Ree's Zen: On Education and Abortion
This past week, two dkos issues have come together for me. First, Teacherken's meditation on the ethics of teaching the constitution when our government is daily violating its precepts touched a nerve, for I, too, am a teacher--in a red state, just north of the buckle of the bible belt. Second, the appalling attempt from SD and other states to subjugate women by violating their privacy, their bodies, and their integrity is mind-bogling.
I teach English 300, the required class on the writing of research papers. A week ago, one student, a young, white man, really wanted to write his paper on abortion. He is, of course, anti-abortion, anti-choice. How could I allow him to write this paper, much less implicitly endorse his position with any sort of a passing grade? Yet how could I stop him?
Ethically, I hope.
First, I listened to this student. He feels strongly about his position. He did acknowledge that students have written about this subject for decades, and that I might not be thrilled with the idea of reading yet another paper on the same topic. So, I asked, how might you approach this topic from a different perspective? What insight could he, as a man, shed on this issue? We talked about preaching to the choir, about crafting a position that is respectful to your opposition, about finding a common ground. What was his purpose in writing (aside from the grade); who should care about his opinion?
He decided to write about abortion from the man's perspective: what responsibilities men have in sexual relationships, and how men might prevent abortions--in an way that respects women, and their very real concerns about health, economics, and the emotional aspects of an unplanned pregnancy.
I read his first draft yesterday. Not bad. He began by noting that many men--real men--do care about women, and that unplanned pregnancies have consequences for men, too. In his paper, he calls for better sex ed: although he emphasizes abstinence, he agrees that comprehensive sex ed and better access to contraception is essential to preventing unplanned pregnancy. In his review of contraceptive options, he recognizes that some methods are medically inappropriate for some women, and that any method can fail. Because women bear the physical risk of a pregnancy, men, he proposed, should pay for the contraception. Should a pregnancy occur, he believes men should pay for the pre-natal care, and be willing to raise and financially support the child. And that couples should discuss all of this before beginning a sexual relationship.
His paper is weakest when he argues how evil abortion i, (and it is a tragic, though sometimes necessary choice), but I think I convinced him that that section needs to be revised, condensed, or dropped. For example, he was using a statistic that claimed that 50% of women were accompanied to the abortion clinic by men, and thus implied that men were forcing women to get abortions. I pointed out that that statistic was meaningless without context: who provided the stat? Are these men friends, brothers, fathers, uncles? Were they there to force, or to support? He came to see that his data might not mean what he thought it meant.
He and I still don't agree. I'm still pro-choice; he's still pro-life. He's still working on the paper, and he needs a conclusion. But I'm optimistic that he will conclude that the choice must ultimately reside with the woman, and that men need to be more sensitive, more supportive on many levels. I'm trying to ask the right questions--gently leading questions to be sure; I know that if I push, if I preach, then his opening mind might shut down.
I took an even bolder step yesterday. I acknowledged that I was very pro-choice, and I told him that, if he felt in any way uncomfortable with me grading his essay, with my objectivity, we could find another teacher to grade the essay--or, he could even go straight to the department chair for a grade and I would understand.
He seemed surprised. He said he had heard of students suing their professors--but he thought I was being completely fair. (And yes, I know I sort of backed him into that.) I hope he's right. I am trying to focus on teaching the principles of effective argumentation, or logic and rhetoric (in its classic sense). I hope I am not forcing my opinions on to him. That would be indoctrination, not education, no matter how holy the motives. It's a hard balance to achieve, because I have more knowledge, more training, more skill in debate. And I am passionate in my beliefs. And of course, I am right!
Zen masters spend lifetimes trying to achieve a precise balance. I thought my time in Peace Corps was a zen-enhancing experience, but I am finding that my return to America is forcing me to pay more careful attention than ever before. Its a lesson we all need. It is easy to demonize your opponent, and there are times when we must insist on being heard and fight for our beliefs. But no matter how great the temptation, we must abide by our own principles--abandoning our own ethics, for convenience, would be an even greater loss that having those rights usurped by others, by force.