I was driving a few students off campus for dinner last week, and for some reason, I started talking about how I behaved as a student. Almost boasting, I described how my group of friends and I, thinking that we were way more clever than we actually were, would derail classes with our
wit obnoxious, self-centered interruptions. I was perceived as reticent by most of my teachers, so I never shouldered any blame for the disruptive behavior; I reveled in this “glory.”
Then, pausing further in my reflections, the teachers we messed around with most started appearing in my mind. I was dumbstruck by the trend: all women. There we were, students and teachers alike, all engaged in a terrible game of enacting traditional gender hierarchy. I can’t say what my teachers thought about it, or if they ever considered the role of gender politics in our orientation toward them, but I know my friends (male and female…and maybe other gender categories) and I certainly weren’t aware of it; it being how we dumbly followed the roles we’d been socialized into. We never dared to question or interfere with our male teachers’ work, and only now do I understand that our obedience was ensured by simple socialization, which isn’t to excuse our responsibility in any way but to offer some means of understanding it.
At the time, we likely internalized our “good” behavior around male teachers as a result of each of their individual authority, not due to power that they blindly inherited and we duly followed. As for what we thought about how we acted around female teachers? That’s part of the issue. We never stopped to think. We never had to. And why would we? No one, least of all the teachers we were challenging, ever said anything. Who’s to blame for such ignorance? How do we hold each other accountable for outmoded mental models if we can’t even be woken up to their foundational influence in the first place? Where was our enlightened savior, the one who had left our stupid little cave and knew better? Why couldn’t one of us have been that escaped prisoner?
Expressing shame and guilt won’t get me or my former teachers anywhere, but I did feel these things as soon as I recognized the pattern of how I participated in mistreating women when I was a student. I didn’t respect their authority; I suppose I imagined they never really had any. I regret this, but I can’t change it. Still, I’m sorry to all those teachers, and I’m sorry to all my female friends who were subjugated to our stupidity. Beyond a likely trivial apology, what I can do now is make it so my students are aware of potentially similar behavior, and not just as it relates to gender. Raising their awareness about power and privilege in all its intersectional forms is and remains my pedagogical goal. I’m sure I’m missing something significant in the process, but I’ll keep my eyes open for the ways in which I might still be perpetuating oppression (that social Hydra which seems to grow another head whenever we start to cut one off).
I often wonder: what will people decades from now point out in our current social climate as profoundly ignorant? Are we doing enough to bring that ignorance to light?