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Dignity in Education (Part 1)

This is the ninth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


I’m afraid of dying before I prove that I’m somebody.
–Tyondra Newton, a teenager raised in foster homes

One of the clearest indications that we are–at least in some areas–already moving toward the dignitarian ideal is the remarkable evolution of child-rearing practices that has occurred since the 1960s. Well into the twentieth century, “Because I say so” was considered reason enough for forcing a child to submit to almost anything. But over the last several generations we have moved from children being “seen but not heard” toward an increasing parity between the young and their elders–not in knowledge or experience, of course, but in their status as persons.

Kids Are People, Too

“Kids are people, too” is the slogan guiding this transformation. The generation that came of age in the 1960s–known to the world as the baby boomers–will someday be recognized not merely for its size and appetites, but for adopting a new model for bringing up children. It will be known as the first generation to grant youngsters equal dignity with adults, and in so doing initiate what is arguably one of the most significant emancipations in human history.

Of course, all liberation movements produce a backlash. The Russians lamented the unruliness of serfs who were granted their freedom, and former slaveholders in the American South denounced “uppity Negroes.” A landmark book titled Backlash portrays attempts to roll back gains made by the women’s movement, and more recently, voters in one American state after another have rejected gay marriage. In light of this, it’s no surprise that many complain that the revolution in child rearing has produced a generation of brats.

But listening to the young and taking their views into consideration is not the same as indulging them or abdicating parental responsibility for their well-being. It seems quite possible that we are witnessing a historical shift that, within decades, will make it unthinkable to abuse or dominate people just because they are not yet full-grown. The result will be a generation of young adults that assumes dignity as a birthright and passes it on to their children.

One example of the new attitude toward youth is that public authorities have begun to intervene in family life if they perceive a child to be in danger. Abuses that used to be shielded from public scrutiny with a defiant “Mind your own business” are now being exposed and eliminated.

In the service of protecting children, parental sovereignty has been circumscribed.

It’s plausible that the next step toward affording children equal recognition as individuals will be to find a way to factor their interests into electoral politics. Democracy’s mantra of one person, one vote is well overdue for an adaptation that gives weight to issues that matter to the young. Many of the arguments for denying them a voice in political matters–which obviously affect them profoundly–sound very much like the old paternalistic rationalizations for denying women and ethnic minorities equal rights. Respecting children’s dignity in politics is an important part of teaching them to respect the dignity of others when they reach adulthood.

Obviously, when it comes to those below a certain age, the notion of them personally casting a vote is absurd. A different mechanism will have to be designed. But once the idea is embraced philosophically, building an electoral model that comprehensively implements “one person, one vote” will not be an insuperable task.

As life spans increase and the population grays, failure to make the franchise more age-inclusive will result in national ossification. Likely effects of granting the young a role in electoral politics will be an increase in support for education and for natal care. In Germany, where there are now more people over fifty than under twenty, it is argued that giving weight to the interests of the young is necessary to encourage parenthood and arrest the slide into gerontocracy. Otherwise, an aging population is likely to vote itself a greater share of society’s limited resources at the expense of the disenfranchised young. This will harm a country’s capacity to innovate and create. It’s a recipe for national decline.

Learning with Dignity

There’s a reason why educational reforms, whether progressive or conservative, invariably leave many of the young withholding their hearts and minds from study. What’s sapping their will to learn is the unacknowledged rankism that pervades educational institutions from kindergarten through graduate school and beyond. In a rankist learning environment, the need to protect our dignity drains attention away from acquiring knowledge and skills. For many, chronic malrecognition has undermined self-confidence by the age of six and taken an irreversible toll by the age of twelve. As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology: “With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure, no humiliation.”

Students in rankist schools are like ethnic minorities in racist schools: they will sacrifice learning if they feel they must do so in defense of their pride. For blacks this can mean resisting what they see as the “white way.” For students in general it often means refusing to do things the “right way,” as held up to them by teachers and parents.

Tragically, avoiding humiliation trumps personal growth. The lifelong consequences of rejecting the system often seem preferable to another day of submitting to disgrace in the classroom. By minimizing the potential for denigration, we can spare children from this fateful dilemma. As we become more attuned to signs of malrecognition and take steps to address them, we can expect significant improvements in the capacity of students to learn.

The actor Henry Winkler, an advocate for people with learning disabilities, claims that two-thirds of the inmates in our jails and prisons have this problem. It’s plausible that the chronic indignity to which their disabilities exposed them as youths is a factor in their high rate of incarceration. Why? Because as already discussed, the cumulative effect of indignity is indignation, and if the kettle blows, the result can be jail time.

An example of gratuitous humiliation and the lingering pain it can cause is provided by the thirty-five-year-old managing editor of an American publishing firm.

My father was a marine biologist with the United Nations. One of his first postings was to Qatar. The only English middle school in the country was private, and the sight of dark-skinned South Asians like my father and me was new to the Europeans and Arabs there.

Applicants for admission were interviewed by the school principal, Ms. Beanland. She was the epitome of the colonial headmistress, possessed of that crisp English elocution that lets you know immediately that she sees you as beneath her. She asked me to read aloud.

As the son of a highly educated South Asian, I spoke English as well as the other seven-year-olds did, but as a native Tamil speaker educated in Sinhalese schools, I lacked the British accent Ms. Beanland required.

Three sentences into the reading she held up her hand: “Stop! I cannot understand you!” She then called in a girl and asked her to read the same paragraph. Annabelle had a beautiful British accent that brought a smile to Ms. Beanland’s face. She clapped as her prize pupil finished and then, in Annabelle’s presence, informed my father that admitting me would pose a risk to the education of the other children.

My shame and anger were compounded by the almost grotesque combination of humiliation, rage, and resentment I saw on my father’s face. But since Ms. Beanland was the principal of the only English school in the country, he dared not object. I have never felt as low and inconsequential as I did that day.

The indignity suffered by my father filled me with resolve to fight back. For six months I worked with a tutor to bring my accent “up to par.” Then we returned and when the same test was administered, I passed. I made a point that year of getting higher grades than Annabelle. My father and I never spoke of the incident, but I know it gnawed at his soul, as it does at mine.

Imagine how this story would have turned out if the boy had not had an educated parent possessed of resources with which to oppose the principal’s rankism. Most students are undefended against such denigration.

It’s small wonder that many become discouraged and lose confidence in themselves.

Aptitude tests can be a tool for helping guide the young toward a vocation suited to their interests and abilities. But that tool is misused if, instead of serving a constructive, diagnostic purpose, tests are employed to stigmatize those who do poorly and exalt those who do well. Guidance counselors must be careful not to use educational ranking as in the past–to effect and maintain a division between “winners” and “losers” and reconcile the latter to their station via humiliation and invalidation.

When that happens, test scores become self-fulfilling prophecies and eventually an unbridgeable gap is created between students destined for success and those marked for failure. If the young are not actively discouraged, and instead allowed to pursue their interests as far as they’re internally impelled to, they will often be able to realize their goals in one form or another. The world has a way of giving more accurate and useable feedback than professionals guided by scores on one-time tests given under what are often artificial and adverse conditions.

Physical education classes have long been a scene of embarrassment and humiliation, especially for those who are not natural athletes. The executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Charlene Burgeson, maintains that memories of gym class discourage many adults from incorporating exercise into their lives.

Although she believes that “for the most part we have eliminated the humiliation factors” from physical education classes, she warns that “we cannot practice in a way that leads to embarrassment for students. It’s counterproductive.”

What’s true in gym class is equally true in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

There’s a good reason why Billie won’t learn: Protecting one’s dignity comes before learning. However, if we create a dignitarian environment in which it’s safe to do so, students will not hesitate to put their bodies and their minds fully to the test.

As already emphasized, although rank is not inherently rankist, it often becomes so in practice. Whatever the goal of the enterprise–to teach, to build, to heal, to protect–the burden of proof should be on those with rank to show that it’s necessary to accomplish the mission at hand. To safeguard against rank’s tendency to overreach and rank-holders to self-aggrandize, we must seek out and adopt the least hierarchical model compatible with delivering the best product or service.

Antibullying Projects

Bullying is increasingly recognized as pervasive and destructive. In recent years, it’s begun to be addressed where many first encounter it: in the schools. Some 160,000 students in California miss school every day out of fear of attack or intimidation by other students. Twenty-seven percent of California students are harassed because they are not “masculine enough” or “feminine enough.” Following are descriptions of four projects designed to put bullying in the spotlight and then eliminate it.

Somebodies and Nobodies in a Public School

In the fall of 2004 Stephanie Heuer, an instructor in a public school in San Jose, California, came up with a novel approach to the problem of bullying. She wrote two short phrases on the chalkboard:

I feel like a nobody when. . . .

I feel like a somebody when. . . .

She asked her pupils, grades 2 to 5, to complete these phrases–only if they chose to and without giving their names–and then made a book of their responses. She got 100 percent participation. Here’s a sampling of what the children wrote:

I feel like a nobody when:

  • Somebody calls me stupid.
  • My mom and dad are yelling at me.
  • People don’t play with me.
  • My father doesn’t listen to me.
  • My parents fight.
  • I am not invited to a party.
  • My mom doesn’t say goodnight. It makes me feel invisible.

I feel like a somebody when:

  • People play with me.
  • People listen to me.
  • I help someone.
  • I do something hard.
  • I am loved by my mom.
  • I get all my homework right.
  • I do well on my vaulting. (I want to give someone a big hug.)
  • Everyone in my family does something together.
  • I feed my dog and cats.

A few other responses:

  • I felt like a somebody when I got a new pair of ballet shoes that were white. I felt pretty the first time I danced. I felt like a pretty somebody.
  • I feel like nobody most of the time. My dad isn’t here anymore. I feel like somebody when he comes back to visit. We get to play ball.
  • I feel like nobody when I am me; I feel like somebody when I am you.

Timeless and universal, these statements speak for children everywhere, and for many adults as well. As people realize they are hurt in the same ways and made happy by the same things, they begin to treat others differently. Transforming institutional procedures into dignitarian ones is what’s ultimately required to safeguard dignity, but knowing how others feel and recognizing ourselves in them comes first.

Following are some other pupil responses and Stephanie Heuer’s report on how these comments changed the way she conducts her classes:

“I feel like a somebody when my parents congratulate me.”

Change: If students apply themselves–for example, if they have achieved a “personal best”–Heuer now acknowledges the effort even if it’s not among the best in the class.

“I feel like a somebody when the teacher calls on me when I raise my hand in class.”

Change: Kids just about burst when they know the answer and are not called on. She now has everyone who knows the answer shout it out at once. The ones who don’t are not singled out, and those who do experience the thrill of participating. Many kids have come up and told her how much more fun this is.

“I feel like a nobody when I get left out of a game.”

Change: She has made the recess staff aware of this and all try harder to see when it is happening. Once they began looking they discovered that a core group of about ten kids were being consistently ignored at recess.

“I feel like a nobody when math problems are too hard.”

Change: Now when she gives a complex assignment, Heuer first shows it to the group as a whole and then devotes some one-on-one time to students for whom it is difficult. Also, students can anonymously write a question on an index card and drop it into a jar, and she’ll review it the next day in class.

“I feel like a nobody when others whisper and laugh about something I did.”

Change: If she sees or hears of this, she takes the whispering kids aside and has a chat with them. Before she understood how hurtful this was, she just ignored it.

“I feel like a nobody when I have to read out loud in front of class.”

Change: Heuer notes that “this was a big one for me” because it was written by one of her own daughters. Now she tries to be very aware of who she calls on in class and if she anticipates any problems, she’ll let students know the paragraph ahead of time to allow for practice. Then she asks them to tell her when they’re ready to be called on. This has been 100 percent effective. Kids prepare without other children knowing their little secret and everyone does better.

“I feel like a nobody when other kids make fun of my clothes.”

Change: The PTA got parents to donate clothes that their children had outgrown but were still in good condition. If administrators see a child with worn-out or inappropriate clothes, they offer them a chance to pick out “new” ones.

“I feel like a nobody because my nana went to heaven last year. I miss her. She always read me stories.”

Change: Teachers are alerted by staff when a death occurs in a family. Heuer talks with her students privately about their dad or grandma and what they liked about them, and so on. They are free to write something about the person who died instead of their usual assignment.

From her students’ responses, Heuer created an illustrated book for use in schools. For more information, visit her web site at

The No Name-Calling Week Coalition

The No Name-Calling Week Coalition promotes one simple idea: Words hurt. Words have the power to make students feel unsafe to the point that they are no longer able to perform well in classes or conduct normal lives.

The coalition aims to create safer schools by making bullying, denigration, and name-calling unacceptable. It does this through public education campaigns that motivate youth to change their behavior and mobilize students and educators to take action around the problem of verbal harassment. The Web site is

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]

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Robert W Fuller

Robert W Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of "Somebodies & Nobodies", the book that identified the malady of rankism and "All Rise", which describes a dignitarian society committed to overcoming it. His most recent books are "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship" and "The Rowan Tree: A Novel".

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