Unethical Teaching: How Perceptions of the Poor Negatively Shape Outcomes and Why Assumptions of Race and Class Must be Challenged

Photo via http://www.catholiceducation.org/
Dorothy Day                    Photo via http://www.catholiceducation.org/


By: Halina Shatravka

This winter I decided to volunteer at an organization I saw listed in Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center newsletter teaching inner-city, public-high school kids. Great, I thought — I went to a New York City public school, so I know a bit about these kids and the backgrounds they tend to have.

I attended a day-long orientation in a high-rise, Times Square building with carefully-selected minimalist decor. Most of the students in attendance were from other private institutions. Briefly, we went over what they deemed to be”safe” and “accessible” words to use with these students, who, it was implied, might not understand a certain vocabulary.

This is where I began to sink in my seat with horror: the most pressing reason for my own desire to leave high school was because of this very “dumbing-down” of material, and I knew other students at the time had felt the same. I found this lack of challenge and underestimation of students part of the very destructive, cyclic nature of underperforming public schools. The boredom and apathy regarding academics in many students, I think, arises out of such models. I swallowed my horror and tried to refresh for the next segment: maybe it will get better. Maybe the program will redeem itself. It didn’t.

Next, we went over a few “teaching” methods, like using cookie-cutter, congratulatory remarks for students’ participation or “sharing out” of answers and experiences. We even touched upon the overarching problems of public education in New York City (but not for too long! De-facto segregation and more personal, poverty-related problems? That’s messy and hard to understand for a third party).

Perhaps with good-intentions, the orientation leaders thought such a formulaic, detached model of “education”, trickled down from some curriculum writers in California, might be beneficial to these groups. Having been on the receiving end of similar styles of education, however, I found it presumptuous, ingenuously oppressive even, towards what it means to be from a lower socioeconomic background. Such perceptions rely on, as subtle as it is, ostracizing the poor by painting them as less able to perform and achieve: ultimately, in the realm of education, this cheats students of the quality they deserve.

While I could bear with some progressive teaching agenda, the training became murkier. We were instructed to stand in a circle and “check our privileges” (a light spin-off, I think, of Marxist class-renunciation and re-education, which was destructive throughout communist Russia and China). From having health-care insurance to being children of non-divorced parents to never going a day hungry to walking safely in our neighborhood streets, a team leader rattled off a list of common privileges that we should be aware of. I suddenly realized that this was going to be a self-centered day about us — the perceived privileged students, rather than them — the students we were supposed to teach– a conflict of priority.

It seems that many of the international-volunteer programs offered (which require a certain amount of privilege for expenses) seem to have this self-reflective, indulgent component, too. Yes, it is necessary to understand one’s differences and role but it is not necessary to dwell on them to exhaustion without greater purpose. It’s a pattern I’ve noticed across volunteer work — but how ethical is it, really, to sit isolated in a room of similar-peers and talk about your privileges for hours on end and how ignorant you were about social problems?

Quite frankly, I find it detrimental to both people like myself (from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who are quite aware of their lack of mentioned privileges) and to the groups such volunteerism aims to help. In a more emotional and personal way, it’s a slap in the face to hear that the problems that come with poverty are completely foreign to some. When a student proclaims (as in the exercise), with newfound discovery at his or her privilege, “I never knew people didn’t have health insurance! My parents always had me covered!” it’s quite jarring and disheartening to someone who has experienced otherwise, and only fosters feelings of distance and annoyance.

Regarding students the program intended to reach, teaching with an idea of a set model of a student group, to me, at least, seems unethical, in that it aims to disadvantageously filter a curriculum to a certain group and dilute the given information to the point of dribble. This leads me to conclude that the current trend of proclaiming one’s own privilege is insufficient and needs to be challenged, especially noticing that such a practice does not lead to much benefit for other groups — except for, perhaps, further affirmation for the privileged. It simply does not delve into a true and thorough understanding of the other group aimed to be served, and only widens the gap between different classes all while harboring resentment and ignorance.

I’m a bit low on the mentioned privileges, and I couldn’t offer much up for redemption in that group exercise. I’m a recent Medicaid recipient, and before that my hospital bills were paid out of pocket. The doctors I can go to now are limited, and usually over-booked or above fish-markets in Chinatown. My parents have been divorced since I was born. My brother has been arrested more than twenty-times. My mother earned below the federal poverty line last year. And we eat bow-noodles fried in butter and have a pantry of Velveeta and damaged cans of condensed milk, courtesy of my truck-driver father’s surpluses, for dinner options.

I had to make five phone-calls to come up with the money to pay my (heavily-subsidized tuition), and I haven’t crossed “donate my fertile eggs for tuition money” off the list of future possibilities (I am still carefully contemplating the ethics of that). Periodically we he have to scramble for change for 9-Lives cat food to keep the cats we found from crying. And it hasn’t been beneath us to take donations from the church in more dire times. This is not to be a shaggy-dog tale: this is just the accepted life I’ve had throughout childhood and in the present.

When I entered that Times Square building, I swept all of that under the rug with the intention to contribute to these students, based off of my own experiences and knowledge. Certainly one isn’t required to meet an income guideline for volunteering. Further, I find education the great equalizer across different backgrounds. I’ve been lucky and grateful to attend Fordham, where I am presented with many of the same volunteer opportunities that both the wealthy and less well-off can afford to take part in. My focus was on understanding, communicating, and teaching the high school students, not on emphasizing my own past or the economic background of the volunteers.

With the slightest tinge of regret, I decided to drop the program before even entering the classroom. I could not, without being a soul-depraved hypocrite, recite the mandatory curriculum to these students — the very same type that’s created with a disastrous idea of the poor in mind that I had experienced in high school with models of education. What I would intend to do is find another organization that works with true, good intentions of helping people learn, which stem from a perception of the poor that strays from misconception.

Although unsuccessful with this particular volunteering effort, I found it ethical to not take part in something I so vehemently disagreed with. More importantly, the experience has lead me to reflect upon present modes of discussion regarding race and class amongst different groups.

While the privileged may have assumptions towards the poor, the poor similarly carry assumptions towards the perceived-privileged. When I walk in a low-income area of the Bronx with my boyfriend, who is white and Puerto-Rican, commentary is unfiltered. From the group of young girls hanging out and laughing in the building stairwell: “I didn’t know white people lived in our building!” When we have our bikes: “Look at these white people with their thousand-dollar bikes!” When we’re walking on Tremont Avenue, a confused, “There’s white people in the Bronx?”

There is the conclusion that, while being white, we somehow must be rich. My high school was mostly composed of minority groups, and some of my classmates similarly made erroneous assumptions about my class based on my skin-color or home-borough, Manhattan. (Yes, I’m one of the few white people here, I’d think. No, I am not rich, nor do we hire a cleaning lady at home).

I don’t claim that these assumptions are seriously harmful: they can easily be brushed off, and did not bar me from employment or institutional acceptance, for example. What they do serve to demonstrate, though, is that assumption exists on both ends, fueled by similar sorts of ignorance. The sort of assumption I described earlier in the volunteer program, however, is clearly much more damaging if it involves the dissemination of knowledge and negative ideas about an entire group — i.e. students in public high schools.

Even at Fordham, more disappointingly, I often catch students’ ideas of the poor surfacing and, on the other hand, professors’ assumptions of students in private institutions. A philosophy professor addressed our class regarding his perception of us: “Your parents are paying for you guys. You don’t know what it’s like to not be privileged. You must inattentively leave your belongings open on the subway because you don’t fear theft.” False!

Dropping one’s assumptions involves erasing faulty ideology and exploring its roots and purpose. Renouncing one’s privilege, which seems to be a part of our rising culture, whether of class or economic standing, may be a personal necessity for some, but it is simply not necessary for the focus of volunteer projects. Negating one’s privilege does not aid in understanding of another’s lack of it. Rather than being driven by faulty expectations of entire groups, we must address the needs of individual people and those we hope to serve.

Halina Shatravka FCRH ’17 is a neuroscience major, and was awarded second place in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2015 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.

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