Monogamy in Education ☆

| June 2, 2010

Adam Phillips’ book, Monogamy—anything but the paean that it’s title might suggest—is a beautiful study in examining the workings behind the scene of our apparently simple beliefs.

Perhaps not surprisingly the questions of monogamy, that is to say, of relationships and how they should go, overlap with questions of education.

Children drop adults far more than adults drop children. It is not that children haven’t, as we say, learned to concentrate, or are inept at commitment; but that curiosity is not monogamous. It ranges. But the waywardness of their attention soon becomes risky for children. Anything too intriguing, anything that makes them feel too alive, entails a conflict of loyalties. The best thing we can learn from children is how to lose interest. The worst thing they can learn from adults is how to force their attention.

But is this not the Sisyphean everyday task of the institutional teacher? A heavy handed exercise in enforcing monogamy? A year at a time. (Perhaps the arbitrary cycling through of teachers and students each year has something to do with a deep concern with the danger of monogamy. A kind of enforced promiscuity. Likewise the cycling through of periods and subjects. One must practice ones attentional monogamy in discreet blocks. Serial monogamy: demanding fidelity while preparing them for leaving without looking back.)

But how much of this is worn by the teacher, living out these relationships day to day, year to year, a constant rehearsal of fidelity and infidelity? I am always struck by the depth of passion teachers can feel towards plagiarism, defending their pathos on abstract ethical grounds as an assault on the integrity of scholarship writ large. Or on the personal level as a student robbing themselves of their opportunities. But what if it is mostly that we feel cheated on? Plagiarism has always seemed to me a common form of the vote of no confidence. The student telling me that I am alone in the quest for monogamy, in “the love of learning,” or at least in my desire to be interesting.

We try to insist by naming, but nothing seems so absurd to me as the recent move by some schools to refer to their students as scholars. “Good morning scholars!” But what could be more terribly wishful than a whole building full of “scholars”? Do we really want to dust off this medieval notion of pedantic focus? Are we so desperate for monogamy that we will turn to monkish celibacy for inspiration? What student will truly buy this game? But perhaps I underestimate the power of repetition. Or overestimate the need for it actually to be bought. As long as we go through the motions: children behaving like scholars.

But the primitive art of losing interest in things or people is itself easily lost. Good manners are the best way of pretending that this is not an issue, that we can make our feelings last, that our attention is reliable.

But again, how much of this effort displaced onto children reflects our own needs as teachers, as people?

One of the most striking things about reading stories to young children is the ruthless promiscuity of their attention. One minute they are utterly absorbed in the adult’s virtuoso performance, the next moment a pigeon flies past the window and they are off looking at it. At that moment is is as though there was no story, no special or exclusive connection between the two of you. You will feel impatient or outraged, or dismayed, or even exploited; in other words, abandoned.

What parent is prepared for this? What teacher training will have given the tools to deal with this with grace?