On Not Being Friends

Missouri has gone and done something dumb, and that is conjured up a certain “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act.” The dumb part is when we get to section 162.069, which states that “Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.” And it’s dumb because we shouldn’t be signing into law limitations on Freedom of Association as has been ascribed to the first amendment of our beloved constitution. It’s also dumb because they used a squirrelly definition of “former student” which isn’t nearly as Orwellianly overreaching as “former student” sounds, but that’s beside the point.

Now generally I agree with the goal of that particular clause: teachers shouldn’t leave semi-arbitrary tokens of favoritism out where anybody can find them, or grant those tokens to technologically endowed few, or accidentally share the not-adequately-filtered particulars of their adult life with their students. As a volunteer coach (not teacher) I don’t “friend” students I might end up judging. One of my other friends simply doesn’t friend any students because he doesn’t want to deal with the self-censorship that would be necessary to maintain decorum in the coach-to-student relationship. Directly on topic, one Mr. Finger says “We don’t friend any students… If you haven’t graduated we’re not friends. I think the only people I’ve friended under 18 are my niece and nephew.”

But there’s something that I’ve noticed in my students and it’s that they often have difficulty asserting themselves against a direct strong opinion. I shouldn’t be surprised by this: much of what I remember from High School was being forced to accept increasingly unreliable narrators as honest bearers of ineffable truths put forward by teachers that were little more than the sock-puppets of an almost spiteful semi-alien bureaucracy. But the absolute authority of the state’s opinion is what gets graded against, and students are thus herded toward it because nothing ever goes wrong when citizens are treated as a herd that trusts authorities to do the right thing for them. Ever.

That dripping noise you hear is sarcasm, yes.

This is the bullshit that kills my hope for the future. I totally believe that we can shrug off peak oil and might even get climate change under control and maybe reign in population growth, but the thing that drives me to despair is our ambivalence in treating kids as children until they’re adults on their 18th birthday and dumped into the big joyful world of canine cannibalism for which they may be utterly unprepared because children aren’t allowed to call bullshit against the authority figures that have been babysitting them for the past dozen years. From my (childless) point of view, if public education fails to teach students that it’s good to speak truth to power, then we’re failing the basic general promise of public education, that being that great citizens and leaders can be developed from any background. What we seem to be getting instead is well-mannered mutton for the aristocratic wolf-pups to eat.

It’s not like the students are categorically blind to what’s going on, they just don’t generally have the life experience to know what could be different. One of my students specifically thanked me for validating her thinking as she was starting to transition from childhood to adulthood. On the one hand she’s smarter and more responsible than I was at that age, on the other… why did she need to hear anything from me? I’m just Some Guy with a quick mind and gainful employment. But what I’m lacking in that description is any authority beyond my rather limited force of will, and that’s what separates me from most adults that kids encounter: in a typical adult-to-children association, the adult relies on a position of authority to make things happen because there would simply be too much time, effort, or risk-of-backlash involved in trying to get the children to understand the underlying reasons for what the authority is asserting.

The authority in these relationships serves two functions: to easily indoctrinate the young into our continuing society and protect them from harm, inclusive of self-inflicted, not for their own good, but because they represent the investment of many adults who do not want to see their investment in procreation and indoctrination go to waste. This isn’t unreasonable, but it does seem to happen to a two-part fault: kids would rather STFU than disagree with somebody who might have authority, no matter how misplaced the authority is, and kids are unable to act responsibly because they’re unable to adequately predict the consequences of their actions, from which they have historically been insulated. Thus I’m unsurprised that kids seem oblivious to the possibility of synthesizing feedback to improve and augment their thinking. I am certain that politicians and cable news is not helping this situation at all. (This could also be something of a weakness in an ego-development phase; one of my students subjected himself to a scathing critique, but was heartened when I reminded him that regardless of what other people would do if it was their speech, he would ultimately be the one having to give his speech. It was surprising that he would both accept the critique and need the reminder of his personal agency in the matter.)

But the other half of it — the half which prompted Missouri to codify a new law — is also protecting children from that cesspool of sexually maladjusted predatory adults known as the Teacher’s Union. That was also sarcasm, though unfortunately not a joke: if the people of Missouri didn’t believe that the Teacher’s Union weren’t a cesspool of sexually maladjusted predatory adults, they wouldn’t have a law that makes illegal an otherwise neutral (and constitutionally protected?) activity.  This goes back to how we use the law, as H. Richard Niebuhr explains in The Responsible Self: “We use the idea of law less as a guide to our own conduct than as a way of predicting what the one will do to whom we are reacting or who will react to us.”  For example, we may not pay exacting attention to the speed limit, but we expect other people to not be cavalier in its disregard; similarly we generally don’t feel compelled to burglarize our neighbor’s home, but we appreciate having a law against having homes — inclusive of ours — burgled.  So the law isn’t an actual protection mechanism per se as demonstrated by the quantity of speeding tickets, burglars and pedophiles, but it does set a legal expectation that consequences will follow for people who go out of socially accepted and codified bounds to put others and/or themselves at risk with the positioning of the law — the line of infraction, as it were — determining where great harm is likely to be caused.  And the people of Missouri have evidently determined that great harm is likely to be caused by teachers interacting with students on social networks.  I’m not certain whether they’re showing a great amount of imagination or no imagination at all, as going into a moral panic over technological advancement and fretting about (women and) children first is a known irrational social pattern. So I’m not sure whether teachers or social networks are being more vilified here, but Missouri seems to suspect them both of malfeasance.

But the reason the reason the “cesspool” comment was sarcasm was because if we actually had the guts to tell kids “if an adult is pursuing an intimate and/or sexual relationship with you, it’s because there’s something horribly underdeveloped about them and you can get a restraining order against them” then maybe we’d be able to get in the habit of respecting their ability to act like adults and reassure them that it might just be okay to speak truth to power instead of just sitting down and shutting up and feeling awkward and embarrassed.

Just maybe. Because getting them to sit down and shut up and — ideally — feel awkward and embarrassed is kind of what the authority-wielding adults want to happen because it’s reassuring that the kids in their care are still children, still the kindergarteners on the mat nervous about who might see that they still suck their thumb. And this is reassuring to the adults because when “sexually deviant child predators” are downgraded to “underdeveloped losers” then we really want our kids to be awkward and embarrassed because Sandy and Diane and Jennifer and Bella weren’t awkward or embarrassed or in healthy and balanced relationships. Just sayin’. Also, necrophilia doesn’t really balance out pedophilia, Ms. Meyer — again, just sayin’.

Anyway, I’m not in favor of this. Which isn’t to say that I’m in favor of unhealthy and imbalanced relationships, rather that I’m opposed to — for example — former congressman Weiner acting wildly awkward and embarrassed and then resigning because he was dumb enough to send unsolicited not-so-lewd-that-we-can’t-show-them-on-TV-as-often-as-possible photos to a former fully-of-age admirer. I’m not sure whether to be more embarrassed that the guy trashed his reputation so suddenly or with so unimpressive of effect. It’s like hearing the president has a mistress and then hearing it’s Monica Lewinsky all over again, except the congressman didn’t even get to have a mistress. The un-impressiveness of what people are stumbling into displays of awkward embarrassment over is getting more pathetic as time goes on. (Just to be clear, kudos to the person that reported that they were being inappropriately harassed by the congressman: I’m looking for that kind of assertiveness in citizens and am opposed to his irresponsibly childish response.)

So beyond constitutionality issues and beyond my anti-authoritarian streak, I’m opposed to “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act” because it mandates continued sharp, arbitrary and artificial division between childhood and adulthood that perpetuates the insecurities that children feel around adults and will hamstring their ability to redress and improve the (adult) world they will necessarily be joining. I understand and accept that teachers, parents, etc need to maintain positions of authority over children — but the exact details of how they do that is a question best left to the practical wisdom of the adult involved, not encoded into ham-handed (probably unconstitutional) legislation.

And kids, I don’t care how much you enjoy the attention or being treated like an adult: if an adult is trying to have sex with you its because there’s something significantly wrong with them that is keeping them from having a normal, healthy and balanced physical relationship with another adult who is actually in their peer group. I won’t tell you from a position of authority that you shouldn’t get thusly involved — but neither will Ms. Meyer who has made oodles of money by combining pedophilia and necrophilia, to say nothing of bestiality and abusive relationships, and calling the steaming heap of it “modern romance,” so do pause to consider how the relationship might end before you agree to start it.

If this has caused your synapses to fire in new and interesting ways, feel free to write about it over on this thread on Google+.

Update:  The law is now being challenged, as well it should be.  Of course, Mr. Protalinski describes it as “Missouri teachers fight to be Facebook friends with students” rather than “Missouri teachers fight for their First Amendment rights,” thus missing the actual issue on face, but he presumably knows what headline will get the most clicks from his audience.  Anyway, here’s the injunction if you want to see what a court document looks like.