• Brent Kaneft

The Decaffeinated Life Offered to Our Students


At the beginning of each year, I have my students read Slavoj Zizek's classic, "Passion in the Era of Decaffeinated Belief." Here is a passage that always sparks great conversation:

And, perhaps, the prohibition to embrace a belief with a full passion explains why, today, "culture" is emerging as the central life-world category. Religion is permitted — not as a substantial way of life, but as a particular "culture" or, rather, life-style phenomenon: what legitimizes it is not its immanent truth-claim but the way it allows us to express our innermost feelings and attitudes. We no longer "really believe," we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the "life-style" of the community to which we belong (recall the proverbial non-believing Jew who obeys kosher rules "out of respect for tradition"). "I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture" effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times: what is a "cultural life-style" if not the fact that, although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December? Perhaps, then, "culture" is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without "taking them seriously." Is this not also the reason why science is not part of this notion of culture — it is all too real? And is this also not why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as "barbarians," as anti-cultural, as a threat to culture — they dare to take seriously their beliefs? Today, we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who immediately live their culture, those who lack a distance towards it.

I love this passage because, among other things, it forces students to take a look at their culture and decide just what is being offered. My students and I have come up with a pretty good list of cultural messages that are extended to the 21st-century teenager (and, yes, these can all apply to us adults, too). Here are the 5 cultural temptations that will help guarantee students live a decaffeinated (teenage) life.

1.) Don't really learn. Real learning involves passion and passion is not cool. Passion makes you do things like read and think. You will avoid parties, mall trips, and click bait to spend time in your area of interest. Forgo this trouble at all costs: just get the grade and get out. If someone asks you what you can do, what you've learned to make, tell them, "I make As." Point them in the direction of your SAT scores.

2.) Don't really think; instead, just participate. Processing takes too much time. We want an answer now. We want your response. Better yet, we want your reaction. Your reaction is what keeps the conversation going. It doesn't mean much, don't kid yourself, but it avoids silence and we all know silence is bad. Weigh in before you process. Then we don't have to take your opinions too seriously.

3.) Don't really build intimate relationships. People are too messy, too complicated. Don't get too involved with other people. If you get lonely, there are several things on the internet to keep you preoccupied. Games, social media, pornography, Netflix. Trust me, you can get by. Intimate relationships require time and time is that thing adults have taken from you (for your own betterment, of course). Have superficial friendships: buddies to high-five and who will "like" your next Snap. Avoid just hanging out together. Remember, "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop."

4.) Don't really sleep. We all know that not getting enough sleep is a badge of honor. If you get enough sleep, that means you aren't busy enough, and if you aren't busy enough, you're probably not important. And everyone knows that you can get enough sleep to get by. Multi-task. Respond to group chats while doing your Calculus homework.You see, sleep gives you the power to concentrate on what's important. We want you to be in a sort of haze. That way you can deny culpability for things you say and do.

5.) Don't really enjoy life. Real life begins in college. Everyone knows that. High school, those terrible teenage years, is something to get through. Always look to the future. Never relax. This is just a step on the path to real living.

I hate these messages, of course. As a teacher, I watch kids buy into them every day, convinced of their wisdom and practicality. These cultural messages are lies, and, thank god, not everyone believes them. To me, these temptations present some of the biggest obstacles to happiness teenagers face. What can we do as teachers to combat these cultural messages? Here are some ideas:

1.) De-empahsize grades, or do away with them altogether. "Mastery-based Learning" offers students the opportunity to grow, to learn at their own pace, and to show what they can do. I have de-emphasized grades in my courses, and have based my curriculum on the "Mastery-based" model. Students are afraid of it at first. It takes them a while to get used to it, but when they do, they become passionate about their work. They also become passionate when they have more choices over what and how they learn.

2.) When you have classroom discussions, go slower. Don't reward those students who say anything to get that "participation" grade, those masterful "bullshitters." Require students to pause for 30 seconds between comments. Practice listening as much as you practice speaking. After class discussions, give students a chance to write their thoughts about the discussion topic, and then allow them to share their insights after they write.

3.) Building intimate relationships often happens outside of class, but we can make our classrooms a place where kids want to hang out (sans smart phones). Make your classroom a place students feel safe to hang out. Make sure to recognize and address positive and negative interactions when you witness them. Sometimes students need to be taught how to build good relationships.

4.) Assign intentional homework that requires a minimum amount of time. So many teachers are convinced that they aren't doing their jobs if they don't assign homework every night or if their homework doesn't make students groan the next morning about how late they stayed up to finish it. Students should not be punished for our lack of planning, experience, or wisdom.

5.) Omit "You're-going-to-need-this-in-college" talk. You're right, but focus on the present. For example, I am helping students put together digital portfolios and though we discuss how portfolios will help them for college admissions, my focus is about reflecting on the work they are doing right now. If everything sounds like a step toward graduation and college and real life, then students will spend their high school careers only thinking about the future.


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