Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Original Sins

with 3 comments

I finished the course of antibiotics for the tooth problem yesterday, and I woke up this morning expecting to be less tired and floaty than I’ve been since I hit the emergency room last week.

Instead, I woke up just as washed out as I have been for days, and with more to do, and it’s interfering with the one thing I can’t have it interfere with:  proofreading.  I’m not good at proofreading at any time, but today I’ve been a positive menance.

What I was going to do today was put up the June reading list, but I find I can’t concentrate on it at the moment. 

So let me go into some details instead.

1) My students don’t learn that  not everybody is in it for the money by seeing people around them choose professions like teaching or social work, because they think people who choose professions like teaching and social work are in it for the money.

Given the socioeconomic status that most of my students come from–especially  my deep remedial students–these are “good jobs” that are stable, pay more than anybody they know of has ever earned, and promise both stability and benefits.

Even those of my students from slightly better off families–often families in which the parents are teachers and cops themselves–look on these jobs this way.

Of course, nobody is going to make a million dollars doing that kind of thing, but–

2) My students also tend to consider these the best of the options they’re going to have. 

If their luck had been different–and they do think it’s mostly luck–and they’d been able to go to Harvard instead of Little Noprestige U–they’d definitely have chosen to be a doctor or a lawyer or something that raked in a lot of cash.

But it’s not this kind of thing that’s the real problem.

The real problem is

3) They truly believe that everyone, everywhere, make decisions maximizing their immediate and obvious self-interest and nothing else.

Last year, we had a number of scandals, including one in the small city where the university is located, involving teachers and principals in public schools falsifying answers on the state and federal competency tests.

They do–or say they do–understand that this is “wrong,” but at the same time they assume that anybody stuck in the situation (jobs and funding depend on test scores, school not going to make minimum) would do what the teachers and principals in the scandals did, and that it is somehow “not fair” for  people to get upset about it and punish the perpetrators.

But the real kicker comes when I give them stories like the one about Jonas Salk refusing to make money on a polio vaccine because it was more important to him that all children in the country could have access to it. 

This kind of thing doesn’t shock them so much as it puzzle them.  If they were in Salk’s position, they’d have sold the formula to a big drug company and made a pile they could live on without working much for the rest of their lives.

To them, that only makes sense.  Why else would you do all the work to invent such a vaccine if not to make money from it?  And why would you live the rest of your life in relative poverty if you didn’t absolutely have to?

The whole thing is even more confusing to them because there don’t seem to be the kinds of possible off-explanations that would cover it.

Most of them haven’t  heard of Mother Teresa, but when I explain her to them they brush it off with “oh, that’s religion,” in much the same way they would explain somebody else (Adam Lanza, maybe) as “mentally ill.”

4) If I gave the impression that they don’t like stories or can’t get into them, I was wrong.

They love stories, and spend most of their time pursuing them–in television and movies, admittedly, but still.

What they don’t do is see stories as in any way saying anything true about real life.

A story is, by definition, made up.

You can have unicorns in stories, and creatures from black lagoons, but those things don’t appear in the world they live in, because they don’t exist.

Give them a character that is, say, Jonas Salk, and they just assume the writer made him  up–like unicorns, such a person does not exist in the real world. 

The very fact that the character has appeared in a story is proof positive for them that he doesn’t exist outside of stories. 

And it doesn’t matter what kind of story the character appears in. Science fiction, fantasy, romance, mainstream,  literary–it’s all the same to them.

It’s “just stories.”

 I do think there’s a lot of value, at this point, to introducing them to real people who have lived by principles they have seen nowhere around them, on the (very optimistic) assumption that such examples will result in at least a couple of them realizing that there is another way to be in the world than the one they’re used to.


5) They won’t get introduced to different ways of living and thinking by things like Jersey Shore.

Snooki and friends provide them no alternative to the way they live, because Snooki and friends operate on exactly the same assumptions they do.

They may be  more in  your face, or less well organized, or seemingly outside the day to day grind, but they still inhabit a world in which money and stuff are the only standards of value.

They also present a world in which it doesn’t matter how you get your money and stuff–curing cancer and dropping the F bomb 40 times in 30 minutes on national television are all the same thing.

In fact

6) If you’re not really working at it, the chances are that you can grow up in this country these days without being aware that any other standard of value has ever existed anywhere at any time for any reason.

You can certainly miss the fact that there are  people in the world around  you right now who are actually living out other standards of value.

I think that is partially due to the fact that there are fewer people around these days who do live by other standards of value.

But it’s more than that.

7) Since no society anywhere could exist in this kind of moral void, we get more and more pseudo-moralities and irreligious religions to fill in the gaps.

Morality becomes that bullying Puritanism from the post on Paula Deen I gave a link to yesterday, where  no redemption is to be had, because we are all stained with an original sin that can never be washed away.

We are to be judged decent only by living our entire lives in agonizing and unrelievable guilt, apologizing for our very existence.

They don’t actually swallow that sort of thing, of course, but it’s all they know of “morality,” so they’re fairly sure they don’t want any part of “morality” no matter who’s talking about it.

The meaning of life is, to them, unmistakeable.

He who dies with the most toys wins.

Written by janeh

July 2nd, 2013 at 8:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Original Sins'

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  1. Altruism is learned – although I know many people have argued the contrary, I do think it is learned, mostly or maybe entirely. We are taught as infants and small children to give things up for the good of others – maybe only others in our small group or even just our family – and that’s when it needs to begin. Some people never learn it, and some people go too far with it – not so much the great saints, but the people who are overly susceptible to exploitation and fraud as a result of never wanting to say ‘no’ if something is asked of them. And if you are never taught that sacrifice is a possible and often laudable choice, why would you expect it to exist outside of some made-up story? With time and experience, it is possible to learn that there are people who live according to various value systems other than ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’, but not everyone gets the necessary experience. Or suspects it’s out there to find.

    I can identify with the idea that teaching and nursing jobs are good jobs with good pay and benefits. I grew up with that idea, and still hold it. The idea that some teachers and nurses are and should be motivated by ideals of service, have a kind of calling as well as a job, hasn’t quite died out yet locally, although it’s been quite a while since our pay and benefit scales were brought up close to or at the national norms.

    It beats seasonal work in a fishplant, whatever way you look at it, unless you really can’t handle the work involved in teaching or nursing.


    2 Jul 13 at 10:06 am

  2. I know we studied the Peace Corps in school. I’m trying to remember when I learned about Doctors without Borders. Hmm. But my goodness, haven’t these kids ever heard of the Red Cross, or the SPCA? You can’t tell me they don’t know about Goodwill. I bet most of them shop there. What do they think Goodwill does? Make money for it’s own sake? (I choose Goodwill in contrast to the Salvation Army because that might be confused w/religion.)

    If you haven’t had enough of something all your life, it’s understandable that you don’t want to deliberately choose to do without it for the rest of it. Chances are too good you’ll be forced into that position anyway. But the failure of imagination (or is it empathy?) that declares that everything you see in books, movies or online is “made up” is unforgivable.

    What does it take to realize that those swarming crowds in India you see on “Amazing Race” are in fact real people who really live that way, think differently than we do? Why, once having realized that, is it an impossible leap to people who strive for intellectual achievements or artistic ones? Do they think the mountains in Alaska or the blues of the Caribbean are made up too? The moon landing? The space station?

    I know you’re saying they don’t understand the motivations of a Jonas Salk…but once introduced to the concept of altruism, don’t at least SOME of them make the intellectual leap to understanding, even if they don’t feel the urge to follow that kind of path?

    I’d be very very interested to observe, in your classroom, a discussion of the assiduous pursuit of Random Acts of Kindness, or paying it forward. Do they think people who do such things are just suckers, there to be taken advantage of, or have they in fact done such things themselves? In a tiny, localized way, it may be the only time they’ve encountered altruism in the wild, as it were.


    2 Jul 13 at 11:59 am

  3. What a discouraging moral andn intellectual wasteland! I have a suggestion which might prove fruitful:
    Don’t accept “religion” as a complete answer to the “problem” of altruism. If “religion” makes some people murder strangers and other people forgive their enemies and give all they have to the poor, why? Is the religion different, or the believer? Same thing, if you will, with mental illness. At the best, they will come to understand that we are not all sworn to mammon. At the least, they will have had to research and think about a problem, which is no bad thing.

    But I feel sorry for the kids.


    2 Jul 13 at 1:19 pm

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