Brainwashing with a Smile

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Students required to smile at Pennsylvania school — or get sent to the office (New York Daily News)

I was not in the target demographic for Bill Nye the Science Guy when it first started airing in 1993, and even if I had been, I still wasn’t in the mood to hear anything about science while I was in the middle of a string of science teachers who could most charitably be described as megalomaniacal assholes. More to the point, having grown up in that era of Nickelodeon where most of their programming was Canadian kids’ shows, I had spent  my early years — before being made to go that abattoir of a “school” — watching Mr. Wizard’s World. Although Don Herbert wasn’t exactly a cultural icon of any era, he certainly fit the 1990’s slacker aesthetic much more closely than Bill Nye’s manic high-jinks, and so I found myself wishing that Nickelodeon still aired Mr. Wizard’s World for when I needed to get my fix of science on television.

With the benefit of perspective, particularly now that I’ve been a teacher for over a decade, I have a much deeper understanding of why I preferred Mr. Wizard to Bill Nye, at least regarding their approaches to their television shows. Don Herbert never tried to make his science experiments anything more than simple science experiments; instead, he told the kids he was working with what to do for the experiment (or, if it was dangerous, he’d do some or all of the steps himself), and then let the kids react how they would. Sometimes the kids were genuinely astonished, sometimes they just let out a muted “neat,” and sometimes they looked like they couldn’t have cared less. Regardless of how they reacted, Herbert explained the science behind what was happening, because even if one kid doesn’t think that a science experiment is all that special, children watching at home might still think that it is.

Beyond his on-screen hyperactivity, Bill Nye always seemed to be pushing onto his audience how “cool” science was, and if there’s one piece of child psychology that is absolutely critical for teachers to know (to say nothing of parents), it’s that if you have to tell a child that something is cool, then it’s not cool. Most children learn to smell out this kind of thing by junior high, and it closes kids’ minds more quickly than you’d believe. Just like trying to convince young people that they should consider something to be important to them, it is far more effective to demonstrate the thing in question, and allow them to come to their own conclusions, than to insist that something is important or cool (or what have you) just because you say it is. Mr. Wizard let his science experiments speak for themselves and didn’t try to say that what happened was “cool” or the science underlying what happened was important for children to know, and I was much more eager to watch his show than I ever was to watch Bill Nye’s.

More to the point, simply telling children that something is “cool” or “important” is, in its own way, pushing your beliefs on them. No one — parents, teachers, or anyone else — has any way of fully comprehending the multitude of thoughts and worries in a child’s head at any one moment, and anyone who claims that children are too “simple” or “ignorant” not to have that kind of complex interior life is an arrogant ignoramus. If you want someone (child or otherwise) to believe that something is important, then it’s your responsibility — your job, if you’re a teacher — to make that argument, and if you can’t convince that person about your belief, then the problem isn’t with them; it’s with you, and using your power to try to force children to believe that a certain thing is “cool” or “important” is little different from using that same power to try to force your religious and/or political beliefs on someone.

For all the recent rhetoric about people’s feelings (especially young people’s), it’s often the people making the loudest and most vitriolic complaints about not wanting to respect other people who are the most demanding of special treatment in that regard, insisting that every aspect of their identity and ideology is sacrosanct and above criticism, while simultaneously deriding everyone they see as an “enemy” without mercy. Regardless of what power these people have (or perceive that they have), they wield that power like a sledgehammer, trying to make everyone around them conform to their toxic worldview, and harming anyone who opposes them in any significant way. Although we’re currently enduring the effect of this thinking in the highest positions of power in America right now, it can infiltrate people at all levels of society, and if my experiences (and those of my students) are a reliable indicator, then it is particularly pronounced among teachers.

Forcing young people to smile at school is galling for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that even young people have serious concerns (parents worrying about making rent/mortgage payments, neighborhood violence, bullying at school and so on) that they shouldn’t be forced to ignore and/or mask. Secondly, although I’ve never believed that young people should be forced to look at going to school as their “job” (and I’ll save unpacking the capitalist assumptions of that little nugget for a later date), there’s no question that school, even when it works well for its students, is still a lot of work for them. Work that is fun is still work, and we shouldn’t expect students to not get too exhausted to smile when they’re going through hour after hour of difficult classes.

Perhaps most importantly, though, insisting that students smile at school is a dangerous form of repression and censorship. Teachers who know that students have to act like everything they do is okay are teachers with a licence to abuse their students in nearly every way they can imagine, and it shouldn’t be surprising that teachers are behind these kinds of policies. Beyond forcing students to conform to these egomaniacal teachers’ beliefs that everything they say and do is correct, this kind of behaviour code has a clearly deleterious effect on the young people who are subjected to it, because it trains them to avoid making any kind of expression that something they are going through is wrong. Forget lodging verbal and/or written complaints; even just not smiling is a punishable act, and the students who are forced into these behaviours when they are young will be more likely to follow them when they are older, facing the dangers that adults face at work, at home, and in public spaces.

The teachers and administrators who push for this “forced smiling” may not necessarily be more likely to mistreat their students, but this policy is still an example of mistreating students, by subjugating their thoughts and feelings to the needs of some teachers and/or administrators to have all their actions validated by seas of ever-smiling faces. We teachers have a responsibility to meet the needs of our students, and when we use our power to shut down the feedback channels that are supposed to let us know when we’re not being effective, we are not only failing at our jobs, but we are also doing great harm to our students. If you can’t stand criticism from your students when you’re not being an effective teacher, then you’re not cut out for teaching. Period.

Now that Bill Nye has ditched his 90’s antics, and become an articulate advocate for working to stop climate change, I kind of like him; I’ll never have the same warm and fuzzy feelings for him that I have for Mr. Wizard, just because Nye wasn’t a part of my childhood, but I still admire his work and I hope that he keeps it up. Nye certainly recognizes the need to change his approaches for the audiences he’s trying to enlighten (as much as I may have disliked his television show, there’s no denying that lots of young people loved it back in the day), and that kind of “audience awareness” is something that all teachers need to practice every minute that they’re in a classroom. Demanding that those you have power over show fealty to you is just being an authoritarian dictator of your perceived fiefdom, and we’ve got too much of that coming from Washington these days as it is. I’m damn sure not gonna smile just because the people who are hurting me and my friends don’t want their feelings hurt, and we shouldn’t expect anyone to do that, let alone our children.

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