The Greatest Shield

This past summer I led an educational/humanitarian trip of students and parents to Guatemala. While there we spent some time playing in Lake Atitlan with the option to jump from a high platform into the lake. The platform delivered a thirty or forty foot drop into the water. Not terribly dangerous, but still intimidating for people not accustomed to cliff diving.

I asked one of the students if he was going to jump off the platform and he responded that he wasn’t going to. I asked why. He, very candidly, told me he was scared of heights and didn’t want to. He added that he had done some cliff diving once, had landed weird, and it had hurt. So he didn’t want to do it again.

I had to appreciate the honesty. I particularly appreciated that his frank admission allowed him to confront the fact that he was, in fact, scared of the platform and then to determine what to do with that. In this case, it seemed to me that he felt pretty peaceful about the fact that he was scared and didn’t want to jump off the platform. And why not? Jumping off a high platform can be an exciting experience. There are certainly positives one might draw from doing it. But it isn’t a particularly important experience and if someone decides it isn’t worth the stress of jumping off, then no harm done. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that in this context it would be difficult for the student to lose regardless of the choice. The student has valuable lessons to learn either by jumping off the platform or by declining to jump off the platform.

But now let’s reimagine the circumstances. This time everything is precisely the same with one key difference. This time when I ask the student why he isn’t going to jump, he replies that jumping off the platform is dumb and boring. Why does he say this? Possibly he does think it is dumb and boring, but we’ll call this unlikely considering the nature cliff diving- many things could be said of cliff diving, boring seems to be one of the less applicable adjectives. So outside of that, there are many potential reasons for his claim. Perhaps he believes that fear is unmanly. Perhaps he thinks that if he admits that he is scared of the platform, then he will somehow be obligated to jump off. Maybe he is concerned that his peers would think less of him. If any of these are the case, then the statement “Cliff diving is dumb and boring” ins’t descriptive, it’s a distraction. Perhaps it could be even better described as a shield. The student is able to protect himself from unpleasant thoughts and experiences (I’m scared, that’s not manly, etc.) by deciding that he finds the whole thing terribly unimportant, uncool, boring, and generally a waste of time. That is how I think of apathy- the strongest shield that a student can wield to keep him or herself protected from thoughts and experiences that he or she finds distressing.

To begin the discussion, I think it is important to note that to say that apathy is only a shield would be overly simplistic. Apathy in students can come from many places. Students may very well find little interest in a given subject or activity. Apathy can certainly spread from teachers to students. And unskilled teachers can be poor enough at delivering content that students get lost and give up on a class.

But, while I have experienced apathy in those contexts, I much more frequently experience apathy as a shield. To demonstrate what that looks like I’ll share a conversation I had with a student recently (which conversation I share with permission). The student and I were discussing his struggles in the first year of my class. In the course of the discussion, I recalled a comment he had made during the school year. During the school year when asked why he was struggling with the homework for extemporaneous speaking, he had said that he just didn’t find extemporaneous speaking interesting or fun. With some distance and perspective, in light of our conversation, and with a little bit of a safer environment, he indicated that this statement had been a shield. Specifically, a shield to protect him from the fact that he finds writing really difficult and compiling the information necessary to do well in extemporaneous speaking was daunting. He also had a history of giving up on difficult tasks and was scared that would repeat the behavior. So, it was easier to believe that extemporaneous was dumb and boring than it was to confront the fact that he felt daunted by the prospect of extemporaneous speaking. And before moving on, I just want to recognize and commend the sort of courage it takes for a student to speak these sorts of things out loud.

Perhaps some would find my use of the wording “it was easier to believe that extemporaneous was dumb and boring” peculiar. Shouldn’t I rather say “it was easier to say that extemporaneous was dumb and boring”? Certainly if apathy isn’t sincere, but rather a method of protection, then the student knows that, right? Perhaps in some cases, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. Plenty of research indicates that humans are perfectly capable of the sort of self-deception that allows them to avoid uncomfortable thoughts in the conscious mind. For example, one study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences in 2011 had two groups take a general knowledge and IQ test. The test group was given access to an answer key. The control group was not. After the initial test and scoring, participants were asked to predict their scores on a longer and more comprehensive general knowledge and IQ test. Both groups predicted that they would do better on the second test than they actually did (perhaps itself a form of self-deception), but participants who had had access to the answer key in the initial test predicted significantly higher scores for themselves than the control group. Not only this, but participants in the test group had previously taken a survey testing for tendencies of self-deception. Unsurprisingly, within the test group those who were most disposed toward self deception predicted for themselves even higher scores on the second test than their peers. In other words, study participants appeared to subvert the obvious answer (I did well on the first test primarily because I had access to the answers) in favor of a more generous interpretation (I did well on the first test because of my knowledge and IQ and maybe relied on the answers just a little). And the more a participant was predisposed to self deception, the more true that was.

Now, the article here is about apathy, not self deception. But self deception is an important element in apathy because it means that students may very well not just say that a subject is dumb or boring in order to ward off unpleasant thoughts and experiences, but they may actually believe to some extent that a subject is dumb or boring in order to avoid unpleasant thoughts or experiences. This ends up being a trade off for the student. On the one hand, they can avoid the unpleasant thought or experience for the moment. But the long term consequence is pretty rough on the student. The long term consequence is that the unpleasant thought is taken from the conscious mind, where it can be actively considered, re-contextualized, challenged, etc. and is made subconscious. That can create stress for the student and, just as importantly, the student misses out on the significant growth that comes from confronting those sort of unpleasant thoughts and experiences.

You can think about this in terms of the cliff diving scenario. If the student can be honest about the fact that he is scared of cliff diving, he either gets to grow by facing down that fear and having an exciting experience, or he gets to grow by determining that the experience of jumping off the cliff isn’t something that he values enough to be worth the stress of trying to jump off, that he has a right to make decisions based on what he values, and that he doesn’t have to cave in to pressure to reverse those values. But if he uses apathy as a shield (“This is dumb and boring, and you’re the studpid ones for doing it,”) then he instead spends an unpleasant afternoon feeling defensive and uneasy and entirely misses out on either opportunity for growth.

In the context of cliff diving, the consequence of apathy is an unpleasant afternoon and missed growth. Not good, but not so very terrible either. But if students regularly use apathy as a shield in the context of their education, the consequences are much greater. First, because the unpleasant thing that they are trying to avoid likely has applications in multiple contexts. For example, if the student decides that a debate class is dumb or boring as a shield against the fact that the student experiences high levels of anxiety regarding public speaking, then the effect will not be isolated to this single class. The student’s life can be significantly benefited by honestly dealing with the fact that he or she feels anxiety when it comes to public speaking and then consciously deciding what he or she is going to do with that fact. And the student is significantly harmed if that question is avoided. Because, while jumping off of cliffs is not an important or normal feature of human life, interacting publicly with others is. Similarly, if a student uses apathy for math (math is so boring!) as a distraction from the fact that poor performance in math makes the student feel stupid compared to peers, then the student misses out on the important opportunity to verbalize and deal with that fact. Math isn’t going away, the tendency to measure oneself against one’s peers is not going away, and adopting apathy as an attitude can only put off the reality of the situation temporarily.

The second reason that apathy in education has such large consequences is because apathy is contagious. If you have significant experience as a teacher, I think you will have already observed this. In addition, this study published by the American Psychological Association indicates that people who are already wavering on their commitment to a goal are more likely to adopt an indifferent attitude when exposed to indifferent attitudes by those around them. Exacerbating this effect is the fact that in very toxic educational environments apathy can become a sort of social currency in a race to the bottom among students with those who have the courage to care about their education being deemed “nerds” and “losers”. In other words, it is possible that large portions of whole classes or even schools can collectively adopt apathy as a mechanism to avoid the difficulties surrounding education. And, as a matter of fact, I would be willing to bet that a number of people reading this newsletter at least partially chose homeschooling in response to the apathetic attitudes regarding education that can be endemic within public and private education.

Which then leads us to the question, what to do? For this portion of the article, there is a lot of advice about dealing with apathy in education out there, but not much in the way of research based practices, as far as I can tell. Accordingly, I’ll draw primarily on my own practical experience. Therefore, I present Sam Martineau’s list of dealing with apathy-as-shield.

Identifying Apathy as Shield

It is possible that a student is genuinely bored. In fact it is to be expected. All education is boring sometimes. It is also possible that a given teacher is boring (in which case the solution is for the teacher to get plenty of feedback and improve his or her method). It is possible that a student is genuinely not that interested in a subject, which is entirely acceptable. It is unreasonable to expect everyone to find genuine interest in everything. But note that these situations don’t require students to engage in odd forms of apathy. In other words, students using apathy as a shield give themselves away because they act like they are using apathy as a shield. For example, they become defensive about their apathy (“No, you’re dumb for wanting to go cliff diving”). They may demonstrate interest in a subject, only to have that interest conveniently disappear when the work becomes more difficult. They may also begin to loudly and regularly declare their disinterest to the world (“Just so everybody is clear, the reason I’m not jumping off the cliff isn’t because I’m scared, it’s that I’m bored, dang it!”). Or they may, more generally, lash out when their “apathy” gets a closer examination. In other words, when apathy isn’t a shield, you really don’t have anything to hide.

Attempt to Understand the Student Experience

Consider that the student using apathy as a shield isn’t simply a kid with a bad attitude, but likely something much more complex. It is likely that they are under the stress of avoiding some reality they would rather not deal with. This likely makes all aspects of their education related to that avoidance unpleasant (which only reinforces the idea that they didn’t like it in the first place). It can also make the student unpleasant in some circumstances and that can be frustrating. But those students don’t need frustration. They need teachers to approach the situation calmly, with compassion, and with honesty. And that is easier to achieve if you can peer past the apparent into the student experience.

Preempt Apathy

Particularly because self deception can be so powerful, pulling students back from apathy is so much harder than dealing with the issue proactively. And that means talking with students about root causes before you get there. Those causes aren’t the same for every student, but they are similar for many students. Most students are concerned about how they appear in the eyes of their peers. Most students feel that failures reflect on their character or value. Most students deeply crave acceptance and respect and experience some level of anxiety about whether or not that desire will be fulfilled. Preemptively addressing these sorts of issues in the context of your classroom goes a long way toward helping students avoid apathy in the first place. In other words, saying to a student, “Every person is a great deal more than how good they are at writing” now is a great way of not having to say, “What is really going on here?” later.

Have the Courage to be Passionate

One of my favorite experiences each year is delivering “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” to all of my beginning classes on the first day of class. I, shall we say, get into it. Some students are immediately enthralled, some are uncomfortable, and some start snickering behind their hands because it is just so weird to see a grown man express that much passion in a speech. I love to look straight at the snickering kids and make the delivery of the speech even more intense. In effect, daring them to think it strange that I might care this much about my subject. I love to seek out the uncomfortable ones and deliver straight to them, inviting them to consider what it might be that compels such great feeling for the speech. I do this exercise for a number of reasons, but one very important reason is that it disrupts the narrative that apathy is cool, that it can serve as social currency, and that taking a real interest in things is for nerds and losers. The more authentically passionate you can be on a consistent basis, the more this narrative is disrupted. Hopefully disrupted enough that it has no opportunity to thrive and spread.

Model Vulnerability

Apathy used as a shield is largely about avoiding vulnerability. It’s about never having to admit to oneself or others things perceived as deficient in a bid to avoid rejection from self and others. As a teacher, your own willingness to open yourself up to students acts as an invitation for them to reciprocate. Tell them that you care about them without needing them to validate that caring. Put yourself out there for your students in appropriate ways, without first ensuring that they will accept what you offer. Being comfortable as you are, invites them to do the same. Modeling vulnerability gives them a template for what it looks like to not hedge their bets with apathy.


None of these suggestions comes with any guarantees. People have free will, so students have the ultimate choice about what they will do. But I also don’t believe that apathy is the natural human state. The natural human state is curiosity and a desire for growth. And that means that kids really want a reason to care. They don’t choose apathy because they like it. They choose apathy because they don’t see a viable path forward that doesn’t involve apathy. Helping students see that path forward is then key to students walking away from apathy and toward the person that they can become. All of us want to see our students achieve their very considerable potential. And that is why it is worth it to help students drop the apathy shield.