The Altruistic Shield

This is just the first time you’ll hear me mention this. But I’ve received the green light to pursue developing this concept in independent study this summer, and so develop it I shall.

I was struck, during the process of conducting my survey and speaking about what I learned in Toronto, by the strong, emotional reactions that a few people had to the work I was trying to do. None of the scholars at AERA argued with me – I got some really well-reasoned ideas pointed out to me, and I appreciated that – and I really only caught flak from some Internet People (hi).

An academic told me that it’s only going to be possible to pursue this sort of work – on marginalization in education – if you sort disputants into two categories: those who are eager to engage through their disagreement; and those who just want to stamp their feet. From my limited experience thus far, the difference is pretty stark, in that the ones who really want to discuss will usually approach with a question that allows you to choose to engage or not, whereas the others just want to rant and froth at the mouth.

But honestly, the people who just want to rant are pretty interesting to me. That may sound strange, but I actually think this population is a large portion of the teaching force (and social services in general). Not that most teachers are actively hostile towards self-analysis, but when pushed to evaluate their role as part of an unjust system, many will fall back on the idea that, because they’re putting in long hours for what they feel is unfair compensation, and because they often work with “difficult” students, asking them to consider uncomfortable topics (race, in the case of my own interests, but it could be plenty of other things) is too much. They retreat behind the presumed social good of the work they do and raise what I’m calling their “altruistic shield” to guard them against any criticism or judgment.

I’ve wondered in these past eight months of school what prevents useful research from being absorbed by the masses, and aside from the outdated journal system (something I probably shouldn’t be saying online before attempting to publish, although those submissions are blind), I believe the major obstacle is this altruistic shield. People are set in their ways in every field, of course, be they social service or other pursuits, but there’s something about the omnipresence of education and educators that makes the shield so comforting to many. Nothing will change so long as it’s more convenient to hide behind the shield than it is to challenge yourself to improve your empathy for others, whether the difference is based on race, gender, disability or other factors.

Because that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? The shield protects people from criticism and self-analysis, but it also prevents sufficient empathy. And the farther we remain from our learners, the less hope we have of helping successfully guide them forward. You just can’t be a great educator (or social worker, or what have you) if you think that the only thing you need to do is show up and put in the hours. It’s not fair that we social service workers are often the only ones taking more and more steps to support our learners, and most of us surely aren’t paid enough, but if we’re not going to do it, who is? This should be why we do what we do.

I am planning to spend the summer researching and building up the tenets of this concept, so that I can stop using imprecise and mushy terminology to define what exactly the altruistic shield is. And I hope, by codifying it, I can figure out ways to work against it, and find ways that the people who have discarded the shield can help others lay their shields down as well.

Hopefully this works. I will keep you posted.