The Risk of Being Educated

12 11 2011

A friend of mine is a Teacher/Librarian and is continuing her education at a local university. Recently, she updated her facebook status and it has impacted me deeply:

While working on a university paper today, I found this in my textbook (author unknown). It really touched me:

“Dear Teacher, I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers.  Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So I am suspicious of education. My request is this: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

Wow. I’ve read and re-read that paragraph carefully and the sheer weight of this person’s plea is something that’s hard to shake. I’m thinking that it’s more the theme that moves me, not just the actual words. Think about some of the things that we catch ourselves complaining about to our families and in our Staff rooms and stand those up alongside the gravity of what you just read.

Teaching is a risk and teachers live with different degrees of risks everyday. I suppose though, I’ve not really considered that the subject matter of what I present at the front of the classroom each day carries with it an element of risk to my students and society as a whole. How can we be sure that the stuff we’re teaching and the knowledge we’re passing along won’t be used in a harmful way? Bottom line: we can’t. Knowledge can be a wonderful thing and we would agree that the positives far outweigh the negatives with respect to advancing a person’s education. But there are downsides as well.

a) Do you think that the Wright Brothers ever considered that their advances in (or the introduction of?) aviation would one day cause widespread harm to millions of people through the use of military aircraft?

b) With the recent passing of Steve Jobs, there have been oodles of accolades for this man’s work in the advancement of the electronic age – and rightly so. Apple’s Ipod is now 10 years old this month. But consider this: Do you think that in those early discussions with engineers that he realized that the invention of the ipod would one day make pornography portable and accessible to any student of any age? I’m not suggesting that the introduction of apps on digital devices hasn’t been a good thing. Those of us involved in education have seen how effective these can be for student achievement. But there has been another side to the monumental growth of digital technology – an industry Mr. Jobs helped create.

c) Or consider the era when the automobile was introduced. Yes, it has revolutionized the way people move by increasing the speed at which we travel, the distances we can cover and the areas that we can explore. Entire industries have sprung up employing millions of people that are directly associated with the production, the maintenance and the future of automobiles (Look at the scope of the auto parts industry and the Department of Highways for instance). We’re not as quick to dwell on the thousands of people who die annually in car accidents. In fact, I am told that car travel is the most unsafe way to travel. Would I say that cars are not beneficial to society? No. But I’m reminded that there is another viewpoint to consider.

“My request is this: help your students become human. Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

Teachers, we have an obligation to think about, and re-think about the way we treat each other. This can be certainly be reinforced in the school setting by the way we present ourselves in our conduct with staff and students.  Politeness. Courtesy. Humility. Selflessness. Respect. Or, as it was said above, to be “more human”.

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