I'm confused here as well as ambivalent. We make judgments
as part of our work--when we grade students, when we write letters of
reference, etc.--that are based on what students reveal to us and
that help determine which of them will get which opportunities.
Unfortunately, schools, colleges, universities are not just
educational institutions, but also certifying institutions. Even if
you write someone a "good" letter of reference, how "good" and what
specifically you choose to say--after all, virtually all reference
letters these days are "good"--leads someone else to decide whether
to reject or accept that person. The fact that I don't say anything
"negative" in a letter is a red herring if I know that a "good"
letter will probably not be good enough to get someone into law
school, that almost all the applicants will have "good" letters.
On the other hand, as I said last week, my sense of honesty
does lead me to tell students if I can't write a strong letter.
Which helps create the situation where almost all letters are "good."
But this isnt' really what's itching me. As educators we
tend to focus on our students and what will be good for them. But
when we certify them--and every passing grade is part of that
certificate--we help them gain positions of status and power. When
we teach them to master the discourse of, say, law or education or
engineering, we help them achieve the subject position of that
discourse, help them become what an occupant of that subject position
is, help them become lawyers, teachers, engineers--even government
and corporate bureaucrats. The certificates we give them often help
graduates oppress others. The discourses one masters to empower
oneself often oppress others.
Of course, I myself do much more good that harm--and always
make a point of warning my students that they cannot achieve these
subject positions without becoming to some extent that sort of
person. (Was "good that harm" instead of "good than harm" one of
Freud's slips?) At any event, I accept these contradictions as part
of my reality.
But I do think our educator perspective focuses our attention
on our students and deflects our attention from the extent to which a
university degree empowers very many of our students to gain jobs
that exploit and oppress others. I think we need to look at that, to
take responsibility for that, and sometimes to say NO when we know a
particular student is likely to be particularly oppressive (often
with "good intentions").
One of the hardest--most "schizophrenogenic--things I ever
did was, as a external reader on a thesis committee to refuse to pass
the thesis (without radical revision and a new defense). I did it
because I looked past the poor graduate student (who, in my view, had
been failed by those who were responsible for teaching him) to all
the students he would teach, if we certified him. I decided my
obligation to protect them from being taught by him--and least until
he learned what he did not yet understand--was my primary obligation.
And who am I to make such judgments? I don't feel wise
enough. But unless I quit my job, I can't avoid certifying. And not
everybody should be certified equally--unless we do away with
If I don't warn people that someone is oppresive (say, hates
gays and lesbians) and he consequently gains a position of power
(say, a lawyer and eventually perhaps a judge), am I not to some
extent responsible for when he eventually does to gay and lesbian
On the other hand, my father said I would be disowned if I
became a stoolpigeon (or a scab or a pimp).
I agree with Patrick's perspective. But I seem to have