Bad Object Rising: How We Learn to Hate Our Educated Selves

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a great set of educators in a daylong seminar.  One of the things I do with teachers when I present is have them play Minecraft.  In this case I started off by giving a general presentation that ended with a story of auto-didactism in an Ethiopian village, where 20 children who had never seen the printed word were given tablets and taught themselves to read.  I did this in part to frame the pedagogy for what came next:  I had them turn on Minecraft and spend 30 minutes exploring the game without any instruction other than getting them networked.

The responses were as varied as the instructors, but one response fascinated me in particular.  Midway into the 30 minutes, one teacher stopped playing the game and started checking her email.  Later, when we returned to our group to have a discussion about the thoughts and feelings that came up around game play, this same teacher spoke up.  We were discussing the idea of playfulness in learning when she said , “you know, I hear a lot about games and learning, and making learning fun; but sometimes learning isn’t fun and you have to do it anyway.  Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the work.”

“I’m not saying that I disagree with you entirely,”  I said.  “But then how do we account for your giving up on Minecraft and starting to check your email?”

She looked a little surprised, and after a moment’s reflection said, “fair enough.”

I use this example because these are educators who are extremely dedicated to teaching their students, and very academically educated themselves.  Academia has this way, though, of seeping into your mind and convincing you that academics and education are one and the same.  They’re not.

I worked in the field of Special Education for more than a decade from the inside of it, and one of the things I came to believe is that there are no unteachable students.  That is the good news and the bad news.  Bad news because if a student was truly unteachable, they wouldn’t learn from us that they are dumb or bad if they don’t demonstrate the academic achievement we expect.  I remember the youth I worked with calling each other “SPED monkeys” as an insult; clearly they learned that from somewhere and someone.  They had learned to hate themselves as a bad object, in object relations terms, or to project that badness onto other students.  They learned this from the adults around them, from the microaggressions of hatred they experienced every day:  By hate I’ll go with Merriam as close enough, “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.”

We tend to mistakenly equate hatred with rage and physical violence, but I suggest that this is because we want to set hatred itself up as hated by and other from ourselves; surely we never behave that way.  But hatred is not always garbed in extremis.  Hatred appears every day to students who don’t fit the academic mold.  Hatred yells “speak English!” to the 6 year olds getting off the bus chatting in Spanish.  Hatred shakes its head barely (but nevertheless) perceptibly before moving on to the next student when the first has fallen silent in their struggle.  Hatred identifies the problem student in the class and bears down on her, saying proudly, “I don’t coddle my students.”  And Hatred shrugs his shoulders when the student has been absent for 3 weeks, and waits for them to be dropped from the rolls.

I’m not sure how I came to see this, because I was one of the privileged academically.  I got straight A’s, achieved academic awards and scholarships that lifted me into an upperclass world and peer group.  I wrote papers seemingly without effort, read for pleasure, and was excited to get 3 more years of graduate school.  And I have had the opportunity to become an educator and an academic myself, having taught college and graduate students.  I could have stayed quiet and siloed in my area of expertise, but work with differently-abled learners taught me something different.  It taught me that people learn to dislike education, shortly after academia learns to dislike them.

Perhaps one of the best literary portrayals of  adult hatred of divergent thinkers comes from the movie Matilda:

“Listen, you little wise acre. I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nowadays I teach in a much different way than I did early on, before I flipped my classrooms and facilitated guided learning experiences rather than encourage people to memorize me and ideas that I had memorized from others.  And I struggle with this new approach, because I enjoy it so much I feel guilty.  You see, I have internalized the bad object too.  Even with my good grades I internalized it.  And any time I start to depart from the traditional mold of the educated self, I experience a moment of blindness, then a stony silence that seems to say, “you’re being lazy, you should make them a powerpoint and prepare a lecture.”  Yet, if my evaluations on the whole and student and colleague testimonies have truth to them, I am a “good” educator.  So let’s say I am a “good” educator, and if I as a good educator struggle with this, we shouldn’t assume that people that struggle with these issues are “bad” educators.

In fact, when it comes to emerging technologies like social media and video games, educators often try to avoid them, if not because they are fun and suspect, then because educators risk experiencing themselves as the bad object: Who wants to experience themselves as hopelessly dumb, clumsy or lazy when they can experience themselves as the bountiful and perfectly cited fount of all wisdom?  Truth is, both are distorted images of the educated self.

Don’t forget that educators themselves experience tons of societal hatred.  For them it often comes in the guise of curriculum requirements or linking their performance to outcomes on standardized testing.  Hatred comes in the low salaries and the perception that people doing intellectual or emotional labor aren’t really working.  All of this helps educators to internalize a bad object which feels shaming and awful; is it any wonder that we sometimes unconsciously try to get that bad object away from ourselves and locate it in the student?

The good news as I said before is that we are all teachable.  We can learn to make conscious and make sense of the internalized bad object representations.  We can see that thinking of people in terms of smart or dumb is a form of splitting.

And yes, there’s a lot we can do about it.

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Innovation is Dangerous & Gaming Causes Asperger’s

At its heart, diagnosis is about exerting control.  Clinicians want to get some sense of control in understanding a problem.  We link diagnosis to prognosis to control our expectations of how likely and how much we will see a change in the patient’s condition.  Insurance companies want to get a handle on how much to spend on who.  Schools want to control access to resources and organize their student body.  And with the current healthcare situation, the government is sure to use diagnosis as a major part of the criteria in determining who gets what kind of care.

Therapists and Educators do not like to think of ourselves as controlling people.  But we often inadvertently attempt to exert control over our patients and entire segments of the population, by defining something as a problem and then locating it squarely in the individual we are “helping.”

This week has been one of those weeks where I have heard from several different colleagues about workshops they are attending where the presenters are linking Asperger’s with Gaming Addiction:  Not in the sense of “Many people on the Autism Spectrum find success and motivation through the use of video games,” but rather in the sense of “excessive gaming is prevalent in the autistic spectrum community.”

This has always frustrated me, for several reasons, and I decided its time to elaborate on them again:

1. Correlation does not imply Causation.  Although this is basic statistics 101 stuff, therapists and educators continue to make this mistake over and over.  Lots of people with Asperger’s play video games, this is true.  This should not surprise us, because lots of people play video games!  97% of all adolescent boys and 94% of adolescent girls, according to the Pew Research Center.  But we love to make connections, and we love the idea that we are “in the know.”  I can’t tell you how many times when I worked in education and clinics I heard talk of people were “suspected” of having Asperger’s because they liked computers and did not make eye contact.  Really.  If a kiddo didn’t look at the teacher, and liked to spend time on the computer, a suggested diagnosis of Autism couldn’t be far behind.  We like to see patterns in life, even oversimplified ones.

2. Causation often DOES imply bias.  Have you ever stopped to wonder what causes “neurotypical” behavior?  Or what causes heterosexuality for that matter.  Probably not.  We usually try to look for the causation of things we are busily pathologizing in people.  We want everyone to fit within the realm of what the unspoken majority has determined as normal.  Our education system is still prone to be designed like a little factory.  We want to have our desks in rows, our seats assigned, and our tests standardized.  So if your sensory input is a little different, or your neurology atypical, you get “helped.”  Your behavior is labeled as inappropriate if it diverges, and you are taught that you do not have and need to learn social skills.

Educators, parents, therapists and partners of folks on the Austism Spectrum, please repeat this mantra 3 times:

It is not good social skills to tell someone they do not have good social skills.

By the same token, technology, and video games, are not bad or abnormal either.  Don’t you see that it is this consensual attitude that there is something “off” about kids with differences or gamers or geeks that silently telegraphs to school bullies that certain kids are targets?  Yet, when an adolescent has no friends and is bullied it is often considered understandable because they have “poor social skills and spend too much time on the computer.”  Of course, many of the same kids are successfully socializing online through these games, and are active members of guilds where the stuff they hear daily in school is not tolerated on guild chat.

Let’s do a little experiment:  How about I forbid you to go to your book discussion group, poker night, or psychoanalytic institute.  Instead, you need to spend all of your time with the people at work who annoy you, gossip about you and make your life miserable.  Sorry, but it is for your own good.  You need to learn to get along with them, because they are a part of your real life.  You can’t hide in rooms with other weirdos who like talking about things that never happened or happened a long time ago; or hide in rooms with other people that like to spend hours holding little colored pieces of cardboard, sort them, and exchange them with each other for money; or hide in rooms where people interpret dreams and talk about “the family romance.”

I’m sure you get my point.  We have forgotten how little personal power human beings have before they turn 18.  So even if playing video games was a sign of Asperger’s, we need to reconsider our idea that there is something “wrong” with neuro-atypical behaviors.  There isn’t.

A lot of the work I have done with adults on the spectrum has been to help them debrief the trauma of the first 20 years of their lives.  I’ve had several conversations where we’ve realized that they are afraid to ask me or anyone questions about how to do things, because they worried that asking the question was inappropriate or showed poor social skills.  Is that really what you want our children to learn in school and in treatment?  That it is not ok to ask questions?  What a recipe for a life of loneliness and fear!

If you aren’t convinced, please check out this list of famous people with ASD.  They include Actors (Daryl Hannah,) bankers, composers, rock stars, a royal prince and the creator of Pokemon.  Not really surprising when you think about innovation.

3.  Innovation is Dangerous.  Innovation, like art, requires you to want things to be different than the way they are.  Those are the kids that don’t like to do math “that way,” or are seen as weird.  These are the “oversensitive” ones.  These are the ones who spend a lot of time in fantasy, imagining a world that is different.  These are the people I want to have over for hot chocolate and talk to, frankly.

But in our world, innovation is dangerous.  There are unspoken social contracts that support normalcy and bureaucracy (have you been following Congress lately?)  And there are hundreds of our colleagues who are “experts” in trying to get us all marching in lockstep, even if that means killing a different drummer.  When people try to innovate, they are mocked, fired from their jobs, beaten up, put down and ignored.  It takes a great deal of courage to innovate.  The status quo is not neutral, it actively tries to grind those who are different down.

People who are fans of technology, nowadays that means internet and computing, have always been suspect, and treated as different or out of touch with reality.  They spend “too much time on the computer,” we think, until they discover the next cool thing, or crack a code that will help fight HIV.  Only after society sees the value of what they did do they get any slack.

Stop counting the hours your kid is playing video games and start asking them what they are playing and what they like about it.  Stop focusing exclusively on the “poor social skills” of the vulnerable kids and start paying attention to bullies, whether they be playground bullies or experts.  Stop worrying about what causes autism and start worrying about how to make the world a better place for people with it.

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