I cringed (and that’s not okay)

During class this morning my professor put up a slide showing a math diagram. You could feel a collective cringe in the room.

One of my math teacher friends in the class was (rightfully) annoyed by the collective cringe. Why, he asked (in so many words), is it okay to so openly express a disdain for math?

The answer, of course, is that it’s not—which I think all of us in that room knew. But we did it anyway.

Incidentally, I disagree with the frequently-offered premise that only math gets this reaction. I’ve had enough conversations about being a librarian to know that many people are very comfortable sharing their dislike/disinterest/disdain for reading (it’s enough to make me wish they’d go for a Dewey decimal joke instead).

Since we know aversion is not the right reaction (and since I’m sure we all have examples of times when someone has shown disdain for something we’re passionate about) why do we still, almost instinctually, so openly show our aversion for subjects that we know others are passionate about—and that we understand, objectively, are important?

I think it’s a way of deflecting. If you say, “I’m not good at this” in advance, no one else will be able to point it out to you. Or if they do, you’ve got a head start on them: “I already told you I wasn’t good at this.” By pretending to vulnerability, you make yourself invulnerable to future criticism.

This is not, I realize, a groundbreaking insight. A lot has been written about what this looks like and what this means for students, but I’ve been thinking about what this means for us as adults. Right now I’m thinking of it in particular as an adult student, but I think it’s worth thinking about for all of us no matter what side of the classroom we’re on—or even if we’re outside of the classroom entirely.

What do I model for my students? Do I dismiss their learning? Do I diminish their passions? What do I cut myself off from learning when I go with the default reaction? Is there a difference between saying “I don’t know how to do this” and “I don’t like it”?

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