Eric Goldin | Safe Places, Controversial Ideas

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

Severus Snape from the Harry Potter book series is the perfect example of how being a master of a skill or craft doesn’t automatically make somebody suitable to teach it. 

When he was a student at Hogwarts, Snape excelled at the science of potion-making. He was so talented and naturally gifted that he was able to diverge from the instructions in the textbook and invented much better methods of creating many extremely complicated potions. Snape had innate instincts that allowed him to come up with the best possible ways to craft perfect potion recipes. His immense knowledge of the compositional breakdown and intricate nuances of individual ingredients allowed him to elicit the strongest effect for the final product. 

He knew the exact moment when to place each substance into the cauldron for it to properly mix with everything else. He knew the precise amount of clockwise and counterclockwise stirs that need to be done at the appropriate times, making for the best possible potion. He knew how long to let the potion simmer and fully materialize before it was finished. Overall, Snape had a complete grasp on the brewing process. Snape was a genius at this particular art, and his skills were second to none. 

Logically, Snape should’ve been a great teacher who could easily convey his knowledge and wisdom to the students. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Snape, despite his immense talent, was one of the worst professors at Hogwarts. He was a dreadful teacher who was hated by almost everybody.

The underlying problem with Snape was that he never even wanted to be a teacher in the first place. Teaching is a job that can’t be properly done unless you’re fully invested in it. It requires patience and clear communication skills. Snape didn’t care one bit about teaching. He viewed it as more of a chore than anything else. Because of his lack of passion to actually be a professor, he got angry and moody very quickly. This caused an unstable atmosphere in his classroom.  

During class sessions, Snape was a vindictive bully. He would openly mock the students when they would make errors. When the kids were trying to brew complicated potions, he would hover over them, making everybody feel very nervous, and he would shout demeaning and derogatory phrases at the those who weren’t doing it correctly. Instead of softly and gently pointing out where they went wrong in the process, he chose to antagonize his pupils and make them feel like dirt.

Teachers have a responsibility to make the classroom a safe and friendly atmosphere for their students. No student should ever have to feel anxiety going into any class. Students need to feel calm and relaxed, and they shouldn’t have to worry that all of their mistakes will be held against them. 

Teachers must also be able to analyze the ability of all the individual students. Some students are going to naturally take to the subject quickly and learn relatively easily – while others are inevitably going to have a lot more difficulties and require extra attention. 

One of Snape’s students, Neville Longbottom, had a difficult time picking up the subject. He was clumsy and not naturally talented at potion brewing. Neville had low self-esteem, and he was always nervous in class. Snape should’ve helped bring up Neville’s confidence and make him feel at ease. Snape didn’t have any patience for Neville, and constantly threatened and tormented the poor kid. Neville was so terrified of Snape that he was one of his greatest fears.  

J.K. Rowling based the character of Severus Snape on one of her own real-life teachers. While this person undoubtedly knew his subject well, he was most likely an abysmal instructor. His classes and teaching methods probably weren’t conducive to learning. No matter how much. of a genius an individual is at a certain subject, it doesn’t mean they have the ability to teach students. Training a novice requires patience and an understanding that a beginner is going to make mistakes. A person who lacks tolerance and kindness is not fit to be a teacher. A classroom needs to feel like a safe place to learn. 

However, in modern times, the concept of “safe places” has become, in my opinion, slightly misconstrued. There have been numerous recent incidents where college students have become enraged over hearing ideas simply because they’re controversial. Universities and institutions of higher learning are supposed to challenge people to think more deeply about complicated subjects. Some concepts are going to be antithetical to the worldviews of various students, but nobody has the right to shut out these ideas and not at least think about them. Many university students are acting like petulant children and forcing professors to withhold presenting material in class that might emotionally upset them. 

 Great professors, when teaching controversial subject matter, will encourage their students to challenge the reasoning behind contentious ideas. However, students shouldn’t be allowed to plug their ears to things they don’t want to hear and throw temper tantrums at school administrators to force a curriculum that perfectly aligns with their preset worldview. This is not real learning. It’s nothing more than a regurgitation of what they already believe. The brain can’t grow this way. 

A good education will strengthen the mind so much that a person will never get too distraught over simply listening to controversial material. Properly educated people can thoroughly analyze evidence for and against any idea and then reach reasonable conclusions. The ability to scrutinize and dissect the merits of an idea is the sign of true intelligence. 

Unfortunately, anti-intellectual practices are starting to run rampant in places of higher learning. Shutting down ideas on the basis that they are emotionally troublesome to some students – without encouraging them to think of proper, evidence-based counter-arguments – will only infantilize young people, and unfortunately, an intellectually weak society will inevitably arise because of it. 

Schools and classrooms should be a safe place to learn, but they can’t be immune to controversial ideas. “Safe Places” shouldn’t be a shelter where students only hear things that make them feel good. A great teacher needs to be patient, kind, and have the ability to evaluate all of the students’ strengths and weaknesses (and asses their learning styles). 

However, an excellent instructor will not be afraid to talk about controversial material in class, and they’ll actively inspire their students to properly scrutinize tough subjects, making them much more well-rounded thinkers.      

Eric Goldin is a Santa Clarita resident.

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