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The Students We Deserve

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I spent half the night thinking about how to make this coherent, because it all ties in.   So let me give it a try.

First,  you have to understand the situation  I am in with teaching.  I do most of that teaching in a special program for “remedial” students, which is a polite way of saying “backwards” ones.  I didn’t just make up that second descriptive word.  It’s a one a lot of the teachers in that particular program use, and it’s not completely inapt. 

These are not just kids who did poorly in high school and landed in a low-level community college.  I’ve taught those students, too, and they’re light years different from the kind in my special program.  They’re motivated, they’re often older, they’re bright and they know what they want.   They may have blown off school a few decades ago or received a poor foundation for college work, but they’re not stupid and they’re not passive.

The students in my special program courses are different at base.   For one thing, they’re mostly young.  They’re just out of high school or only a few years past it.  Lots of them have GEDs instead of regular graduation credentials, and among the men a high number of those  GEDs were earned in prison.   Among the women, I’d guess the average age at first childbirth was around fifteen, but I may be being optimistic here.   They’re eighteen or twenty when they come to my classroom and they all seem to have multiple children.  A fair number of them have multiple children that have been taken away by the state because of their drug use or hooking.

Note what I haven’t said here–I haven’t said they’re poor, and I haven’t said they’re minorities.  A lot of them are both, but by no means all of them are.   The middle class students who end up in my room have different life stories, but they all have that single characteristic that shocked me so much when I first ran into it and that I still don’t understand:  they are still terminally, embeddedly passive.

Embeddedly.  I don’t even know if that’s a word.  It doesn’t look like a word.

I want to point out that not all my students in this program are passive in this way.  Every once in a while–and it is only every once in a while–I get the exception, the one who’s going to makeuse of what’s on offer.  Those are the bright spots in my day, but they’re few and far between, and I’ve gone for several terms without getting even one of them.

I also want to point out that I have no reason to complain here, and that it wasn’t me who suggested that the administration ought to send me different students.  I signed on to teach THESE students.  On purpose.  I knew what I was getting into, and I  had options.   Sometimes when this stuff gets to be too much for me,  I even use the options–teach other students, in higher level classes, with more “potential.”

But when  I  first started doing this, the issue wasn’t the money I could make from it but getting out of my house after Bill died and the boys were both in school and it was suddenly empty.  And I thought that the least I could do was to try to do some good, and this looked like a path in that direction.

It’s very difficult to find people with academic credentials like mine to teach students like my special program ones.   Most of our teachers in that program are ex-high school teachers with master’s degrees in education from local colleges, older women who need to supplement their pensions and their Social Security.   The good ones are decent enough.   The bad ones hate what they do and hate the students they teach, and it shows.

I found Theodore Dalrymple because I was looking for some explanation for why my students behaved the way they behaved, why their constant and unending approach to life was always to shrug their shoulders and say “can’t do nothing about it.”  I had never met people like this before, in life or in art. 

Note that I am not claiming that these students are “stupid.”  Some of them are certainly not very bright, but I’ve met profoundly stupid people in all walks of life who do not have this passivity.  It’s the passive-ness, not the innate intellectual talent, that is the problem here.

I  went looking for books that would explain it, for fiction or nonfiction, for memoirs, for anything.   I found Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom, which was a brilliant exposition of the problem I look at every day.  It describes the situation beautifully, and in detail. 


It still doesn’t give me what I’m looking for, which is a way to understand how my students think and feel.  What I learn in Life at the Bottom is twofold:  first, it’s not just me and I’m not imagining things; and second, what Theodore Dalrymple thinks and feels and how he deals with what’s been set before him. 

If I had had a fictional example to give you, I would have given it.   I don’t know of one.  The closest example I can think of is Mailer’s portrait of Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song, and precisely because he claims to be writing from inside Gilmore’s head he calls the book a “nonfiction novel.”  The book is sort of halfway between fiction and nonfiction, based on a real case and real research but written from inside the heads of its various characters as if Mailer had “invented” all of them.

But here’s the thing–I don’t think any decent writer of fiction ever “invents” a character.  Nor do I think that people reject characters as “not the way real people would behave” because those characters don’t suit their prejudices.  In fact, fiction is one of the greatest sources we have of making behavior that initially seems bizarre or wrong seem understandable instead.

When we say that characters aren’t believable, we almost always mean they’ve been written from the outside, with a particular agenda, social or political or religious or whatever, forced upon them. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t “invent” Hester Prynne and Herman  Melville didn’t “invent” Ishmael and Henry James didn’t “invent” Isabel Archer, they lived them.   Our brains work the way they work, but some of us are capable–to one extent or another–of slipping the reins of our own personalities and allowing aour brains to enter into another groove and work that way for a while instead.

What results when that happens is not just a matter of characters with minds of their own–which we discussed before–but a laying-bare of the process of thought that, as I’ve also said before, can’t be found anywhere else.   The very best of this sort of thing makes it possible for the reader to slip his own groove and enter into that of the character, so that he actually experiences a different way of thinking. 

He isn’t just told that the character felt this or that, or thought this or that, or did this or that.   He takes on the character’s blood and skin and bone and feels and thinks and does it all along with him.  And in that way, and only in that way, can any of us ever understand  the full range and scope of human nature.

I don’t think any character so written can every be completely false.  He might be a minority in the class or category in which he is situated–an unusual thief or mother or priest–but the very fact that a writer and a reader can do what I’m talking about means it is, by definition, possible for such people to exist.  If it wasn’t, our brains wouldn’t be able to do what they do in this process. 

We could, of course, invent characters from the outside and simply tell readers what they’re supposed to be like, but that isn’t the same thing, and that’s when we get complaints that the characters aren’t “real.”

I don’t know why there are no examples–or so few that I haven’t run across them–of people like these in fiction.  I know I’ve tried several times to create such a character myself, and in every case fallen flat on my face.  My mind simply will not work the way their minds seem to. 

That defines the limit of my talent, obviously–and my talent is very limited–but, again with the exception of the Mailer, I don’t know anybody else who’s tried it, either.  And even the Mailer is a half-try, because Mailer chose what seems to have been the one incident in Gilmore’s life when he was not mired in passivity to focus his story on. 

Maybe there is something genetic, or innate, or deeply environmentally planted that marks such people off from the rest of us, so that once we pass a certain point we just can’t think that way anymore. 

But the fact that we don’t understand it, that we have no fiction from the inside of it, means that we also have virtually no knowledge of how to cure it.  And it could use being cured.  People who are passive in this way do not lead happy lives, or productive ones.   If they start out poor, they stay that way.   If they start out middle class, they drift through jobs and relationships incoherently and end up vaguely resentful and confused in an old age defined, again, by a listless resignation to “fate.”  They win lotteries and blow the money.  They leave the scenes of accidents and can’t explain why.   They watch television and don’t understand most of it.  They sit.

We could use somebody who could understand this, who could get inside it and write from inside it.  Before I started teaching in my program, it would never have occured to me that so many of these people existed.  Here they are, though, and I’m not in favor of letting them starve, so it seems to me that we ought to be able to do something.

For some reason or other, these people have been left outside the Western imaginative framework, they are not part of any canon on any level I can think of, nor are they part of any of the forms some of you like to call “popular.”  Nor do they exist in the literature of any other country I have come across.  If the purpose of literature is to present us with the full range of human experience, this is a place where literature has let us down.

But  I will guarantee you, “nonfiction,” whether it pretends to be “science” or not, has not only done no better, but has mostly generated ideas that are downright and probably false. 

I sent you to Theodore Dalrymple because he’s the best write I know of what it looks like from the outside.

I don’t know anybody who can tell you, or me, what it looks like from the inside.

Written by janeh

January 21st, 2009 at 6:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'The Students We Deserve'

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  1. I sometimes get the impression from Theodore Dalrymple that he thinks that at some level these people, or at least some of them, know perfectly well that the passive victim thing is an act; that their own choices are responsible for them being where they are in life.

    I don’t know of an author who shows this sort of thing from the inside. Maybe some of the modern literary novels that show people drifting around the more expensive New York suburbs in a state of elegant and expensive ennui might be a place to start for the middle-class version. I think in more general fiction the poorer version is portrayed from the outside.

    I wonder if one element might be a state of mind sometimes found in people with clinical depression. I don’t mean that your students are clinically depressed, at least not in much greater proportions than any other group, just that some aspects of the mental states might be similar. Clinical depression sometimes comes with a kind of physical slowing down, a lack of energy or interest in doing anything that would explain a lot of the listlessness and lack of belief that they can change.

    I’m not trying to medicalize them or their situation. I’m trying to think of a similar way of living that might have been described ‘from the inside’ in ways that can illuminate this particular kind of passivity.

    When I’ve listened to people who I think might resemble your students, the impression I get is that they are responding to their own bewilderment at the various misfortunes in their lives. When they talk about their problems, they want to understand or explain them, but I can see it coming – sooner or later, ‘I wouldn’t have done that except for my mother/ father/ boyfriend etc.’ And when they talk about their plans for the future, who (or what) is involved? Exactly the same people or places they just blamed for the problems!

    I don’t know how people who never accept the contradiction in their own behaviour ever are ‘cured’. People who do, can and do change. But some never seem to get it. I don’t know how – or even if – you can encourage self-knowledge and the discovery of motivation towards a happier life. Some people find these things in various self-help or religious or psychological counselling groups. A lot don’t.


    21 Jan 09 at 7:59 am

  2. The connection in literature to characters or people not like us depends in part on our own ability to imagine ourselves operating or believing like the character is portrayed. So if we have had occasional violent or irrational impulses (controlled in our case) we can extend that in imagination to uncontrolled violence.

    If a fictional serial killer has some rational-only-within-his-own- paranoid-reality reason for killing, well, we can kind of get within that mindset, knowing “it isn’t real but if I believed it was real I could see doing that.”

    However, a person actually present and accounted for in the non-passive world may as well try to imagine themselves being a plant as trying to enter the reality of the utterly passive. We know that we exist as something other than a object simply acted upon by people and forces around us, we know the choices we make *matter* in what happens.

    I don’t understand and probably never will how someone could grow up never having this demonstrated to them. Or how a grown person could acquiesce to being such a victim all the time, it would be intolerable to me. Yeah, sometimes I do want the world to go away and just not bother me, sometimes I don’t feel like making choices or taking action. But I know that after a good sleep, I’ll feel differently. It’s not a way to live a life.

    Maybe it’s all sourced in a sense of injustice. I remember as a child clearly thinking “that’s just not fair” and then protesting about whatever “that” was. I may not have achieved my goal of justice for whatever, but I clearly understood that one doesn’t have to sit passively while unfair things happen. Maybe the passive among us simply have an undeveloped sense of outrage at unjust events.

    Having raised a child and having been shocked at just what behaviors are clearly genetically determined rather than learned, I could easily believe that such a lack of outrage and the resulting passivity is in fact inborn.

    Of course, until some medical person diagnosis “Pathological Passivity Disorder” nobody is going to do research about it. And no writer is ever going to connect to the mindset. Who wants to read about someone who mindlessly drifts through life like a strand of seaweed adrift on the tides? By definition, there couldn’t be any dramatic tension, no plot, no action and no resolution. In fact, it’s not really a disorder, it’s just the far end of the bell curve of human behavior, but unreachably far away for those who might try to understand it. It may be that someone capable of making the effort to understand inborn passivity is by definition incapable of succeeding, because the passive don’t try. Anything. Those who are not passive try things *all the time*. We never stop, in fact.

    The phrase “taking up space until you die” comes to mind. I salute your persistence in being there for the few who really do benefit from your teaching.


    21 Jan 09 at 2:11 pm

  3. The passive students Jane describes are so far from my experience that I can’t think myself into them as characters in a novel.

    But I was watching a real life cop show on TV a few nights ago. One where the TV crew accompanied some NZ police on their patrol.

    They caught a young man driving a stolen car. His explanation. “I was going to take it to a chop shop and get some cash.” He didn’t show the slightest hint of realizing that stealing was wrong. He knew he’d go to prison and wasn’t bothered. That was just the cost of doing business.

    I can imagine myself being so desperate for money that I’d steal. But I would still know it was wrong. What I can’t understand is his attitude that if he wants money, he’s entitled to steal.


    21 Jan 09 at 4:41 pm

  4. The difference between describing the behavior and understanding the thinking is well made.
    Otherwise, we’re at the scene in the movie MIDWAY where Charlton Heston exclaims “You’re guessing, Rochefort! GUESSING” and Hal Holbrook calmly replies “We prefer to call it analysis.” (“You say poTAYto…”)

    Barring religion and multiple personalities, we are each of us alone in our own skulls, and I have only working hypotheses about what’s going on inside the others. That’s all any of us have. We can imagine other ways of thinking. Heston could imagine he was leading a troop of cavalry. But that didn’t mean he was really thinking like a 19th Century cavalry Captain, and the fact that an author is praised for his “real” characters only means that many of his readers find his hypothesis plausible. A lot of ideas have been or are popular. The fact that some of them are disproven and others out of favor ought to make us more cautious about some of the others.

    But we now know why our fiction reading barely overlaps. I’ll accept a fairly broad range of thinking and behavior from characters. The last time I can remember insisting that real people just don’t behave like that, it was Princess Amadilla in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. (I was OK with Yoda.) But I accept the posited thinking or behavior so the author can get on with the story. If guessing at someone’s thought processes IS the story, the book goes back on (someone else’s) shelves.

    As for the passives: it’s worth considering that we’re modifying out environment faster than we can change our brains. Those kids might have made perfectly acceptable medieval peasants before enclosure–maybe better than I would. Plenty of people in prison today who would have made first rate hunter-gatherers.

    But neither group makes interesting reading.


    21 Jan 09 at 7:17 pm

  5. John said ‘What I can’t understand is his attitude that if he wants money, he’s entitled to steal.’

    I think that such things are taught, not innate. Somehow along the line, the thief learned that stealing is a perfectly acceptable way to get money although it comes with some attendant risks, such as prison. Lots of people have slightly off views about dishonesty, although most of them would be perfectly safe with your car. You can’t cheat an honest man, therefore it’s perfectly acceptable to scam anyone you can since if you succeed, it’s because they are dishonest. charges far too much and/or ‘cheated’ you out of a refund you deserve, so it’s only fair that you shortchange their clerk or tuck a bit of their property in your pocket before you leave. And so on and so forth.

    But what do we do about it, since presumably a good society to live in is one in which people don’t sell your car to a chop shop or sell you shady investments in Nigeria or shortchange you when you’re a clerk earning minimum wage (and having to cover all shortages).

    Moral education probably helps a bit, and if you stick to ‘Don’t steal’ and similar fairly non-controversial moral statements, might find a home in public schools. But it never appears to reach everyone, and I suspect that the thieves, like the poor, will always be with us. So we also need police and legal systems to catch as many of them as possible.


    22 Jan 09 at 3:33 am

  6. Two posts in a row – I can’t sleep and have a lot of rather tedious work I’m putting off!

    I read a story yesterday that epitomized for me the different ways different groups consider marriage (which we have discussed here before). I can’t remember where I saw it yesterday, but today I looked it up again:



    It is so obvious that the Michigan authorities and the young couple have completely different views on what ‘marriage’ means! They’re obviously living as a family now, and consider ‘marriage’ to be mainly a case of having a suitably big party, which you can’t do until the time is right and you’ve saved up a bit. It’s a point of view I’ve encountered before. The state, on the other hand, seems to consider marriage as a sign that the father is making a commitment to the mother and child, which is something they want to reward. It’s a perfect example of a cultural difference within a culture!

    And in a kind of addendum to John’s post on thieves, I wanted to quote from a favourite author:

    “For the most part these vices are manifestations of our refusal to master our physical and psychological impulses. … This failure to develop and use self-control reflects modern American culture’s reduced interest in moral values and the cultivation of good character.”

    (Schimmel’s ‘The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology).


    22 Jan 09 at 6:41 am

  7. While I don’t know any fiction that shows me these kinds of students, I do know of one experiment (and no, I am not a psychologist and am well aware of the low view of social sciences that many hold) that may shed some light. In the bad old days (before ethics committees figured out that animals might deserve some protection), they took some dogs, shut them in boxes and electrified the floor at regular and non lethal levels. All the dogs went through a series of actions from trying to escape to, finally, simply lying down and accepting the shocks. Many ceased showing any reactions to them at all. When this happened, the experimenters removed a wall of the box so the dog could escape if he simply got up and walked out. None of the dogs did. They all continued to lie there and take the shocks…called ‘learned helplessness’.

    You could ‘fix’ the dogs only by grabbing them and physically hauling them out of the box. If you did this enough, many of the dogs finally took to doing it themselves.

    I’m not making an environmental deterministic argument here, so much as wondering whether this kind of thing plays a role in the kind of passivity we’re talking about. I do know with some of my more passive students, I have a tendency to lose my temper and say things to them I probably shouldn’t in today’s ‘don’t hurt anyone’s feeligns’ climate. I have told them in not very nice terms that I am sick and tired of their attitudes, that they’re not stupid, but very, very BORING (and similar things). Some of them run as fast as they can to get away from me (at least that’s not passive). Others sometimes get mad enough at me to snap back and some even get mad enough to prove to me that they’re not boring. Maybe that’s analagous to dragging the dog out of the box.

    Janet Lewis

    23 Jan 09 at 11:03 am

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