Who really cares about Apathy?

Why are so many of our students apathetic in public schools? What can we do about it?

First, let’s define apathy – courtesy of Wikipedia…

Apathy (also called impassivity or perfunctoriness) is a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion. An apathetic individual has an absence of interest or concern to emotional, social, or physical life. They may also exhibit an insensibility or sluggishness. Them opposite of apathy is flow.[1]

Why are so many students apatheic to public schooling and what it has to offer?

Apathy results often from a feeling of powerlessness, or a lack of control over one’s life or the situation at hand. If we look at the chart below (Wikipedia, again), it is sandwiched right in between boredom and worry, two things that adolescent life is often times fraught with. If we look at the world of the student outside of school, it is filled with electronic entertainment and communication in real time with friends. Virtually any interest may be pursued instantly. If a young person wants to learn a new skill, they go to Youtube and watch a video, 20 times if need be, and can practice said skill in the safety of their home. They have the ultimate sense of empowerment over their entertainment and their learning, outside of school.

As children go into middle school, the once eager student who is talkative on the way to the school learns to take on a demeanor of depression and apathy, lest they stand out too much from their peers. The transformation is often instant each day, and the reverse is also true as they leave the school grounds. Part of this is just pre-teen and teen angst, older than our school system. Another part is what happens in our schools.

As students become more aware of themselves and of the adult world, they need to construct meaning of same. If they go to a class where the teacher runs a structured yet democratic experience, and they demonstrate empathy and humanity towards their charges, students will often come to life. If the teacher is strict and concerned more with rules and compliance than they are with the students as people, then students become numbers, their feelings and actions discounted. Going outward to the whole school, if students believe that the school is safe (in all ways – physically, emotionally, socially), they will come out of their shells and engage openly with each other and the adults as they mature. If the school is not safe, students deduce that they have no ownership of the school, that rules are the property of the authority in the school, and that they are cogs in an uncaring machine (a caring school would ensure their safety as people).


I cannot stress enough that all people, especially students in public schools,  need safety, first and foremeost. School administration must constantly maintain an environment that is safe for all staff and students, without exception. If they do not create this culture, staff will either hide in their classrooms during passing time (with predictable results for students), or they will somehow develop a severe case of group near-sightedness if they do stand in the hallways (“I could not tell if that was a maintenance worker testing the locker or if a small student was just shoved into it….hmmmm…oh well”) as they too come to understand that it is more desirable to keep quiet than it is to bring problems to the administration. As human beings we want to be safe, and we want for others to be safe as well. When we cannot help to provide that, we have to un-plug a part of ourselves as we cannot keep the notion of ourselves as good people with the notion that we are not doing the right thing.

Beyond Safety – The Need for Needed

Once staff and students feel safe in our schools, the enxt step is to maximize the engagement with students in their learning. So  much of what can be seen in classrooms is still very teacher centered, pre-packaged, and sanitized, in order to provide for maxmimum efficiencies of delivery and class compliance. There are a number of classrooms where this is not the case….

In order for us to take away Apathy’s will to fight, we must destroy it utterly. In order to do that, we must encourage students to care about their learning and about their schooling experience. If their learning has an Objective beyond just learning facts and skills, to the place of application of that learning to their community, they have gone from passive (and apathetic) vessels to be filled, to active producers of vauled activity. Imagine if each student was known – really known – by every teacher, and allowed to put their skills and talents to use to help others. What if they were NEEDED by the school and community for what they could do, as opposed to what they can score on a test so that the educators can keep their jobs,  and the community can avoid a black eye?

Going back to the chart above, look directly across from Apathy, and you see Flow. If you remember a time when you were in a state of Flow (Several years ago my kids and I were assembling a robot arm in the garage, and 6 hours went by and we were in such an effective state that it was magical) you know that if we could get students into that state in regards to their learning, that school would be beyond incredible. First we need to hire and retain administration that can provide safety, and inspiration, for all. Then we need to allow for our staff to be creative and supported as they take ownership in creating the school. They in turn will be able to do the same for students, who, if we engage them in meaningful work rooted in the community, may achieve a sense of “mattering”.


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