Teaching Grounded in Compassion

For almost five months now, I have been mourning the premature demise of my road cycling life, brought about by the negligence of a motorist.

Cycling has been a tremendous part of my recreation and social life for over three decades; for more than the last decade, in fact, I have been cycling about 8,000-10,000+ miles per year.

The cycling community is a wonderful and diverse group of people, but we are often bonded by a not-so subtle type-A predisposition to obsessive and extreme physical efforts, especially among those who compete and those drawn to endurance sport.

Cyclists in our group range from their teens and 20s through many in our 50s and 60s, and while in organized groups, we often ride at high speeds and intensive intervals as well as extremely long days in the saddle, notably an annual 220-240+-mile ride over about 11-12 hours of cycling in a 14-15-hour days.

To understand cycling culture, you should peruse The Rules, part brutal Truth about cycling and cyclists, and part parody of that Truth.

The essence of cycling culture is Rule #5: Harden The Fuck Up, which we soften to “HTFU” for public consumption.

When new people have joined our cycling group, especially when they ask to be a part of the weekly zone rides that include attack sections in which stronger riders leave slower ones behind (before we regroup), we offer something similar to The Rules’ mixture of Truth and satire: “When you feel like you are getting dropped,” we say with straight faces, “pedal faster.”

This is mostly bluster, however, since most of the elite and veteran riders are more than eager to mentor new and developing cyclists. “Mostly bluster” is key here because in its essence cycling is a very demanding and harsh sport at elite levels of competition and endurance events.

You simply cannot be an cyclist and avoid the need to have a high pain threshold while also maintaining a strict level of focus on yourself and the pack along with prioritizing many simultaneous cycling-specific skills (holding your line, braking, shifting gears, communicating with other cyclists).

Over the more than three decades of my life as a road cyclist, I aspired to and then was a vocal embodiment of HTFU. Suffering, I discovered, was the one athletic skill I was fairly good at doing in my lifelong quest to be a good athlete.

While I find the Social Darwinism and HTFU-culture of cycling endearing, something I genuinely believe has enhanced me as a person, I am routinely mortified that this same dynamic often drives how most adults interact with children and how many teachers deal with students.

I must fully and clearly reject that contemporary child rearing and formal education must function in a way that tempers children and students for surviving in a harsh and calloused world.

To be blunt, the world, life, simply doesn’t have to be that way.

Since I often interact with teachers and professors working on their teaching and assessment practices, I witness far too much anger, far too many attitudes about “teaching students a lesson” in the most pejorative way that can be expressed—punishment as preparation for a life of punishment.

As an existentialist, I have always suffered under the complete mainstream misunderstanding of what I do believe; yes, life itself is hell, and, yes, hell is other people, and, yes, our passions are our sufferings.

Existential philosophy, however, is about acknowledging these facts of the human condition as a salve, not as a fatalistic excuse to perpetuate human pain and suffering. Think about the Bergens in Trolls:

So I have taken a long route here to make a plea that teaching (and child rearing) must always be grounded in compassion—that we must resist the urge to temper children for the cold cruel world.

As adults, we can and should be working to lessen and then eradicate the coldness and cruelty of the world; concurrently, we can and should be nurturing children, offering them the sort of ideal modeling of how the world can be in our teaching and parenting.

The tension between the Trolls and the Bergens (and within the Trolls, in fact) is the possibility of the good life against the fatalism of life without happiness. This is a child’s film with many of the Trolls embodiments of the most wonderful qualities associated with childhood (poo-pooed as “childish” by those embittered with the Bergen angst).

Teaching (and parenting) is about the possibility of the good life, an enduring faith in the light in the human spirit that is often brilliant in children and young people if we are willing to see and celebrate it instead of being the sacrificial messenger of doom.

If we are not teaching always grounded by compassion, we should not be teaching.

Let me emphasize here that this is not about not challenging students (we must challenge), about not being demanding (we must be demanding).

But, as LaBrant admonished, “we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards [or high expectations], merely pass along adult weariness.”

The HTFU approach to teaching is exposed by its commitment to rigor, a word rooted to rigor mortis (that which is stiffened by death).

I must admit that the cupcakes-and-rainbows approach to life by the Trolls is simply not my thing; this is not about breaking into song and dance, decorating the world in glitter, or being idealistic to the point of being naive.

This about teaching grounded in compassion and patience, teaching committed to the possibility of a good life.

Life, I regret, is far too often cruel and horrible for far too many people, disproportionately children and young people. I have no interest in ignoring that fact, or lying to children about the inequity of privilege and poverty.

But acknowledging the harshness and inequity of the human condition must not be the boulder that traps us in fatalism about now, preventing us from teaching committed to the possibility of the good life, for everyone.


One thought on “Teaching Grounded in Compassion”

  1. “I must fully and clearly reject that contemporary child rearing and formal education must function in a way that tempers children and students for surviving in a harsh and calloused world.” Thanks! Oh my God, we have sure needed someone to say this!

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