On tough love and poisonous pedagogy

Yesterday evening we watched “Whiplash” with N. If you haven’t watched it, here is a trailer. And here is my crappy synopsis, that will do for the purpose of this article: a high profile music school teacher tortures his students emotionally in order to push them to achieve the best they can and fully explore their potential. J.K. Simmons won an Oscar for his performance as the mean teacher and Miles Teller was pretty great too, as the student.

While there is absolutely nothing funny about the movie, both me and N. found ourselves laughing at many points and when I asked myself why that is, I realized it’s because we are so happy we are now free from such toxic environments and mad men. Both of us have won our master’s degrees with sweat and tears and had to deal with “prof. Fletcher” characters in a work environment too. Somehow, at the time the abuse was happening, we really believed it was because our “superiors” wanted us to thrive and strive for the best. They were, after all, people respected in their fields. Or at least they presented themselves as such (it different from one “Fletcher” to the other). We were conditioned to believe that a teacher’s “tough love” is what will propel us forward.

In my case, I have been warned by my father (happy father’s day dad!) that I was not seeing clearly what was happening to me and that I was wasting my time to please people who are never pleased but just inflate their egos. I was an excellent student and they just kept pushing for more of my time, efforts, soul to the point that I was not exactly mentally stable at the time I (along with my best friend) delivered an (excellent, they said) thesis project. It took me time to see them as they really were. Stockholm syndrome big time. I honestly thought they did care about me and bringing out my talents. And maybe they did, just like prof. Fletcher. Does that justify their behavior though? Does that justify pushing me (and any other student that seemed to be interested more than average in their studies) to the point of breaking? When it comes to me, I can confidently say no.

"not quite my tempo"

“not quite my tempo”

Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that achieving greatness in any sector takes great sacrifices. It takes hard work and passion and dedication. It takes missing parties and friend’s gatherings and family reunions at times. But it shouldn’t mean risking one’s health. We shouldn’t accept being bullied, being threatened, being treated as stupid and incompetent as a way to propel us forward. Some times -as in the movie- the emotional abuse is pretty obvious. People -students- just accept it as they accept the master as their superior. It’s part of his/her quirkiness and he/she is the best at what he/she does, therefore, the abusive attitude is part and parcel of the training. All evil starts here: how and why did we ever start thinking that one human being is more important than another?!

Things started to become more clear for me as I read Alice Miller’s book, “For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence”. That’s not a new book. It was written back in 1983 and the author herself has acknowledged she wanted to add/change some paragraphs to ensure the book is more in-line with her recent discoveries/ideas. As outdated as parts of it may be, I still find it an amazing and thoroughly enlightening read. Here is how it connects to the movie: the book explains how previous generations (our parents’ and their parents’ generation before them) were raised to obey orders and commands and not express any feelings of weakness or have their own opinions. She uses a few examples to illustrate this with the more striking being Hitler, his father and Hitler’s followers, a great part of his contemporaries. Having a German grandmother, that used what Miller calls “poisonous pedagogy” to raise my father, the book strikes a chord or two. She explains how easy it is to manipulate a whole generation that has been raised to obey and follow orders and is not able to think freely. It is not hard to think how people affected by such an upbringing would be more likely to be victims of Fletcher-style “enlightened” pedagogues.
If your parents are liberal, like mine are (more or less), you might think that all this doesn’t concern you. Let me tell you one more short story though, and then think again: Yesterday, after watching “Whiplash” N. and me where exchanging experiences about the “hobbies” we were forced to do as children and the teachers we have met and what our parents’ role was in those choices. I found myself joining ballet classes at four, as I had an older cousin who had done the same and apparently I asked to follow in her footsteps. I was the youngest in my group and doing pretty great till I started feeling like suffocating. But instead of telling my parents that I wanted to stop, I started telling a series of lies, like that I was sick, with the highlight being that our modern dance teacher had broken his leg, so that I didn’t have to go for two weeks. Of course, my mother found out, like it always is the case, and it was at that point that she realized I needed to stop. Now, the question is, why the lies? My parents were never strict and allowed us to voice our opinion and have a freedom of choice. So why did I not just say “I want to stop the stupid ballet?”. Most likely I said it once and the reply I got was something like “why don’t you try a bit longer?”. Fair enough. But it was enough to discourage me and stop me from bringing this up again and instead start lying about it. Yesterday the movie, along with the book, along with the discussion with N. unlocked the mystery. I didn’t confront my parents, not because I was afraid of THEIR reaction, but because that’s what I have observed them doing with their own parents. Raised with 100% “poisonous pedagogy”, to be good and docile and respectful and never opinionated, my parents hardly ever confronted their own parents. It is even more so when it comes to my father, thanks to his protestant upbringing, but things were not easier for my mother. In short, avoiding conflict with “superiors” is all I knew, even though my parents never presented themselves as such.

Now, I deeply respect my parents, for they have done GREAT work with themselves to break the circle and be wonderful parents for me and my brother. Of course, you can never totally erase the tape of your own upbringing, but the more conscious we are of it, the more likely we are to liberate the next generation and make a step or two towards raising truly free people. People who will be able to strive for the best without having to follow orders or undergo abuse. People that will be resilient and self motivated, not because of their hard childhood years, but because of the confidence that unconditional love and support provides.

P.S.: I feel the need to close this piece with the clarification that when I talk about freedom in child rearing, I am not talking about permissive parenting. As I mentioned, every human being is of equal value with any other. Complete sacrifice on the parents’ part is harmful not just for the parent, but for the child as well. There are numerous articles and studies out there that explain this in detail, but to put it briefly, if we respect and support our children during the forming early years, they will naturally learn to respect and support us and any other human being growing up and expect the same respect and support from themselves. This, to me, sounds like a good start for a more peaceful next generation.

4 responses to “On tough love and poisonous pedagogy

  1. I know exactly what you mean, I did not see “Whiplash” but I studied in an Eastern European Film Academy with a history of grandeur, where the pedagogues’ main approach was “if you survive what we put you through, you got a shot in the film world”. Out of the twelve other fellow students in my year, two ended up in mental institutions, one had double kidney failure, five never made it to the second year, and one of our professors died by jumping out of a window. Add this to an already difficult, abusive childhood and you can imagine how determined I am to do everything in my power to NOT do this to my son, and prepare him to recognize such behaviors outside of the home as soon as possible. This is such a crucial message to spread wide and clear, so glad you wrote about it with your wonderful words!

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