Selfishness is Our Nemesis

October 18, 2013

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4 RSV)

As Greek mythology records, the ancient hunter from Thespiae in Boetia named Narcissus (Νάρκισσος) was renowned for his great physical comeliness. Exploiting this knowledge, his sworn enemy, Nemesis, lured the arrogant hunter to a pool where Narcissus set his eyes on his own reflection and became so enamored with his image in the pool that he could not deter his gaze and he ultimately expired as a consequence. While we may have known a Narcissus, or two, in our own experience, such obvious self-absorption is not typically observed among those who teach. We like to esteem ourselves as selfless iconic individuals, nobly placing the needs of the many over our personal needs, of sacrificially forgoing rewards, especially financial ones, and for serving the educational and emotional needs of the students entrusted to our sphere of influence. At least that is how we would like to see ourselves in our pools of self-reflection.

Nevertheless, in reality, we may share much more with Narcissus than we are willing or desiring to admit. Initially, as members of the human race, we are inescapably bound by the very obvious finitude of our individual beings to view, experience and interpret the world from within ourselves. In other words, we are limited to uniquely engage and associate with the external world egocentrically. Therefore, we are by biological and psychological necessity restricted to, constrained within, and focused upon “self.” In essence, this is what Ralph Barton Perry (Perry 1910), referred to as the egocentric predicament. We cannot and should not, however, seek to avoid or deny the existence of our “self” as a “real” identity and a legitimate human perspective. Self-centeredness is a function of our essential nature and to violate that nature is to deny our very humanity. Accordingly, such an attempt to repudiate our nature effectively would dehumanize us. As all teaching is essentially a relational act between and among human beings, we do not profit as teachers from diminishing our humanity. Indeed it is not self that we need to extinguish, but selfishness.

To properly address selfishness as both a belief and behavior, we must correctly identify what it is. Ayn Rand who, perhaps as an artistic attempt to provoke a powerful emotional response in her readers to the point of shock, uses the term "selfishness" to mean rationally enlightened self-interest. Additionally, she also stated the essence of her philosophy as “. . .the concept of man as a heroic being with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (Rand 1957). As such, she seems to elevate selfishness to a virtue. In contrast, I submit that selfishness means exactly what the conventionally accepted definition reflects, “ The state or character of being selfish; the exclusive consideration by a person of his own interest or happiness” (Webster 1983). The essential elements of the definition point to a selfish individual as one who is concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself, who seeks one's own welfare, advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others. It is this attitude reflected in actions that we must seek to overcome as educators.

Selfishness, that is, when our actions are dominated by our own self interest and self-valuation, not only places us at the center of our world, but effectively places us as the center of literally everything—including the center of every other person’s reality. Through selfishness we endeavor to take everything and everyone and, through distortion and contortion, use it, or them, to serve and satisfy our own desires. Therefore, another individual has value only in relation to the gratification of our yearnings. Such acts can only be as a result of devaluing others in relation to ourselves. When we cannot or do not demonstrate that others have genuine value through our actions, communications, and in our thought-life, we reveal our utterly inescapable selfishness. It should also be recognized that as a consequence of the selfish degradation of the value of another for one’s individual benefit, both persons are radically corrupted and ultimately impoverished as the value of a society and a species is directly connected to our view of the individual.

Moreover, selfishness is the motivation and guiding force behind much of the moral and ethical woes throughout human history unto the present. It is only when one places self-worth over the value of another that one can lie to another, slander another, steal from another, physically or emotionally wound another, envy another, or covet another’s life, position, or possessions. Therefore, we should be on guard to resist selfishness in our lives, both personal and professional. This may, at first blush, seem too obvious to even state. Certainly few individuals would argue on behalf of selfishness, if only for purely selfish reasons. To be opposed to selfishness seems to be as simple as being opposed to tooth decay. However, selfishness, just as tooth decay, can go undetected even if our vocalized opposition to it is vehement, especially when we choose to deny its presence in our lives.

To be sure, selfishness can take the demonstrably overt, and odious, forms as when a bullying hypocrite demands that his or her professional aspirations take precedence over the needs and desires of the students; or when a teacher places unreasonable or even unhealthy expectations on the students and calls it a “fair share” in service of the teacher’s reputation; or when a teacher emotionally manipulates students to fulfill a personal need for attention, power, or control. These caricatures are, sadly, recognizable exceptions to the rule, but this is not the most pervasive form of selfishness that pervades our profession. Surely, most of us would unreservedly attest that there can be no place for selfishness in the professional lives of teachers. Unfortunately, there is a subtle and insidious kind of selfishness that can readily find its way into the hearts and minds of teachers. Just as the very worst tyrant is one who is a well-intentioned “benefactor,” we often become the most selfish for the “very best of reasons” without seeing the selfishness in ourselves through our attitudes, affirmations, and actions. The plank in our eye is indeed greater than the speck we easily perceive in another’s.

Are we really committed to matters of truth, accuracy, logic, and validity during an argument, or are we more concerned with being “right” and “winning” the debate than we are concerned for the person with whom we are in disputation? When we proffer that we are striving for excellence, are we really disguising our desire for preeminence and self-aggrandizement? What are we really saying and about whom are we saying it when we bemoan how little we are paid or the lack of respect that we receive in comparison to others? Is this not an expression, more often than not, of envy and covetousness? Who is genuinely at the center of our concern when we think: “Did I really make certain that my students understood that concept?” “Did I spend sufficient time make certain that I met every student’s need?” “Did I offer sound advice to my colleague?” “Did I handle that situation with my administrator correctly?” “If I had done something differently would the result have been better?” “Did I provide enough clarity to communicate the musical intent accurately?” On whom is our focus when we competitively defend our humility by asserting just how humble we indeed are? What is the root cause behind turning a compliment from another into an insult of the intelligence or the motivations of the one offers the praise? What is actually occurring when I extol my “undeniable” contributions to the achievements of my students, in my class as they realize my vision for my program?

It is selfishness. The proof is in the pronoun. We too often demonstrate our selfishness as if performing an awkwardly deformed scene from “Schindler’s List,” berating ourselves with self-flagellation because we “could have done more. . .” so that we can demonstrate just how important we are indeed. While it may not be fatal to realistically and critically look at our reflections in light of the questions above, it certainly can be a little painful.

However, we are more than merely creating a flawed vision of our own self-importance by such acts of selfishness. We are handicapping our students’ advancement to independence. As I make myself the point of attentive convergence I am allowing, or perhaps coercing, the students to look to me for their success. As such, when difficult and complex issues arise in the lives of the students, inside and outside of the classroom, musical and otherwise, they become increasingly dependent on me for all of the answers rather than discerning or developing solutions and responses.

The result is that students are not being led to be independent actors in the classroom, studio, or rehearsal hall; they are being made obedient pawns in the service of selfish needs of the teacher. However empowering that might be to me personally, it clearly does not result in producing citizens capable of making autonomous and moral decisions necessary for the continuation of a free society nor musicians capable of independent and creative expression. Moreover, this not only places me, as a teacher, on the path to inevitable failure, as I cannot possibly know or be the answer to every question, it ultimately leaves students despairing, disillusioned, and disappointed when I predictably founder.

The need for us to recognize that “everything is really not about us” is essential if we are to be teachers in any meaningful use of the term. Selfishness not only betrays our students and our colleagues, it is a betrayal of the entire profession as both a corpus and as a practice. When we promote “self” rather than the content and the students, we are committing an egregious act of misdirection whereby the teacher becomes the focus of the educational process and genuine sacrificial service is discarded in favor of the very worst kind of narcissism. If I am a selfish “teacher,” I will offer instruction that reflects the personalized preoccupation that eternally revolves around me, centered on what makes sense to me, presented in the way that I learn, assessed in a way that seems both fair and convenient to and for me, in an effort to make me feel positive about me and about what I am doing.

Selflessness, in bold contrast, is, from both a deotonic and aretaic perspective, a virtue that should be the distinctive hallmark of teachers and teaching. During our present time in history, such virtues are not often “openly” and freely discussed and certainly not often overtly presented during the meetings or within publications in the field of education. We have, largely in our culture and our profession, substituted relativistic values for lasting virtues. Nevertheless, I submit that virtues have a critical place in our schools and in our country. This becomes increasingly apparent as we reap the harvest of generations who believe in little beyond themselves and seek little more than the immediate, if not passive, gratification of individual desires irrespective of the cost to others.

This is nowhere more in evidence than in the educational cheating scandals reported in the media. Among the general public it seems that cheating is not seen as a moral and ethical flaw of individual teachers or of the systems and institutions that prepare or employ them; if we are to believe the majority of news reports, cheating is caused by high stakes standardized testing. The tests are to blame for teachers cheating. This ignores the fundamental truth that the individuals caught in these violations of professional ethics are not cheaters because they cheat; they cheat because they are cheaters. The individuals caught-up in these infractions of moral and professional ethical principles are more concerned with retaining their positions, even if under-performing, than in the actual achievement of the students with whom should be their first concern.

As teachers we have an inescapable obligation to “decrease” as others “increase” in a way that defines “selflessness” operationally. Our success comes in the form of the success of others. We succeed when our students succeed; and not just in their classes, but in life. Our greatest function as teachers is to lead students to not only live life, but provide them the skills and the awareness to give their lives to those things that matter beyond their immediate sphere of their experience. Our “job” is to produce citizens who are prepared to think and act responsibly as life-long scholars, artists, creators, entrepreneurs, and advocates with the requisite skills and sustained intellectual curiosity to permit them to live a fulfilling and fulfilled life irrespective of how they choose to make a living.

For the sake of the students and for the profession, we have to focus beyond the immediate, short-term kinds of personal validation that can easily misdirect attention to our individual success and distract our attention from our students’ success. We need to recognize that our actions and our intentions resonate far beyond the classroom or rehearsal hall and beyond the students we have in our classes. If we fail to do so we are likely to lose our professional lives as we stare adoringly at our own reflections.

Works Cited

Perry, R. B. "The ego-centric predicament." The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 1910: 5-14.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

Webster. Webster's New Universal unabridged Dictionary. Edited by Jean L. McKechnie. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

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