the concept is ridiculous. I'm not a full-time teacher, I'm not as good a teacher as I would like to be or as I plan to be, but even I know that. Working with kids--not bouncing in as an effort to make them happy for a day, but really working with them--will tear down your defenses and your fronts faster than anything else you do. It can be incredibly gratifying, can make you incredibly happy, but can also take you down from that happiness equally fast. You can't depend on it to do anything except be unpredictable and change you, and you can hope it will give you many horrible moments and many equally amazing ones. You certainly can't expect it to be emotionally steady; humans aren't, and kids haven't learned to pretend they are. And I don't know the half of it anyway.

Even banking education, when you extend its logic, implies the selfishness inherent to altruism. I mean, what's a vault going to do with the valuables stored in it? Who could you possibly be doing that for except yourself, so that you can take out the knowledge at the appropriate moments and like yourself better?

The idea of altruism in general is frankly ludicrous. To call your actions altruistic is to assume you are intimate enough with the thoughts and emotions of those ostensibly benefitting from your actions to know exactly what they get, which is egotistical and colonialist, whatever the racial combinations involved (in an urban setting, "underprivileged" is usually synonymous with "low-income African-American or Latino," though not always, which makes R's statement even more problematic than it already was; however, there are many teachers who work with children of their own race and still spout the same bullshit R did). To say that you need to feel altruistic is a paradox, though the bottom line is it's much more honest than most other things you could say about altruism.

Like all bad art, altruism is based on assuming it knows its recipients'/audience's reactions. To know that what you're doing is altruistic requires knowing how the kids take it, knowing that they will benefit from it, knowing how they will benefit from it, and knowing that the most important things they'll get will come directly from you and be about you. And no matter how empathetic or educated or intelligent you are, you cannot know a goddamn thing about that without experience--both of teaching in general and of the individuals involved in each setting. Work with a group of kids steadily for a few weeks, or a few months, or a few years, and then you can make a good guess at how they'll react to what you do. But until then, don't even assume it's good for them. 'Cause if that's what you're thinking about, how good you are for them, I can guarantee that you are not.

The idea of altruism, therefore, is self-defeating; in other words, it doesn't really exist.

Which implies we've gotta admit to our selfish motivations before we get started? Maybe. Different forms of selfishness make different people happy, because we as individuals are gratified by different things. Is the goal for us to be happy? Can our happiness lead to the complete destruction of our environment? I'm going to stop this post here.


At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Milligan said...

I've had plenty of students come through my undergrad astronomy lab sections who might be aptly described as empty vaults, although I'll make no claims as to whether the knowledge I shoved in counts as "valuable" to anyone in particular. I've never met any children I'd describe that way, though -- still too malleable to have great big voids in their heads, perhaps. And to be fair, I've also had plenty of creative, knowledgeable, and otherwise cognitively rich students who simply didn't know squat about science or math, which is different entirely.

I'm definitely one who considers awareness of our context in the universe to be a useful tool in making informed judgements about a host of issues. That doesn't make my teaching altruistic; that means I'm trying to make my world better by filling it with people who might make better choices. Besides which, I'd generally rather be doing research, and only teach when there's not enough RA funding to get me through the semester. Moreover, I do find teaching fun, for getting to meet the occasional interesting person and for the performance art aspect of the endeavor. The welfare of my students falls near the bottom of that particular totem pole, then, relavent only because they're the ones who had the sense to ask for this abuse when they registered for the course.

I've really never been comfortable with the argument against altruism you referenced here. It may be presumptuous to do something "nice" for other people without being asked, since as you say one can't know what another person will consider beneficial or why. But that doesn't negate the possibility that you're right, that you have good reasons to believe that your actions *will* be beneficial anyway. Supposing that to be the case, altruism is a question of motivation. If one sees something that needs doing and does it not for glory or pay or to feel better about oneself, then why not call it altruistic?

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Connor said...

I agree with Milligan here. I think that the notion of "altruism" has to be viewed in terms of its issues, but to discard it completely, and as contemptuous as you have asserted in your post, seems as dangerous as unmitigated confidence in one's good intentions.

I think the critical distinction to make is has more to do with arrogance and humility and an openness or humility. I've taught a number of times through my life; I've dealt with the ups and downs and there are kids who have probably benefitted from what I've brought and those who have not. But why on earth would I (would you?) pour so much time and effort into something if we *weren't* convinced of its worth.

Perhaps R was thinking of "altruistic" as saving someone, which I think is closed and risky. But if I have a resource, be it knowledge, money, or whatnot, I still generally think I'm a better human for spreading that around than hording it for myself.

If I make the assuption that others will hold my contribution at the same value as I do, then I am making a mistake.

But if *I* am not convinced of the worth of what I have to offer, than I have no incentive to share in the first place.

As for whether that's selfish or not, I frankly think it's pretty irrelevant, and the most productive discussions steer clear of that distinction. Altruism can be described as an expression of social love, and people in love tend to be incredibly selfish at times. I don't see why altruism should be exempt.

But as a way of thinking that encourages us to reach out, access, influence and be influenced by the outside world, I don't believe the concept should be discarded either.

At 1:32 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

As often when things get a bit too complex for me, I'm going to turn to Avenue Q. The refrain of "The Money Song" is as follows:

When you help others,
You can't help helpin' yourself!
When you help others,
You can't help helpin' yourself!
Every time you do good deeds,
You're also servin' your own needs;
When you help others,
You're really helpin' yourself!

The contrasts in this song's scenario are fairly simple. Nicky has been kicked out of the apartment by his roommate, Rod, for pushing Rod out of the closet. Princeton gives a quarter to the homeless Nicky and discovers giving makes him feel wonderful; he therefore demands the money back from Nicky as the beginning of a fund to help his ex-girlfriend, Kate Monster, found a school for monsters. When Nicky gives the money back to Princeton, he feels the same glow of giving that Princeton felt; he decides he'll help Princeton collect money (which will help Princeton to resume the preempted relationship, in addition to helping Kate and little monster students everywhere) and will find a boyfriend for Rod, which, in addition to helping Rod grow comfortable with his homosexuality, will inspire him to let Nicky back into the apartment.

Yes, they're all puppets, but still.

Simply put, Milligan, I don't believe in the existence of what you said in any kind of long-term work with children ("see[ing] something that needs doing and do[ing] it not for glory or pay or to feel better about oneself"), nor do I believe it belittles or negates the goodness of the actor or the action not to believe in it. With my terribly terribly weak grounding in philosophy, I don't know whose spawn I am for saying that, but I think anyone who enters into an action, never mind a long-term endeavor like teaching, believing it's entirely for the other person with no bearing on her, her future self-definition or her thought is deluding herself.

Perhaps the difficulty here is that it isn't a universal intepretation of the world "altruism" to include the concept of doing things possibly at one's own expense? Let's reference the American Heritage Dictionary by my desk:

"altruism, n. 1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness. 2. Zoology Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to others but contributes to the survival of the species."

In terms of selflessness, I'm not entirely clear on where the self would go. There's mobs and ensembles, but I consider them more to be beyond the self than without the self; it indicates that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, not that the part is to be rejected in service of the whole.

Connor, am I convinced of the value of what I have to offer? Absolutely. What, then is the difference between me and a missionary? It's *that* distinction that I'm going for. To say that teaching is altruistic (I grant that there are particular altruistic actions, like rescuing someone from getting hit by a car) is to say that I am being, as in the above definition, selfless, which is to say that my self does not stand to gain from the relationship into which I am entering. Altruism implies that I won't get anythin ggood out of it, I'm doing it just for others. It's that concept at which I take offense: I don't mind acknowledging that my offerings could well be of value, but I do mind saying that there's nothing else of value present in the encounter, that we're dealing with a benevolent, selfless act on my part as teacher, rather than with a complex, fraught and nevertheless worthwhile exchange.


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