Saturday, October 17, 2015

School shooters, teachers, and do-gooders

Malcolm Gladwell on school shooters
As a high-school teacher, this article's conclusion terrified me. "The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts."
I don't know if he is right. God I hope not.

The podcast The Hidden Brain looks at education
Again, as a high-school teacher, I was intrigued and inspired by this podcast. More than one of the segments covered research that basically said that positive attitudes, and sharing those positive thoughts with the students, significantly improved performance. So I made myself a resolution: I am going to send a positive personal note to every student by the end of semester. On Friday, I sent six notes home. I hope I can keep the resolution going.

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help 
The author of this book, Larissa MacFarquhar, had published a few of these chapters in The New Yorker, and they were fascinating. One was about people who donate a kidney to strangers. Another was about a couple who adopted 22 kids, many of them special needs. As I read the articles in the magazine, I wondered why I wasn't as selfless as these saints. However, as I read the book, it became clear that radical altruism is not an unalloyed good. MacFarquhar notes that, in one culture, the word "gift" can also mean poison, and that gifts often are a form of dominance, in that the receiver then "owes" something to the giver. She also notes that, even in our culture, codependence, has become an issue. So in the end, MacFarquhar claims that radical altruism isn't something we would all want to emulate.

Her conclusion lays out the complexity of the book: "If everyone thought like a do-gooder, the world would not be our world any longer, and the new world that would take its place would be so utterly different as to be nearly unimaginable. People talk about changing the world, but that's not usually what they mean. They mean securing enough help so there is less avoidable suffering and people can get on with living decent lives; they don't mean a world in which helping is the only life there is.
If there were no do-gooders, on the other hand, the world would be similar to ours, but worse. Without their showing what a person can do for strangers if he sets himself to do it, fewer would try. It may be true that not everyone should be a do-gooder. But it is also true that these strange, hopeful, tough, idealistic, demanding, life-threatening, and relentless people, by their extravagant example, help keep those life-sustaining qualities alive."

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