Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hilzoy on Teaching

The always-brilliant Hilzoy responds to a Jill Tubman post about Jill's experiences as a student at Sidwell Friends, with a brief editorial on teaching ethics that's worth framing.

Jill describes a charismatic teacher, "Mr. E." who led his students through an extended unit on the evils of apartheid, and a school outing to protest apartheid, despite the fact (indeed because of the fact) that the daughter of the Reagan State Department official in charge of making nice with South Africa was in the class. It was Mr. E's way, Jill divines in retrospect, of pressuring the father through the daughter's personal unhappiness.

Hilzoy comments

First things first: the way Jill writes about Mr. E, both in the post and in comments, suggests that Mr. E was a very, very gifted teacher. He clearly inspired her, and to inspire a student is a rare and wonderful thing. I don't want to deny that for an instant. Nor do I want to get too hung up on the question whether it's OK to take a class to demonstrate (I think not, for the same reasons that make me oppose making kids say prayers.) What really bothers me is the idea of using a thirteen year old to get to her father. And not just any thirteen year old: one whom it is your job to teach and to nurture. I think that is just wrong.


At this point, someone might be thinking: but changing American policy towards South Africa is much more important than the feelings of one (very privileged) American kid. She might have become "increasingly moody and withdrawn", but kids in South Africa were getting shot, or losing their parents, or growing up in squalor and deprivation. And of course this is true.

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this is just to say: that might be relevant if we knew, somehow, that our only two options were (a) to use Rennie in this way and have a chance to save the children of Soweto, or (b) to do nothing in the face of the massive injustice of apartheid. But that's almost never the kind of choice we face, and the idea that it is is similar to the idea that Bush and Cheney had a choice between (a) torturing people and (b) letting Osama bin Laden blow up Manhattan.

The whole post is well worth reading.

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