The Broad is Back!

April 20, 2010

It’s a Crying Shame

A week or so ago, I was discussing a piece of literature with one of my classes, and I learned something totally unexpected.  No one in the class could come up with a working definition of “shame”.  We eventually managed to cobble something together by working backward from “being ashamed of yourself,” but the fact that they couldn’t even define the word shocked me. But then it made a problem I’ve been puzzling over in my job perfectly clear.

I have written many many times about changes I’ve seen in students since I returned to the States.  Most of, no, I would say all of them, are for the worse.  Students think nothing of telling me they haven’t done the homework, of plagiarizing half of their paper from internet sources, of skipping classes with impunity, of strolling in 30 minutes late, with headphones blaring, then getting tetchy with me when I call them on such rude behavior.

I would have died a thousand deaths before I admitted to a professor I hadn’t done my homework.  Well, frankly, I would have come up with a pretty good lie before I’d admit that I hadn’t looked at the syllabus.  But as lazy a student as I was, and I was, I almost always did my class preparation.  I would have been too ashamed of myself had I not upheld my part of the classroom contract.  I might not have put it into those words back then, but I knew my responsibilities and for the most part, I fulfilled them.

Nowadays? My students feel no shame.  Now I’m definitely not saying that I want students to live in shame, or worse, to wallow in shame.  But the penny finally dropped for me.  My students feel no shame because they don’t even know what the word is.

I realize that this is probably a simplistic view.  You don’t have to know what a word for an emotion is in order to experience the emotion, but I still think there’s something valid to be taken from this lesson.  So many parents don’t want their children to experience negative emotions.  We shield children from feeling guilt, shame, anxiety.  We wrap them in emotional cotton in order to protect their self-esteem. 

Nothing wrong with a healthy self-esteem, but shouldn’t it come from knowing you did a job well? Or at least correctly?  Is a self-esteem truly healthy that hasn’t been tested a bit? Am I that hopelessly old-fashioned that I think that learning needs not just rewards, but occasional punishment, especially at the college level. And shame really isn’t that bad of an emotion. I thought I knew what it was, but just in case, I looked it  up.  According to my friends at, it means: “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety”. 

Shouldn’t we be conscious of the fact we’ve done something wrong?   Isn’t that how we learn not to do wrong? We want to avoid the painful emotion.  It brings to mind a passage from one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  In it, Elizabeth is talking with her father, Mr. Bennet.  Lydia has eloped with Wickham, and poor Mr. Bennet has realized his faults as a father and says to Elizabeth:

“Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Elizabeth.
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”

Even the famously indolent Mr. Bennet realizes the importance of feeling the sting for our own mistakes.  Some of us might beat ourselves up a bit too much, but for most of us the feeling passes quickly.  I have long seen, though, that for many of my students, there is never so much as a mere prick of their conscience. And I see that as a problem.

I truly want the best for my students. I want them to succeed in life and be happy and healthy.  And a little dose of shame to keep them on the path to success–being too ashamed to skip homework, to ignore the teacher’s words, to cut class, to be consistently tardy–isn’t that a good thing?

Now many of my students do apologize for not doing the work or for these kinds of negative behaviors, but almost every one of those students are either older or an immigrant, usually from Asia, where teachers are still held in esteem, or Africa, where teachers are esteemed and education is so precious. But for too many of them, academic wrongdoing isn’t even seen as a wrong doing. 

Eventually these students do get the punishment–they earn a D or an F for a class.  These grades lead to academic probation, to  getting cut from the more competitive degree programs the college offers, to repeating a course.  This adds time and money to their academic progress.  What a waste!  Wouldn’t it be better to have the tools you need to avoid these extreme scenarios? A little shame to keep you on the straight and narrow just makes more sense to me.

Just another little topic for me to worry about when teaching. Just another little lesson to add to the syllabus.  I’m supposed to be teaching college writing, and I am.  But like almost every other college professor I know, I’m also teaching life skills, which isn’t in my job description. And the fact that we are doing what parents and lower schools should have been doing, now that’s the crying shame.


1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for sharing your life lessons with me. From the moment I realized you cared about the cost of our textbooks, I knew I was in the right space. Today’s world has tipped our moral scale dramatically. Children used to learn from their parents, grandparents and all of their extended family. There was always some elder to take care of the children while the parents worked. Today’s world makes it economically advantageous for everyone in the household to work hard for a meager pittance to pay bills primarily for the continuity of existence. No one has this once revered “extra time” to spend cultivating moral values and most young people reflect this blasé self-centered moral subsistence. Certainly, this is not a valid excuse for the lack of respect paid our education systems and the teachers/professors/PhDs and life coaches who guide our children–our future, through most of their rational thinking phases, but it should make us understand that educators, policeman, fireman, hospital workers and other care givers deserve to be proficiently paid for their contribution to society, more so than Goldman Sachs, or other large banks and corporations who do nothing more than take from society by scheming their way to the top of the food chain and further contributing to this greed-with-no-shame society. It’s part of the trickle-down theory. Only in America kids.

    Comment by Emma — April 21, 2010 @ 9:55 am |Reply

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