Sunday, August 2, 2009

Are there "teachable moments" in Generation Me?

Now that Barack Obama's Beer Summit is over, it's worth asking the question: since no one apologized to anyone, was there the "teachable moment" that Barack Obama said he hoped would arise from the situation?

If so, what was it?

Frankly, I'm surprised that an apology wasn't the first thing that happened - on everyone's part:
  • "Sorry, I said the cops behaved stupidly."
  • "Sorry I arrested you in your own house."
  • "Sorry I said you were racist."
  • "OK, now let's drink!"
Instead, everyone just agreed to disagree. The lesson: I have nothing to learn other than what I already know.

Winnipeg-bred comedian David Steinberg likes to tell the story about how he and his friends used to go to Eaton's in downtown Winnipeg and bump into people on purpose on the elevator, just to see how many times they could get a "sorry." Apparently, they got it a lot. Would they still?

Today, I was sitting in my car at that horrible corner where Osborne meets Broadway, and the light lasts about two seconds and squeegee kids run through the traffic willy nilly. As I waited for the light to turn green, a squeegee kid washed the window of the car in front of me. As the guy in the car looked for some change to give the kid, the two-second light turned green. We continued to sit there, as the guy continued to look.

Knowing that the light would change in one second, I beeped the horn and the guy stuck his hand out of the window and gave me the finger. For added effect, once we started moving, he braked erratically to teach me a lesson for honking, I guess. In my mind, he was holding up everyone, in his I was the big jerk who wanted him to go when he wasn't ready.

So who was supposed to learn from this teachable moment and what?

Maybe the lesson is that I'm a utilitarian: the greatest good for the greatest number. If we're all waiting behind you, it's up to you to move your butt, because the need of all of us to get moving trumps your need to look for change.

But, sorry, John Stuart Mill, that philosophy seems to be changing. Now, it's all about...ME!

Generation Me

According to the book Generation Me, this is a cultural shift that continues to become more entrenched with each new generation.
"Generation Me has never known a world that put duty before self, and believes that the needs of the individual should come first. This is not the same thing as being selfish – it is captured, instead, in the phrases we so often hear: "Be yourself," "Believe in yourself," "You must love yourself before you can love someone else."

"These are some of our culture's most deeply entrenched beliefs, and Generation Me has grown up hearing them whispered in our ears like the subliminally conditioned children in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World."
Oh, boy: narcissism, entitlement, and arrogance all rolled into one, big unhealthy jelly donut.

In Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic, he says that one of the reasons that traffic is so bad is because we're all driving within our own literal and figurative bubbles, in a complete absence of feedback (except for maybe horns, which we ignore by definition). This is why we all think of ourselves as great drivers at the same time we regard everyone else on the road as a complete moron.

In Winnipeg, I've recently noticed more pedestrians crossing busy roads against the light. In New York, this is a team sport; when you get enough pedestrians on a corner, the cars have to stop, and you all cross the street en masse: how very utilitarian of them. In Winnipeg, though, it's an individual phenomenon.

Unlike in the old days, the pedestrian doesn't pick it up when they're walking against a light and notice a car coming. Just the opposite. Now, they slow down when they see a car coming, just to prove...something: "I don't believe in your system of lights, old man, so you're just going to have to come to a complete stop until I'm done hawling my arse across this intersection."

The worst example I've seen is a young mother crossing against the light behind Portage Place in the face of oncoming traffic - with her two very little girls walking slowly, out of her sight, behind her. Outraged for the disregard of her daughters' safety, I rolled down the window and said, "Be careful - those little girls could get hit by a car." Another finger back - in front of her two little girls, no less.

So much for my big teachable moment. In her mind, she's an adult, and she knows what's right for her. And, I suppose, if she gets hit, it's her choice (and natural selection in action). But what needs to happen so that she "learns" that it's not smart to walk against the light in front of oncoming traffic with two, little girls who are walking slowly and don't know any better?

Teachable students, teachable teachers

This is especially depressing for a teacher: if there is no such thing as a "teachable moment" anymore, because everyone thinks they know what's right for them, then what's the point in teaching anybody anything?

Of course, part of being a teacher is being a good learner, open to teachable moments. It's common for new teachers to think that they need to know everything, or to act like they do, because admitting they don't is a sign of weakness. In fact, it's just the opposite: it's impossible to know everything about anything. If someone asks a question to which you don't know the answer, the best thing you can do is say, "I don't know. I'll get back to you."

Poster child for Generation Me: Sarah Palin

I can't help but think of the recent article about Sarah Palin by Todd S. Purdum in Vanity Fair. Purdum says that Palin was unwilling or unable to prepare for interviews and debates, even after that disastrous interview with Katie Couric:
"More than once, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—“a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy”—and thought it fit her perfectly."
Of course, sometimes we learn the wrong lesson from supposed teachable moments. My friend had his RRSP deductions stolen by a dishonest employer. The lesson he took from the incident: don't invest in RRSPs.

For years, my father and I have tried to "teach" people who litter that it's wrong - by picking up the litter and rolling our eyes. Or sighing heavily. Or honking the horn when the car in front of us throws trash out the window. Have we actually taught anyone anything about what littering does to the environment, or just that there's a father/son team who hates litter?

Can you "teach" honesty?

Then, there's Red River College's plagiarism policy, which is different from many colleges in that it differentiates between major and minor cases of academic dishonesty.

What is a minor case of plagiarism, you ask? One of the things that makes it minor is that the student says he or she was ignorant about plagiarism. For the first, minor offence the student gets a warning and a make-up assignment. Pretty light, all things considered.

On a second, or "major" offence, the student gets an F in the course and is suspended for six months. Pretty harsh.

Whether you agree or disagree with the policy, or whether there can be such a thing as "minor plagiarism" in a writing program may be beside the point. It's clear that Red River College has the policy worded this way to allow for "a teachable moment" where, presumably, someone can learn from a mistake before getting to the point of no return.

At many other institutes of higher learning, there is no such chance - plagiarism is plagiarism and you're gone after the first, provable instance of dishonesty.

But is "honesty" something that is teachable, or does Red River College's policy allow the person who has plagiarized to commit another dishonest act in order to get out of the original act of dishonesty?

Perhaps the only time we can be taught anything is when we're open and willing to learn or to consider our own mistakes, which, as human beings, we make all the time. But I also think that it's got to mean taking the focus off of "me" every once in awhile and considering "you" and "us."

"Hey, when that guy honked his horn at me, I was in the wrong. I'll never do that again!" A guy can dream, right?

Here, Bill provides us with many teachable moments, like "Don't be a Mr. Bungle!"

Update: Maureen Dowd ties in the idea of "not learning" with the U.S. healthcare debate:
"Never before have we had so many tools to learn and to communicate. Yet the art of talking, listening and ascertaining the truth seems more elusive than ever in this Internet and cable age, lost in a bitter stream of blather and misinformation."
Update: Roger Ebert has a plan:
"If the core audience for film critics is getting older by the day, then so is the overall audience for mainstream media. That means we're all appealing to the only demographic we have. As a remedy to pull us out of this nosedive into a gathering Dark Age, I have a simple proposal: Double teacher salaries and cut class enrollments in half."


  1. In my experience, people just aren't willing to take advice from someone they don't know. In other words, the only time a teachable moment will actually work is when a)The person doing the teaching is a close friend or relative that the other person respects. b) When it's a work situation and you are being paid to learn from your mistakes and c)When the person being taught is actually paying to be taught (i.e. in a college situation) No one likes to be told what to do, and they like being told by complete strangers even less. What you could do is launch a "litter awareness" campaign and put ads on various media. Then it's not telling people what to do, it's "public awareness" and for some reason people respond to that, especially if there's some official sounding organization behind it. "Fathers & Sons Against Litter - FSAG."


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