Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Passive Tense

with 4 comments

Here we go again–this is another post I started the day before and then couldn’t seem to get out more than the title.  But I’ve now got two problems, one having to do with books and the other not.  So let’s start with the one that doesn’t have to do with books.

Lymare and some other people wrote indicating that I might be talking about people with low intelligence, and I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility that the kids I’m talking about aren’t very bright.  Some of  them aren’t.  One of the great revelations of the last few years, for me, has been just what “not very bright” can mean.

I grew up around very intelligent, very educated, very driven people, and my tendency is to feel that I myself am “not very bright,” because next to a lot of the examples I had growing up,  I wasn’t.  I therefore have a lifelong tendency to feel that if sometbody I’m dealing with doesn’t understand something that’s perfectly obvious to me, then that person must be feigning ignorance and incapacity.  In other words, that he must be playing stupid on purpose.

I did understand that there were people with mental disabilities, with  Down’s Syndrome, for instance, or autism.   And  I had no problem getting my head around that.  What I often had difficulty accepting was that somebody who–like the students in the example  John gave–claimed not to be able to figure out the square footage of a room might actually not be able to do that, even after you showed him several times how the process went.

When  I look at the least capable of my students, I am often stunned by the fact that they are not the least capable members of their generation out there.  They may have trouble “getting” work that I consider no better than junior high school difficulty, but they’ve left behind dozens of other kids who are even less capable than they are, and who never see the doors of an institution of higher learning, no matter how bogus.

But people who are truly mentally incapable are rare, and that wasn’t what I was talking about in my last post.   I was talking about passivity. 

On some level, I assume passivity is a matter of temperament.  Some of us are just hard wired to be more passive than others.

But I also think, more and more, that passivity may be a human default mode, that given the right set of circumstances–or lacking them–most people fall into a doing-nothing mode, a sit-still-and-wait-and-see-mode.  I also think that we can, and do, both discourage and encourage that mode.  If we’re going to use students as examples, then I’d say we do it in two ways.

The first way is the way that makes me angry, because it’s deliberate, and I am more and more convinced that it comes with a set of underlying, unacknowledged biases that have infected the whole system of public education in poorer neighborhoods and communities.  This is the attitude that sees the people who are poor and struggling as innately incapable of doing much of anything at all, almost as children who have to be cared for as dependents forever, because they really can’t do anything for themselves.   And there’s no point in pushing their children to be more proactive, either, because they’ll just fail, and feel  bad, and what would be the point in that?

I think this is an attitude that underlies a lot of contemporary thinking about how to relieve poverty and what it means to be poor, and not just issues about education.  I’ve often contended that most of the arguments we have in the United States about social issues aren’t really arguments–two sides taking two different positions on the same subject–but mutual shouting matches about two entirely different things that only sound like they’re the same subject.

I’ve pointed this out elsewhere in reference to the death penalty–when the anti-death penalty side says the death penalty is not a deterrent, they mean it doesn’t stop future criminals from comitting future crimes.  When the pro-death penalty side says the death penalty is a deterrent, they mean it stops this criminal from ever getting out and committing more crimes.  It’s no wonder that the two “sides” can’t come to any kind of compromise. 

There is a similar definitional problem when it comes to discussions about poverty, and this is it:  what does it mean to say that somebody is NOT poor?

To the advocates of a wider and more expansive welfare state, a person is NOT poor if he has food, clothing, housing, education, and all those other things that middle class people expect to have, when he never had to go hungry, when he never has to worry about finding himself homeless.   It therefore makes sense to “throw money at the problem,” as the saying goes, because money is what is at issue here.  

To the opponents of such an expanded welfare state, however, a person who has food, clothing, housing , education and the rest of it because the government gives him money for all that is STILL poor.  He’s only  NOT poor once he can get those things for himself, with his own work.

And herein came a huge problem, because when Lyndon  Johnson declared war on poverty, a large segment of the United States interpreted this to mean that we would have tremendous push to get people back on their feet, and once that happened they would be NOT poor in the sense of able to do it on their own.  When it turned out that the Great Society programs defined “lifting people out of poverty” as “making them permanent clients of the welfare state,” a lot of people were furious.  They still are.

Let me stipulate here that I do know that there are some people who are simply incapable.  I’ve met them.   For better or worse, they just weren’t born with the basic requirements of getting along.  They’re “not very bright” with a vengeance.   They mean well, and they try, but there’s never going to come a time when they can manage on their own.  And personally, I think cutting such people off of welfare or food stamps after two years or five, demanding that they get with a program they can’t even begin to udnerstand or risk losing their children to Protective Services, is unconscionable.

But I also think that most people do not fall into this category, that most of what I see of that weird passivity that infects many of my students is a matter of habit.   They grow up in places, and around people, who don’t see that there’s any use in trying.   They get told, in ways that are hardly subtle , by their teachers and their social workers, that there’s no point in THEIR trying, anyway, and besides they shouldn’t have to, it isn’t fair, it’s the responsibility of somebody out there to do it for them.

The only thing I’ve ever found that can turn this attitude around is time spent in the military, and unfortunately most of these kids wouldn’t be accepted even if they thought about applying.  I sometimes wonder if some of them would have been accepted in the days of the draft.   As far as  I can tell, the military has little use for passivity in soldiers, and spends most of its time stressing personal responsibility, and the kids who do two or four or six years before coming to me are the best I have.   Almost all of them will “succeed,” in the sense of completing a degree.  They’re been taught how to get organized, get focussed and get things done.

But here’s the thing.  It would be easy to take the usual way out here and claim that the passivity I’m seeing is a result of the welfare state, which is therefore evil and should be abolished. 

The problem is that I could show you plenty of passive kids from rich and middle class families, kids with that same unshakable immobility.

And I’ll tell you this–if you have to struggle with that passivity, you really, really, really want to work with a kid who’s been poor.  With a kid who’s been poor, you’ve got at least one unshakable argument for why he should do it your way.   And you’ve got examples you can use–pick up the garbage in the hallway, don’t just step over it and leave it lying there; wash your underwear in the sink if you don’t have the quarters from the laundramat; get off your ass and do something if you don’t want to be miserable.

Th problem with the rich and middle class kids who exhibit this kind of passivity is that they’re not miserable.  They have comfortable homes to go to, food on the table, money for extras when they want it.   Some of them hold jobs, but not usually for long–which, in the world in which I teach, makes them stand out, since most of the middle class kids in the classes I teach, whatever their race, work two or three jobs routinely.

The passivity is, I think, a refusal to take responsibility for themselves or anything or anybody else.  My middle class kids do not have the excuse of poverty–a state that can cause grinding depression, which an itself make a person passive–or of the stress of wildly dysfunctional neighborhoods to explain their behavior.  

They’re not bad kids.  They aren’t violent, or criminal, or pathological.  They’re just passive.  They do whatever you make them do, and not one whit more.  As far as they’re concerned, everything is somebody else’s responsibility–and I do mean everything.   They are proactive about nothing, but they aren’t even responsive about much of anything.  If something bad happens to them–if they have an accident in their cars, or the roof of their house falls in, or they get fired from their jobs–they sit and wait for somebody to come along and fix it.  They do not even think of trying to do anything about it themselves.

The issue for me, more and more, isn’t poverty or the lack of it, or intelligence or the lack of it, but passivity.  It’s passivity I don’t think we can accommodate as a culture or a civilization.   Plenty of people who are not Harvard-level academic talents are not passive–a good plumber, a good roofer, a good auto mechanic has to be proactive and responsible just as much as the President of the United States has to be. 

A world full of people who just sit there and wait for other people to do it for them is a world in collapse.  Running school systems that accommodate such passivity isn’t helping.

Written by janeh

January 14th, 2009 at 6:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Passive Tense'

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  1. Do I ever agree with this blog!

    I once started a research project on why some students did well in school and others, from identical social and economic etc backgrounds didn’t. I wish I’d finished it properly, although to do so would probably have been beyond my abilities!

    I think that some school systems certainly work to promote passivity by not expecting much from ‘students like THOSE’. Not everyone within every school system does so; there’s been an ongoing battle locally against putting ‘Student from THAT family’ (usually known by some more banal category name, like ‘low-achieving students’, which doesn’t imply that they tend to come from certain groups) into the lowest, most basic program practically by default – sometimes, in the old days, starting in elementary school (grades 4-6). It really infuriated me when I heard that of course you can’t expect native children to attend school or do well in exams because, well, it’s not their culture. They’re from families like THAT. I usually heard stuff like this from other white people.

    Of COURSE those students don’t do well in ‘academic’ math (ie, the one that’s the basic requirement for almost any post-secondary program; not the advanced one.) Nothing much has been expected of them since kindergarten! They don’t have the background! This problem shows up most acutely in subjects like math and chemistry that hierarchical – it matters if you don’t know the early stuff. It’s not as obvious if you dabble a bit in basic science – one week, magnets; next week, dinosaurs. You aren’t building on learning that went before, so it’s not as obvious if that learning was forgotten or missed or never understood. And if you’re doing exclusively unit testing, on small chunks of material, you’ll never notice that information isn’t being retained for very long, much less being integrated with other material learned later. So, you don’t expect much of the children; you teach them less; what you do teach is in short unconnected bits that they aren’t expected to retain for very long or do much with, and then you can easily predict that these children will fail in the university-prep courses in high school.

    And let’s not forget the ‘promotion meetings’ which are the HS equivalent of Jane’s enquiry into an F.

    Sometimes students break out of the passivity engendered by learning little bits in dribs and drabs and never being expected to do more. It was painful to watch one student who tried to make up the difference between the basic and academic math so he could graduate with a diploma that would get him into a post-secondary institution. He didn’t make it, not then. I don’t know if he did in the end.

    And although the ‘students like THAT’ tend to come from particular families or communities or areas of communities or ethnic groups, I entirely agree with Jane that some of them are not from poor families – meaning either families with little money or families whose money comes from the government. The student I mentioned in another post who deliberately managed a bare pass (I always assumed so as to fit in with his friends) didn’t come from a poor family. Children of middle-class parents of my generation are now in their 20s and sometimes 30s – and some of them are unbelievably passive. The ones who got through high school have had several parent-subsidized attempts at higher education, but have either never worked, or worked very short term, and then quit because the job interfered with their social lives, or didn’t pay enough, or was too hard, or the boss was always picking on them. Naturally, they don’t actually support themselves; they live with their parents and certainly never contribute to the household, either in money or in services. And yet, most of their cohort have finished their education, are employed full-time, are paying back student loans and marrying or dating and thinking of having their own children. Both groups come from families with similar educational and social and financial backgrounds! In those cases, the passivity may be partly innate, but it may also be a result of parents’ expectations, as it seems unlikely that they’d receive different expectations from their teachers than their classmates from a similar background do. At least, not until their lackadaisical attitude starts affecting their schoolwork, and their parents start blaming their teachers!


    14 Jan 09 at 8:00 am

  2. I have nothing to add to what Jane and Cheryl have said. And it is much too hot for a long post.

    The brutal truth is that if you’re not willing to hire people and you’re not willing to let them starve, then you have to pay welfare.

    The cutoffs that Jane mentioned should apply to people who can work but are just too passive to bother. They shouldn’t apply to people who really are incapable of holding jobs. But I don’t know a good way of separating the two types which can be applied by a bureaucracy.

    As for the military, I have met people who were in University on the GI bill of rights. They were fine students and I’ve always regretted that my hearing kept me out of doing 4 years of military servive.


    14 Jan 09 at 3:51 pm

  3. Interesting, because I was meditating on the previous post in a similar context. If you told a platoon of infantry that you expected one paper of specified length and in specified format per man on Date X, that’s exactly what you’d get, and no excuses. Cheat? Of course they’d cheat, and all catching them at it would do would be to make them more careful. But if a superior said “length, format, date” that would be it–no further discussion.

    Obviously some people are more passive than others, but I keep seeing this level of passivity–when the student doesn’t do the assignment and is surprised and indignant when there are consequences–as a learned behavior. For years, they’ve been told to do this or that, and when they didn’t, nothing happened. Now they’re approaching the point where parents and schools can’t shield them from the consequences of their own actions–or inaction–and it’s a world for which they are grossly unprepared. I’ve seen children raised that way, and as far as I’m concerned it’s more child abuse than some things so defined by law.

    As for the state and the helpless, there are still permanent programs for those who can’t make the cut, but do bear in mind the unintended consequence: sign on a young person, and you’ve just told them that they will receive enough to live on as long as they never finish school or take up regular work. This is fine for those who never could, but it’s a terrible disincentive on marginal cases. There are Americans out there who know to the day and the penny how much they can work before someone takes the benefits away, and who always stop just short. They have a “marginal income tax rate” millionaires only have in nightmares.

    But if that’s the liberal “unintended consequence” the conservative one also exists: subsidise education with student loans, and insist that fathers bear financial responsibility for their children, and you can wind up with a young person who doesn’t dare earn money in a legal job. He owes $40,000 in college loans for a career that didn’t work out, or he told the welfare people he was the father of five illegitimate children. If he ever starts to succeed in life, the government wants its loan back, or the back child support paid.

    Which is why “ending poverty” is not just a matter of good will and a medium-size check, or of the rigorous application of sound principles. Indeed I was told I’d always have the poor with me, and the longer I live, the more I think it may be so.


    14 Jan 09 at 5:49 pm

  4. I’ve been out of town and am just catching up, but I wanted to respond to this piece. You are all mostly talking about the passivity of students, but I can tell you that when those passive people end up employed, it’s nearly hopeless. I have an employee that I’ve been trying to work with for five years. She agrees when I point out things that she needs to do differently or better (certainly there was no possible argument when I pointed out that the next time a bad decision on her part cost the company a quarter of a million dollars it was going to go badly for her) and she writes things down and takes hints on how to do things differently, attends classes and seminars — and does absolutely nothing any differently than she has in the previous five years, because she’s not capable of connecting what’s told to her in her meetings with me, or her seminars, or her team meetings, and the actual situations that need managing when they arise.

    And the problem is that I’m not going to be able to justify keeping her for much longer. I’ve already had to demote her, and she’s still not even doing the lower level job at the level it needs to be performed. She can’t plan ahead and see what needs to be done – all she does is react to things that happen. But the company needs people who not only react better to the things that happen and make good decisions, but also who are capable of strategic planning. How can I ensure that my department can support the company’s growth and safeguard the business when I have people working for me who don’t even understand the importance of planning ahead? I was talking to our CEO yesterday and he even suggested that we can’t afford to keep people like this.

    And it all goes back to that passivity that Jane was discussing. If by chance you get through school (and this woman didn’t go to college, so it’s just a rural high school we’re talking about) you’re still almost entirely uneducated, and you’re not capable of doing a job at a professional level. I don’t know what will happen to her if we do let her go, but I know what she needs: a job where there’s an extensive rule book, so that she can look up and see what to do when she’s uncertain, and where there’s no expectation that she plan farther ahead than next week.

    The sort of thing that would have me bored to tears in about an hour and a half.



    17 Jan 09 at 12:43 pm

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