Monday, November 11, 2013

Learning, Responsibility, and Power

I want to run with Pax's comment from the last post:
"From my place at the front of the room I have complete responsibility to speak clearly and with fearless honesty. I accept full responsibility for communicating with my students and for seeing to it that the message does get through. 

But that 100% responsibility on my shoulders does not lighten the student's responsibility at all. 

The student has a responsibility to actively participate in the learning process, which can include making the instructor explain unclear ideas, or challenging questionable concepts, or asking how to integrate apparent contradictions. No matter how dedicated the instructor, in the long run, self-education is the only kind of education there is..."

Here's the way I see it.  I will assume 100% responsibility.  If I am the teacher it is 100% my responsibility to be understood.  And if I am the student, it is 100% my responsibility to understand.  These percentages and the concepts of teaching and learning, the relationship of teacher to student are not exact realities.  A huge amount of every interaction you have with other people is being created in your head. Humans don't deal, almost ever, with objective reality.  We ascribe meanings from our own histories, and interpretations from our own internal connections to everything we hear and everything we see.

You can and do control this process. A fairly large amount of it you can control mindfully, consciously.  And some you can only influence.  Can I learn anything perfectly, 100%?  Of course not.  And are there teachers that can affect how much I learn?  Absolutely.  So is shouldering 100% responsibility even possible?

But here's the thing.  If I delegate responsibility, if I say I'll meet the teacher halfway, I now become dependent.  If the teacher only gives 25% I will fail.  I will be waiting at the halfway point and he will be waiting at the quarter point and we will never meet.  If I commit to making the journey all the way, with or without the teacher, I will get there.  I will get there very fast with a good teacher and slow with a shitty teacher, but I will get there.

And there is both what Kai would call 'agency' in this and power.  Agency is your autonomy.  As described above, anything you delegate, any responsibility you shirk creates a dependency. It removes choices from your hands.  If you don't procure your own food, you don't get to decide what to eat.  If you can't procure your own food, you have given up 100% of your agency and other people get to decide whether you eat.

It's a mental trick, assuming 100% responsibility, but there is power in it. Agency is control is power is choices.  Like the concept of "100% responsibility" there is no absolute power.  You cannot prevent bad things from happening and most aspects of your life are influenced profoundly by other people you cannot control... but that makes it more, not less important to assume control.  The less power you have the more you need to use it wisely, the more foolish and dangerous it is to give some away.

One last note, for the self-defense world.  I occasionally hear that "Women should not be taught to be cautious, men should be taught not to rape." I agree with the last part. But the entire thing is phrased as a false sort, as if there are only two options. Moreover, the first part of the statement... for someone to not be taught anything is to assume you have the right to remove or deny someone power.  Never let anyone take your power, no matter how well-meaning they might be.


Anonymous said...

My teacher tells me a lot about the "lazy devil." He got it from his teacher, and it's all about how we fall short when we lose the fight with this devil. Either because we find it too inconvenient at a particular time, or we think ourselves so good we can afford to not train this time. And the next, and the next...

It's like the Monkey Dance in terms of general tendencies.

Tiff said...

A powerful post, Rory. Thank you.

Kai Jones said...

You can tell women to take responsibility for their safety without blaming them for being raped: the blame stays with the rapist no matter how well or little trained a woman or man is (men get raped too), no matter where they were or how drunk they were or what they were wearing. And nothing you can *be* will stop a rapist: women in a coma have been raped, women who weren't drinking or at a bar or on the streets late at night have been raped, women who were shouting "no" or whispering it have been raped.

Sure there are things you can do to limit the possibility of the attack in the first place, but most anti-rape campaigns in the past focused on what the woman did wrong-and there is no right way to avoid a rape. You can be raped in your own home by someone you know and trusted. That's why the women's movements advocate teaching men not to rape instead of the decades and centuries of focus on women's behavior we've had so far, that have failed to stop rape and instead made women feel like their rape was their own fault (and other women feel unduly safe from rape since they don't do "those things").