I’ve been traveling to Oxford for the past two years and in that time, I’ve gotten familiar with the City Centre area, in particular, the city’s homeless. For the most part, the same people show up at the same posts every day, with a few newcomers, but rain or shine, they’re there, selling the Big Issue late into the night.
Yesterday, walking home, I came upon a group of students in front of Debenham’s taking pictures as one student held out what appeared to be 50p and a homeless man reached for it. After a few students took the picture, the one holding out the money kept it rather than giving it to the homeless man. I was horrified. As I walked past them, I thought, this isn’t Disneyland, you’re photographing people who are suffering. As I made my way down Cornmarket Street, I overheard someone standing in another large group of students (I couldn’t place their age…somewhere between 16 and 18) say, “great! next we need to take a picture of a homeless person!” People in the group cheered. I noticed the girl talking was holding a sheet of paper, so I walked into the center of the group, snatched the piece of paper and demanded to know what group they were with. EF, the International Language School, which incidentally has pulled similarly unacceptable stunts in my hometown. Apparently, the students were on a Scavenger Hunt and one of the items to collect was a photograph of a homeless person.
I told the students that the people they’re photographing are suffering already and asked them how they felt about what they were about to do. Most looked at me blankly. One shrugged and muttered, it’s on the sheet. So, I asked, do any of you feel that this is wrong? Only two in a group of about 11 hung their heads. A few said, it’s part of the game. Of course I find the exercise offensive and wish on whoever wrote it that they could experience being down and out so that they’ll learn a little compassion. More importantly, though, it really bothers me that these students were ‘doing what they’re told’ without critically evaluating (1) the directive, and (2) its consequences.
A consistent theme in literacy research is an idea that critical engagement is an essential component of citizenry. Part of understanding an idea or concept is questioning it, determining how it fits with prior experience/knowledge, and forming an individual apprehension of what it means. Low literacy, then, is an inability to actively engage with a concept, either because of lack of access to information or low comprehension of the concept or its implications. In the case of The Scavenger Hunt, the students seemed to not critically engage with the assignment or compare it with what they know about human rights or respect for others.
So, while EF certainly failed their students in this assignment, I wonder why these teens haven’t learned this skill in school, from their parents, or just through life experience. I understand that peer pressure or group think were at play and there’s a lot of directions from which to approach this disgraceful act. I think it stands as a strong example of the consequences of a failure to critically engage.
Incidentally, when I pointed out the offensive nature of their Scavenger Hunt to the two EF leaders, they immediately tracked down as many students as they could to ask them not to complete that portion of the assignment. They hadn’t read the assignment before handing it out…