Monday, July 1, 2013

Entitled Students, Grades, and Obedience: What is Education For?

Recently, I wrote a post about how I wasn't sure I really wanted my toddler to be obedient. Sure, her obedience is desirable in the moment, but is obedience really a quality that I want to instill in her? Don't I want her to go out into the world and fight for what she believes in? Don't I want her to question what she's told?

My reflections on parenting and teaching often overlap, and some of my recent readings, scholarly and non, have got me thinking again about the issue of obedience, but this time my thoughts are with the classroom instead of my "highly spirited" daughter.

Fulton Montgomery Community College - Class room

I'm not a very authoritarian teacher. I don't have many strict rules for my classroom, and I generally approach my lesson planning with an eye toward collaboration. I do, however, hold students accountable for their own participation in that collaboration. I take attendance every day and have many assignments that can't be made up if they're missed. I expect that my students are going to take the class as seriously as I do, and I design it with that expectation in mind. 

As a writing instructor, one of the places where my teaching style gets challenged is in grading papers. I have to evaluate the work that's been given to me, even if that sometimes conflicts with my other views. Writing, unlike many other subjects, can appear very subjective (and, in truth, often is very subjective) to students. I do my best to make clear grading rubrics and to explain the grade thoroughly and clearly. 

Still, sometimes students want to challenge me on the grade they've received. Sometimes students will insist that they explained something well enough when I don't think they did. Sometimes students will insist that they shouldn't be graded on a grammar rule that we hadn't specifically addressed in class. Sometimes students will simply say that they worked too hard to get a C, or D, or F. 

I was thinking about this lately when I saw an old clip from Fox News discussing how Mr. Rogers had destroyed America by giving us a generation of entitled children with undeservedly inflated self-esteem.  

One of the examples they give to demonstrate how entitled this generation has come to be is students who argue with teachers over their grades. 

In a book I'm reading for my PhD exams (Thomas P. Miller's The Formation of College English), there's a line about the link between education and passive acceptance: 
It is a commonplace that ears attuned to the school bell are more likely to obey the factory whistle because children who have been taught to accept a routine of unfulfilling labor with promises of self-improvement will grow up to accept assembly lines and savings plans. 
Perhaps it is a belief like this one (that an educational institution makes one "more likely to obey") that left so many people shocked when this video of a student calling his teacher out for poor teaching skills made the rounds last year: 

In social media conversations about this video, I found myself at odds with many (though definitely not all) of my teacher friends. I side with the student. He doesn't cuss the teacher out. He delivers his points in an organized, passionate way, and he leaves without resorting to violence or destruction. If I were the teacher, sure, I'd be upset, but learning requires a feedback loop, and if this was the only way for this student to effectively voice the necessary feedback, then he was acting rhetorically by figuring that out and seizing that moment. 

I feel the same way about students who question the grades I give them on papers. 

Sure, in the moment, it can be frustrating. After all, there are tons and tons of comments written into the rubric. I've outlined why they've received that grade. Why should I now have to argue about it? 

But I have to argue about it because that's my job. When a student brings me a paper and respectfully asks me to reconsider the grade, that student is learning valuable skills. That student is learning self-advocacy and self-awareness. That student is entering into a real-life rhetorical situation in which s/he has an actual stake. 

I very, very rarely change a grade (though I do allow revisions), but I also very rarely have a student who leaves a grade complaint meeting without reaching some sort of understanding. 

Was that student "entitled" by seeking out a better grade? And if so, is entitlement necessarily a bad thing as long as it doesn't run unchecked? If we have more "entitled" students, doesn't that just challenge us to articulate and disseminate our own standards more clearly? Isn't that a good thing?

Sure, it would be more convenient for my students to quietly take every grade I give them without complaint. It would also be more convenient for my daughter to lay down and take a nap without throwing a fit. 

But at the end of the day, I want my students and my daughter to be prepared to face the challenges of the world around them. They're entitled to that. 

Photo: Clemens V. Vogelsang


  1. Americans struggle with the notion of "obedience" because they view it as the equivalent of capitulation. In other cultures, it is seen as an act of reasonable compliance to the norms of society or submission to reasonable authority. No one would question whether or not a law which promotes order (like not yelling "fire" in a crowded theater when there is not fire) should be obeyed, but most Americans get all up in arms at the idea that their children should submit to reasonable authority, such as that of a teacher who is evaluating their work.

    It is important for children to learn to advocate for themselves as well as to question what they are told. However, it is just as important for them to discern the differences between submitting to reasonable authority and to comply with reasonable rules and unreasonable authority or compliance. The problem in the U.S. is that parents do not teach their children the difference because they balk at the idea that their children should be told what to do by anyone other than themselves. They believe their values should be applied outside of their homes and become belligerent and upset when others do not share those values.

    Entitlement is what occurs when people refuse to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable compliance or submission. It's what happens when parents decide that they know what is right for their child, even when what they want for their kid comes at the expense of others. It's not simply a matter of obeying or not. It's far more nuanced than that. There's a time to argue, a time to back down and submit, and a time to keep your mouth shut because your perspective is different, but not superior than the other party's. Americans cannot accept the last one in the vast majority of cases as they believe they are always right, especially when it comes to their children.

  2. Thanks for this comment. I agree with a lot of what you're saying, and I'm especially interested in this:

    "However, it is just as important for them to discern the differences
    between submitting to reasonable authority and to comply with reasonable
    rules and unreasonable authority or compliance."

    To me, difficulty in discerning between the two is connected to our overall treatment of conflict. We tend to dichotomize conflict into an antagonistic or collaborative endeavor without recognizing that there can be an agonistic tension between the individual and the community. It doesn't have to be total submission on one hand and out-and-out battle on the other. We can have civil disagreement and come out stronger for it.

    I think your generalization that "parents do not teach their children the difference because they balk at the idea that their children should be told what to do by anyone other than themselves" is a little too broad. Surely, there are some parents that feel that way, but I have had a lot of experience with parents who very much want to teach their children how to act civilly within the confines of societal standards, even when those standards don't match their own private ones completely.

    In that case, I don't think it's necessarily that these parents "believe they are always right," but it's that we culturally (often) haven't developed the skills necessary to argue without fighting, to have tension without antagonism.

  3. Barnacle StrumpetJuly 8, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    Everything I read about your attitudes toward teaching (and the consideration you take towards it) makes me think your students are very lucky to have you.

  4. Thank you so much! There's a test tomorrow, so they might not all agree with you right now, but I do try my best to help them reach their goals.

  5. Makes me think that you are a very good teacher, and student too. Thank you for all your knowledge that you share with us. Hope to read more essay writing services articles about your work as a teacher.