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Did you just "should" on me?

 
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So, I was doing some teaching in Central Asia recently, and my best student was suspended for being present while his friends drew a football-pitch-sized schlong in the snow outside the school building.

I've always been very sensitive to language, and the use of the word 'should' is a particularly big node in the web of my understanding.

In trying to have my best student digest the disproportionate punishment the school had meted out to him, and to try to understand the conflict between his physical presence at the scene and his mindset (he told me he was trying to stop his friends, and I believe him), I had to negotiate the word 'should'.

Basically, I told him that the word 'should', to the best of my own understanding, is short-hand.  It's a conditional that means something like 'would be good if'.  However, for a lot of people who are rule-based and don't reflect on language for its own sake, the word 'should' carries what is known in philosophical jargon as 'deontological' force.  That is, they use it like a lasso to 'bind' you with what they assume to be shared and non-negotiable moral understanding and rules.

To unpack the complex nature of causation, especially if we want to make room for the complexities of the human psyche, and not reduce a human to a stimulus-response mechanism, I'd say it's necessary to look at any action from a descriptive standpoint, taking the deontological, or morally judgemental, aspect out of it for the time being.  I realise this is a Rubicon a lot of people won't cross, and while that's their prerogative, I don't find it helpful in dealing with sensitive and intelligent students.

Anyway, to cut a lengthening story short, instead of saying, "You should've done xyz," I asked him to think about 1)  What led him to be in that situation, 2)  What he now knew that he hadn't known at the time,  3)  What signs he could look out for in future to help him identify a similar situation as it unfolds, and 4)  What he could do differently in future to avoid a similarly undesirable outcome.

He also had to process the fact that being innocent in the sense of having a clear conscience isn't always enough when dealing with rules-based institutions, although that's beside the point.  

That said, as a teacher, I also use 'should' as short-hand, because the situations I have to deal with are just too fast-paced and complex not to.  Yes, this is a form of psycho-linguistic violence, but I need to earn money somehow, and the formation of what is still recognized as the individual in Western society is founded upon such pruning of mind and behaviour.  The trade-off is that I do my best to make sure I only use it in ways that will smooth students' way forward in life, by getting them to do things like remember to bring a pencil, stop drawing on walls, and focus on what they're doing.

I hope the above makes sense and is helpful.

- Jojo
 
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