Manhandling in Math Class

Almost the whole country has seen the video of a policeman manhandling a student in a math class in South Carolina. Though details are sketchy, it appears that a girl was looking at her cell phone during the class; the teacher asked her to give it up; the girl refused; the teacher asked her to go to the Principal’s office; the girl refused; an administrator was called; the girl refused to cooperate; a police officer was called; the girl still refused to cooperate; so the police officer forcibly removed her from class, using what everyone seems to agree was excessive force, even though she punched him as he was removing her. Subsequently, he has been fired. We don’t know what discipline the student will face.

I have been privileged to be a Professor of Pathology at UCSD School of Medicine for about 40 years, the last few as Professor Emeritus, meaning I am retired. I still teach in a few classes. One of the critical differences between my students and students in most high schools is that my students want to be in my school and many high school students are there only because they have to be. A lot of them don’t have any interest in many, if not most of the subjects they are being taught. Consequently, they are often bored and tempted to look at their cell phones. Before the era of cell phones, they slouched, slept, or passed notes back and forth to each other.

The “disruptive” student in the math class was probably bored. She probably saw no relevance to her life of the subject being taught and is probably headed for the deplorable state of innumeracy in which a lot of the American population is mired. She also probably didn’t like her teacher, perhaps for no other reason than the subject she taught, but perhaps also because the teacher could not make the subject exciting or even relevant. The student probably didn’t like the Principal, because that person just represented an authority figure placed over her by a rather unfriendly society. And she certainly did not like the cop whom she probably feared because of all the things she has heard on the news, at home, and throughout society about how white cops, especially in the South, treat black people. The result: sullen, belligerent paralysis.

My experience teaching in Medical School, undergraduate Biology classes, and Graduate School may provide some insight. As I noted, all my students wanted to be in my classes. They had to apply to get into our programs and we were able to select from the very best applicants. I was on the Medical School Admissions Committee for over 20 years and was chairman for 4 of those. Our entering students were the best of the best. Still, I have seen many, many examples over the years of students checking emails during lectures or checking out various irrelevant websites during lectures. My best view of such activity occurred when I would arrive about 10 minutes early for my lecture and sit in the back of the class where I could easily see laptop screens. Inattentive student behavior was very common and these students knew that they needed to know the material being taught in order to be successful in their chosen professions. One of my colleagues even banned the use of laptops to take notes during all of his classes, including those in which I was a guest lecturer. The students didn’t suffer at all since all lecturers provided all the slides they showed and detailed notes on the course website. In fact, we provided so much material that some students hardly ever came to class because they just studied from the course website. A lot, not all, of these students did pretty well, which should give us teachers a lot to think about. How much do we enhance the student’s experience?

I have also taught in a cancer biology course in Norway for the last ten years. This is a class to teach the basics of cancer biology to young graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are interested in starting careers in cancer research. In Norway the students are more respectful of their teachers and look at irrelevant websites on their laptops far less. What about their society makes them more serious and respectful?

All this naturally raises the question of the role of the teacher in making a class interesting. The lack of student attention in American classes is common whether students are required by law to attend or whether they choose to attend. At least part, not all, of this is the teacher’s fault. Some, not all, students are lazy, stupid, and belligerent. They unfortunately will likely remain that way and in American society will often end up in jail, the only place in our society for which they are suited. In universities the frequency of lazy, stupid, and belligerent students is much lower than in high schools, but it is not absent. In graduate schools the number of lazy and stupid students is almost zero but belligerence persists in a few. Nonetheless, in all these schools lack of attention is a common problem.

What can be done? First, our society needs to give all of our children a feeling that adult life holds desirable promise for them and that such promise is worth working for. This is a very complex problem. Only some of our growing youngsters have that feeling. We have a lot of work to do at home and in society broadly. And, part of the solution is well-crafted curriculum and better teachers. We have to value our teachers more, select better applicants to schools of education, teach them how to teach better, and pay them more from our tax base. Finland does this and their students do far better on literacy and math tests than ours do in each age group tested. Providing charter schools and private schools for those kids whose parents can afford them will not fix public schools in our society. They don’t need competition; they need resources, both human and financial. To turn our backs on public schools risks an increasing dumbing-down of our society just when increasing technology and world-wide trade is making our lives ever more complex. The aphorism, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” is applicable to both individuals and society.

Teaching is an art. Not everyone has a talent for it, even in graduate schools. It was my observation that a lot of the medical students who were not paying attention in class were not paying attention in classes taught by professors who did not particularly want to be there but who had to “teach” because research, clinical service, and teaching were all evaluated when they were being considered for promotion. The students could sense their lack of interest and said so on their course evaluations. But, teaching skills can be improved–by teaching. I do despair though for the teachers who are put in poorly funded schools with students who, at an early age, see no future for themselves. Teachers in that situation often are reduced to merely keeping order, if they can.

We are never going to eliminate bored, sullen, or belligerent students from our schools. But, we can make the system better. The society, as a whole, has to care about education. Parents must take responsibility for teaching their children the value of education as well as basic good manners and respect for authority, even though some authorities don’t deserve it. The sullen child who was manhandled in the video probably will not learn anything useful from the experience, but she would have been a hell of a lot better off not to turn on her cell phone during class and to give it to the teacher when asked. And, punching a policeman in the face is just stupid.

This leads to the police officer involved in this tragedy. Some, not all police officers are bullies with anger management issues. Some are racists, although there is no specific evidence that this was a contributing problem in this particular case. Police departments need to have better screens in place in their admissions policies to sort out these potential problems before they are ever hired. They have had ample warning that this is a nationwide problem. After hiring, new and old officers need continued training about all the different types of people we have in our society and how to KEEP THE PEACE, even under duress, as well as enforce the law. The police have a dangerous job. Behavior such as we have seen in the math class video and numerous other examples of seemingly excessive force being used, often against people of color, work to make the job of the police even more dangerous. That should be self-evident.

Education increases understanding. This can be said of both math and social behavior. Let’s value it more and actually do it.