I Would Prefer Not To

“I would prefer not to.” ~Bartleby the Scrivner: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville

It’s important to me as an educator, to reject or defuse or diffuse any power over others that comes my way. Classrooms can too easily become tin pot dictatorships, perhaps benevolent dictatorships, but dictatorships nevertheless.

It’s easy because most of us are left alone in rooms with children and children in our culture are lesser. We expect them to obey, to behave, and to been seen and not heard. Even the best intended of us can too easily fall into the habits of command and control in these circumstances.

Perhaps there was a time in our species’ past, an egalitarian time, when we didn’t assert power over one another. Indeed, there are many theories about human evolution that claim this was once the case, and that evidence of this past can still be found in what remains of the world’s indigenous cultures. But in more recent centuries our species has been quite power hungry, with three-quarters of the global population living in bondage to powerful lords of one kind or another as recently as 1800. There are many who would insist that nothing has really changed over the past two centuries; that we’ve simply exchanged one kind of chains for another.

Maybe it’s true that the children in our care are destined for lives lived under the power of others, but, as Herman Melville’s Bartleby puts it, “I would prefer not to.” 

“One of the effects of power,” writes Rutger Bregman in his book Humankind, “. . . is that it makes you see others in a negative light. If you’re powerful you’re more likely to think most people are lazy and unreliable. That they need to be supervised and monitored, managed and regulated, censored and told what to do. And because power makes you feel superior to other people, you’ll believe all this monitoring should be entrusted to you.” This sounds very much to me the way many classrooms operate, with teachers serving as factory floor bosses. I would prefer not to.

My greatest wish for the children I teach is that they know, if even for a few short years, what it means to be free, what it means to not be monitored, managed, regulated, censored, or told what to do. I want them to step out into the world, confident and delighted with their ability to learn, think, and engage as an autonomous human, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. 

To do this, I must remain constantly vigilant because the culture in which I live wants me to exert power over children, even rewarding me for it. I often fail, but it’s something I must strive toward every day. When I find myself viewing any child in a negative light, when I feel the urge to manage or regulate, that’s when I must turn inward and do what I can to eradicate the urge to superiority. I usually find that I’m clinging to power rather than, as is my responsibility, giving it away, because that is the only way to fulfill my highest purpose as an educator, which is to empower.

That is what I prefer to do. And that, in the end, is the only way any of us will ever be free.

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