Legal studiesPhilosophical studies

The Ethics of Teacher-Student Relationships

When I was starting out in my academic career, I was assigned a senior colleague as a mentor. This is not an unusual practice. The hope is that the senior colleague can provide advice on how to navigate the thickets of academic life. I remember at one of our meetings the topic of teacher-student relationships came up. This colleague told me, in no uncertain terms, that any kind of sexual or romantic relationship with a student (graduate or undergraduate) was inappropriate and should be avoided.

Sound advice, but a little bit ironic for two reasons. First, this particular colleague was in a long-term (and by all accounts happy and well-functioning) relationship with a former graduate student. Second, the thought of entering into such a relationship had never crossed my mind nor had it been a feature of our conversation prior to that point. I believe the only reason it had come up was because I was unsure of how to deal with a student whose mother was dying. To say that the advice was disconnected from the context would seem to be an understatement.

If I were to characterise the relationships I have had with my students over the years I would say that they are, for the most part, extremely distant. To be fair, this my normative baseline when it comes to all relationships. I have very few close friendships and I am, for the most part, reclusive and solitary. That said, I probably take this reclusive attitude to extremes when it comes to students. For example, I try to avoid all social gatherings with students. This includes socialising at university-related events. I don’t like to attend formal dinners or graduation with students, nor do I like to hang around and talk to them after guest lectures or other events (I will, of course, talk to them after my own lectures on course-related topics). When I hear of colleagues going to student balls or taking groups of students out for informal dinner or drinks, perhaps to celebrate the start or end of term, I balk at the idea. I have, very reluctantly, been dragged to such events in the past. I find them unpleasant and awkward. My intention is never to participate in them again. I prefer to deal with students in a purely professional capacity, talking to them solely about course work or academic issues.

I’m not sure why I adopt this style of interaction with my students. Perhaps, in part, it is to avoid any risks associated with conflating different relationship styles. Perhaps, in part, it is due to my own social awkwardness and anxiety. Perhaps, in part, it is due to some misguided belief that you shouldn’t reveal too much of yourself to other people, especially students. Whatever the answer may be, it does prompt the question: what is the preferred form of relating to students? And, more particularly, is it ever appropriate to interact with students as something other than just students?

I’ve read about this topic at various points over the years. Unsurprisingly, most of the literature deals with the ethics of romantic/sexual relationships with students and/or the ethics of teacher-student friendships. Relatively few articles and books focus on what the ideal relationship should be. But maybe it is possible to triangulate on this by considering the various arguments that have been offered against romantic relationships and friendships?

That’s what I will try to do in the following article. I will start by reviewing some basic concepts pertaining to the ethics of relationships and highlighting some pitfalls that plague our reasoning about them. Then I will look at the standard arguments offered against teacher-student romantic relationships (which now tends to represent the consensus view) and the more tentative arguments for and against teacher-student friendship (which are more contested). I will conclude by seeing whether anything can be learned from this inquiry about the preferred way of relating to a student.

1. How to Think About Relationship Ethics

Let’s begin with a few observations about relationships and the ethical norms that may or may not be associated with them. Obviously, humans have many relationships in their lives. Indeed, virtually all repetitive social interactions can be categorised as relationships of some kind. Some philosophers and social scientists believe that it is within these relationships that the human moral conscience is formed. For example, Stephen Darwall has argued ↗ that being able to take the second-person perspective (i.e. the perspective of the other party in the social relationship) is key to moral reasoning. Similarly, the developmental and evolutionary biologist Michael Tomasello has argued ↗ that being able to understand the duties associated with different social roles is responsible for the evolution of the human moral sense. Finally, though it is less popular these days, Lawrence Kohlberg’s developmental theory ↗ of moral reasoning suggests that it is the capacity to see and empathise with the other side of our social relationships that represents the emergence of true moral reasoning in children. I could go on, but I won’t. The point is that social relationships have an important role to play in our moral and ethical reasoning.

There are some ethical rules that apply to all relationships, irrespective of their precise character. For example, you shouldn’t harm someone unless you have good cause. But other moral rules are specific to certain relationships. Lawyers, for example, have a duty of confidentiality to their clients. Doctors too. The problem is that relationships can take many different forms. Think of the relationship between parent and child, doctor and patient, boss and employee, brother and sister, two friends, two lovers and so on. The teacher-student relationship is just one among many. How can we think about the ethical rules that apply to such a diverse array of relationships?

One simple way to think about the ethics of our social relationships is to focus on the purpose or telos of the relationship and to use that to determine what the respective duties of the parties to the relationship might be. Many relationships have a function or goal associated with them. Think about the relationship between a doctor and their patient. The purpose of this relationship is to improve the health of the patient. To do this effectively, the patient has to supply the doctor with all relevant information concerning their health; the doctor then has to be well-informed about the best options for care. This gives rise to respective duties: the duty of honesty for the patient and the duty of competence for the doctor. Both are obviously connected to the goal of the relationship.

That said not all relationships serve single or obvious goals. Some relationships serve multiple goals. Furthermore, thinking about certain relationships in terms of goals can seem contrary to their ethical character. For instance, it seems wrong to suppose that the relationship between friends is goal-oriented. It is no doubt true that friendships serve a purpose: companionship, support, entertainment and so forth. But thinking about them solely in terms of these purposes can seem instrumentalising and dehumanising. If my friends no longer entertain me, am I entitled to abandon them or ignore them? Surely not. Some relationships can be instrumentalised in this way, but not all.

That complication notwithstanding, it seems fair to say that the teacher-student relationship is one that can be thought about in purposive or teleological terms. It does serve a goal, namely: to educate the student (in a broad sense). A first pass at the ethics of teacher-student relationships is to say that the duties of the parties (and the ideal mode of relating between them) flow from that goal. A teacher should not do something that subverts or undermines it, and nor should a student. That said, as everyone points out, there is usually an asymmetry of power between the teacher and student (similar to that between a doctor and a patient) which typically means that the burdens are higher on the teacher than they are on the student. The teacher must do more to ensure that the goals of the relationship are fulfilled.

There are, however, some problems with this initial take on the ethics of teacher-student relationships. I’ll mention three here as they will recur in the analysis given below:

The purpose is vague: To say that teachers should educate their students isn’t to say much since people disagree about what education is really about. Is it about knowledge transfer? Providing credentials? Developing the capacity for critical thought and self-reflection? Producing better citizens for a democracy? Helping students find themselves? Each of these has been proposed as legitimate goal for education over the years and each of them might warrant a different mode of relating to students. Furthermore, some people have, no doubt in a self-serving way, argued that the eroticisation of the teacher-student relationship is part of the educational mission. I’ll return to an example of this below.

 

Relationships often overlap or nest: Humans often pursue multiple different kinds of relationships with people and often have different relationships types thrust upon them due to social circumstance or necessity. For example, many people are friends with their work colleagues; it is not uncommon for parents to teach their children (not just in homeschooling but in mainstream schools too); and some university professors teach friends or colleagues (because they enroll in their courses). This nesting or overlapping of relationships makes their ethical analysis more complicated. Is it always wrong to pursue different kinds of relationships with people at the same time? Should (can?) one type of relationships be kept isolated from other types?

 

Relationship analogies are common: Humans often use analogies between relationships to determine the ethical rules that apply to them. We analogise between friendship and intimate partnership, for example, to figure out how we should relate to friends and lovers, respectively. Of course, analogical reasoning is common in human life, but it creates challenges when it comes to the ethics of relationships. If someone thinks a teacher-student relationship is like the relationship between a parent and a child, then they are likely to reach a different conclusion about how they should relate to their students than someone who thinks it is more like the relationship between a boss and an employee. This isn’t a purely hypothetical example either. I have had colleagues in the past tell me that they view the relationship between teacher and student as being much like the relationship between parent and child, and hence had a very particular view of their role within that relationship.*

 

There are other complications but these will suffice for now. In practice, the overlapping of different relationship types, and how this might bear on the purpose of the teacher-student relationship, is probably the most problematic issue and the one that has generated most debate in the literature on teacher-student relationship. So let’s consider two examples of overlapping relationships teachers can have (and have had) with students: sexual relationships and friendships.

2. The Problem with Sexual Relationships

As mentioned, the ethics of teacher-student sexual relationships has tended to dominate writing in this area. In an interesting article on this, William Deresiewicz  ↗points out the image of the feckless, morally corrupt, professor, who sleeps with his (it’s almost invariably a ‘he’) students is probably one of the most common fictional motifs of the 20th century. You couldn’t even begin to list all the examples of it. But we can trace the origins of the motif back much further. It’s right there in Plato and his depiction of Socrates opining about the ethics of teacher-student sexual relationships.

There seems to be good reason for this cultural and intellectual obsession. Teacher-student sexual relationships are a major problem. Recent revelations of rampant sexual harassment and assault of students by well-heeled professors, coupled with institutional misdeeds in covering up these affairs, highlight how rampant it is. In tandem with the #MeToo movement, and the broader societal activism against the sexual mistreatment of women and children, the academy is having to reckon with its history of abuse and misconduct. No wonder people are opining about the ethics of such relationships.

Sexual harassment and assault are not quite the same things as consensual sexual or romantic relationships between two adults. But there is a fuzzy line between these two things in the case of teacher-student interactions. Clearly, there are some ’successful’ romantic relationships that began in this form. As mentioned in the introduction, I have interacted with such couples in the past and my own knowledge of them suggests that they were generally happy and well-functioning (who knows what goes on behind closed doors). But given the nature of teacher-student relationships, there are some very good reasons for thinking that sexual relationships between these parties are always fraught with risk. They are, consequently, best avoided.

There are three obvious reasons for this.

First, the power asymmetry between the parties casts a shadow over any alleged consent to such a relationship. Teachers are the more powerful parties within such relationships, at least within a certain institutional context. They have some knowledge or skill that the student lacks and is supposed to learn from them. Even if the student is highly competent and intelligent in their own right, the default assumption is that this asymmetry exists. Furthermore, the teacher often has power over the future of the student, both in terms of their testing and evaluation, and their access to future opportunities (e.g. through reference writing). It’s a complicated question as to whether this power-asymmetry necessarily undermines any consent that might given to a sexual relationship. But you certainly could argue that there is a lingering, implicit threat inherent in the relationship. Even if the teacher doesn’t say anything, the implication or assumption might be that they could use their power to make life difficult for the student if the student does not consent to the sex.

Even if this shadow doesn’t place the relationship within the realms of illegality or crime, it may, at the very least, place it within the category of what Ann Cahill has called ‘unjust sex’. I covered this idea in a previous article ↗. Cahill derived this category of sex from a series of interviews that Nicola Gavey conducted for her book Just Sex? ↗. Gavey interviewed several women about their sexual experiences. Many of these women agreed that they had consented to some sexual encounters in the past but had felt that they had done so in conditions in which their choices were limited and, in fact, they only had one viable option. Cahill builds on this idea by arguing that in certain contexts, there are less powerful parties whose sexual agency can be hijacked by more powerful parties (Cahill focuses on male-female interactions within patriarchal societies, but I believe it is possible to extend her analysis to all relationships involving power asymmetries). The result of this hijacking can be subtle and insidious. The weaker party may be encouraged to signal consent and approval of what the more powerful party desires in order to accredit it, even though they themselves appear to have limited choices. Cahill’s point is that these cases of unjust sex are not equivalent to rape or sexual assault but, rather, lie in a gray zone between rape and ethically permissible sex. Their moral character is tainted, even if it is not completely reprehensible. It seems to me that this might capture a basic problem with all teacher-student sexual relationships.

Second, there appears to good evidence to suggest that these relationships are often harmful to the weaker party in the long-term. Fredrik Bondestam and Maja Lundqvist ↗ recently published a systematic review of the empirical research on the prevalence and consequences of sexual harassment in higher education. They found that it is linked to a number of harmful outcomes for both students and staff, but particularly students. Here is the key paragraph from their study. You can find links to the papers they cite in this paragraph in the original piece:

Exposure to sexual harassment in higher education leads to physical, psychological and professional consequences for individuals. Examples such as irritation, anger, stress, discomfort, feelings of powerlessness and degradation are recurrent in research literature. Evidence-based research confirms more specifically that sexual harassment in higher education can lead to depression (Martin-Storey and August 2016; Selkie et al. 2015), anxiety (Richman et al. 1999; Schneider, Swan, and Fitzgerald 1997), post-traumatic stress disorder (Henning et al. 2017), physical pain (Chan et al. 2008), unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (Philpart et al. 2009), increased alcohol use (Fedina, Holmes, and Backes 2018; McDonald 2012; Selkie et al. 2015), impaired career opportunities (Henning et al. 2017), reduced job motivation (Barling et al. 1996; Chan et al. 2008; Harned et al. 2002), and more. Specific job-related factors often include absence, decreased job satisfaction, engagement and productivity, decreased self-confidence and self-image, and persons giving notice from their jobs (Lapierre, Spector, and Leck 2005; Willness, Steel, and Lee 2007). Even observing or hearing about a colleague’s exposure to sexual harassment can generate ‘bystander stress’ and also cause conflicts in the work team (McDonald 2012; Willness, Steel, and Lee 2007).

(Bondestam and Lundqvist 2020, 405 ↗)

Of course, you may dispute the relevance of this since it deals with sexual harassment (i.e. unwanted sexual attention etc) and not consensual sexual relationships but I will simply reiterate that the line between the two is often blurred. Indeed earlier studies of apparently consensual relationships between staff and students suggests that they can have similar effects, particularly when the relationships breakdown, as many relationships inevitably do. Belinda Blevins-Knabe ↗, for example, in her review of such studies, notes that many female students end up regretting these relationships in the long-term and suffer from anxiety, depression and self-esteem-related issues as a result (Blevins-Knabe 1992, 157 ↗). She also notes that the professors involved in such relationships often view them as being problematic and unhelpful too: in one study only 1/6 of those that engaged in such relationships found them to be beneficial (Blevins-Knabe 1992, 157 ↗).

There are some qualifications I would like to make to this second argument. First, although I have no doubt that teacher-student sexual relationships lead to the negative outcomes listed above, I would be curious to see how they fare relative to other broken relationships. I imagine (though I have never experienced it myself) that relationship breakdown is stressful and anxiety inducing outside of the academic context, and that it can lead to the negative outcomes listed by Bondestam and Lundqvist. Second, and relatedly, one interesting aspect of some of these studies is the extent to which people retrospectively reevaluate their relationships. It is an old study, but Glaser and Thorpe (1986) ↗ suggest that this is a common feature of how students view their former relationships with professors. To what extent are such reevaluations to be credited? Could they be tainted by subsequent events? For example could shifting social norms concerning such relationships (i.e. the fact that people view them as less acceptable than they once were) or the fact that the subsequent career of the student didn’t pan out affect how they perceived and how harmful they are felt to be? I’m sure this happens to some extent. But, even if it does, given that the prevailing cultural wind is against teacher-student sexual relationships, this still provides a reason to avoid them in the interests of harm reduction.

Third, and finally, overlapping a sexual relationship with a teacher-student relationship often undermines the goal of the latter relationship: the pursuit of education. In her recent analysis of the topic, Amia Srinivasan makes much of this argument. She claims that the main problem with these relationships is not the lack of consent but the betrayal of the teaching mission. With typical bluntness, she argues that the goal of teaching is to educate students not to sleep with them. Adding a sexual dimension to the relationship distracts from this goal. One or both of the parties can become more interested in the sex than in sharing knowledge and developing intellectual skills. Sex and intimacy can also undermine teacher impartiality and objectivity, which is crucial to the evaluation and assessment of students, as well as the management of educational activities. Even if teachers claim that the relationship doesn’t harm their professional judgment, it surely must to some extent. Institutional fixes such as anonymous grading and/or reassignment of supervisees can address this problem to some extent but it won’t eliminate it completely. On top of all this, the intimate relationship can affect the burden of care and responsibility within the relationship. Ordinarily, we think of the teacher as the one that carries the heaviest burden: they must care for and nurture the students’ intellectual pursuits. But a sexual relationship can flip this around, particularly in the case of a male professor and female student. As Srinivasan notes, suddenly the student might be expected to care for the professor, not vice versa.

This third argument seems valid to me. But there is a counterargument to it. As noted in the previous section, the purpose of teacher-student relationships is vague. What does it mean to ‘educate’ someone? Could eroticisation be part of education? Deresiewicz, in his article on ‘Love on Campus ↗’, suggests that there is something necessarily erotic about good teaching:

Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isn’t the one who falls in love… Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul.

(Deresiewicz 2007 ↗)

 

Deresiewicz goes on to clarify that students shouldn’t mistake this erotic passion for sexuality, and professors shouldn’t take advantage of any potential confusion, but others have made the case without those qualifications. Srinivasan discusses the case of Jane Gallop, a professor accused of sexual harassment by her graduate students in the 1990s. Gallop did not deny the accusations but went on to argue that the sexual dimension of her relationship with the students was a sign of pedagogical success not failure:

At its most intense—and, I would argue, its most productive—the pedagogical relation between teacher and student is, in fact, a “consensual amorous relation.” And if schools decide to prohibit not only sex but “amorous relations” between teacher and student, the “consensual amorous relation” that will be banned from our campuses might just be teaching itself.

(Gallop, quoted in Srinivasan 2020, 1120 ↗)

 

Even Srinivasan, who is strongly opposed to sexual relationships between teachers and students, concedes that there might be something to this:

Certainly those of us who ended up as professors almost invariably did so because some teacher aroused in us intense feelings of infatuation, desire and want.

(Srinivasan 2020, 1120 ↗)

 

WTF? I have to say that reading this kind of thing is like reading an alien language. Maybe my experiences are radically different from those of my colleagues, but I have never once had such an passionate feeling or infatuation with a teacher or professor, nor do I believe that my becoming an academic was the result of some passion being aroused within me by a particular individual. Indeed, I cannot remember a single teacher that has had any a major influence on me. Perhaps I am the outlier.

All that said, my interpretation of these claims about the erotic element of teaching is that they are examples of the fallacy that comes from using analogies to understand the normative character of different relationships. People are analogising too readily between sexual relationships and teacher-student relationships to reach the conclusion that there is something erotic or quasi-sexual about good teaching. I agree that good teaching should stimulate curiosity and passion for a subject or mode of inquiry, but I don’t see this kind of passion as being similar to an erotic or sexual passion. They are quite different.

In any event, the potential injustice, harm and distraction associated with teacher-student sexual relationships seems to provide reason enough to avoid them. They will almost always undermine the ethical character of the relationship, not accentuate it.

I should say that there is one obvious exception to this argument: the case where the sexual relationship pre-dates the teacher-student relationship. It’s possible, particularly at university level, that someone could end up teaching a current or former partner who enrolled in a class or degree programme. I’ve heard of this happening in the past. I think this does create difficulties in practice, and should probably be avoided if at all possible (e.g. by reassigning the student to another lecturer/professor). That said, because the relationship did not arise out of the teacher-student relationship it doesn’t carry quite the same risks when it comes to consent or harm (I suspect!).

What about relationships that post-date the teacher-student relationship? The French president Emmanuel Macron is, famously, married to his former high school teacher. They got married 13 years after they originally met but I believe they had an on-again-off-again relationship from about the time that he was 18. I personally find this strange, but I guess having a relationship with a former student is not as ethically dubious as having one with a current student. That said, my own sense of it is that the amount of time that has elapsed since the end of the teacher-student relationship makes a difference. Getting into a relationship immediately after someone has graduated or left a class seems suspicious to me, but getting into one with someone a decade after your previous interactions seems much less problematic. Personally, I would be concerned about any lingering asymmetries of power or hero worship that might leak into the relationship, but these might not be a factor in some cases.

3. Is there a case for friendships with students?

What about friendships between teachers and students? On the face of it, these would seem to be less ethically problematic than sexual relationships. Friendships don’t raise the same concerns about consent nor do they hold the same potential for harm. Furthermore, I find that many of the people I work with are willing to entertain the idea of being friends with their students. This is particularly true at the graduate/PhD student level. Some people have even suggested to me that it is natural for PhD students to become friends with their supervisors over time. Indeed, it may be one of the hallmarks of a well-functioning supervisor-supervisee relationship.

I have my concerns about this. But a lot of this depends on how we characterise ‘friendships’. There are many competing philosophical definitions of friendship. The most famous and influential of these comes from the work of Aristotle. He distinguished between three kinds of friendship: pleasure friendships (which are about getting enjoyment and entertainment from one another); utility friendships (which are about achieving some goal or purpose with another person’s assistance); and virtue friendships (which are about sharing a commitment to the good with another person, engaging in mutually beneficial and supportive acts, and appreciating the other as a person in their own right, not just a source of pleasure and utility). As you might imagine from these descriptions, Aristotle saw the virtue friendship as the highest ideal of friendship. It was the form of friendship to which we should all aspire.

What significance does this have for teacher-student friendships? Well, it seems plausible to say that teachers can have, and perhaps even should have, utility friendships with their students, provided the utility in question is associated with the goal of education. The student can learn something and, in many cases, so can the teacher. And even if they don’t learn something, they get to hone their skills as an educator. It’s a win-win. Furthermore, as part of that utility friendship, teachers and students probably should be friendly with one another. That is, they should be civil, pleasant, tolerant and so forth. If there is too much resistance and antagonism between them, it will hamper the educational mission.

But can the friendships ever be more than that? Can they ever aspire to something like the Aristotelian ideal? In a thought-provoking article, Amy Shuffleton argues  ↗that although such friendships are fraught with risk, there can be merit to them. Shuffleton’s argument is all the more provocative insofar as she focuses not just on friendships between adult students and adult professors at university but, also, on friendships between child students and adults.

Shuffleton accepts that there are two major risks associated with teacher-student friendships. The first is the problem of impartiality: if a teacher is friends with a student it raises concerns about their fairness and impartiality in both assessing and facilitating the education of other students. We encountered this problem in connection with the ethics of sexual relationships. It rears its head here again, albeit without the sexual dimension. Shuffleton argues that this problem actually has two elements to it: the fact of partiality and the perception of partiality. As a matter of fact, many teachers who happen to be friends with their students are not necessarily biased in their favour. Nor, she argues, do students expect such bias. If the friendship is an honest one — and not a Machiavellian one — the student should wish to be treated and assessed fairly. But that doesn’t eliminate the perception of partiality: for all their protestations to the contrary, other people might assume that the teacher is biased in favour of their friends. But Shuffleton points out that many other factors affect the perception of partiality. People might think a teacher is biased to male students or white students or students their share their faith or religious beliefs. Teachers have to work to manage those perceptions and sometimes friendships with students might work to counteract such biases.

The second problem is that the friendship might interfere with or distract from the educational mission. Again, this is similar to the concern raised in relation to sexual relationships but where the distraction takes a different form. Shuffleton offers some interesting responses to this. First, she suggests that teacher-student friendships might support and complement the educational mission in at least some cases, e.g. making students more receptive to learning or preparing them for what it means to be an adult in a democratic society. Second, and more interestingly, she argues that some students might benefit from having adult friends, perhaps because they are excluded by their own peer groups. Children, in particular, can be cruel and prey on any differences or eccentricities. Having an adult that tolerates and appreciates difference could be beneficial to a student. This may involve a form of teacher-student friendship. Shuffleton cites an example from her own life in support of this: a friendship she had with a younger male student while teaching English in Krakow. They did not socialise together, but would talk after class and they bonded over a mutual love of art and photography. This boy’s peers did not seem to share his interests in these things. She thinks there was some value to their friendship.

Shuffleton’s overall point is that we face plural moral demands and obligations. There is a danger that, as teachers, we become too rigid and attached to a certain conception of our role and the moral demands associated with it. In short, Shuffleton’s argument is that we shouldn’t let the moral demands of being a teacher distract from the moral demands of being human.

There is much to commend in Shuffleton’s sensitive and thoughtful account of teacher-student friendships. It does give me some pause and encourage me to reconsider my own distant approach to students. Still, I can’t help but worry about the perception of bias and favouritism that might arise from such friendships. I also think that the suggested benefits of such friendships — toleration, respect and appreciation for difference — can be achieved without slipping into friendship. Indeed, the example Shuffleton gives of the boy she befriended while teaching in Krakow doesn’t really strike me as a true friendship. She was friendly with him without being a true friend. At least, that’s how I see it.

4. Conclusion

So what kind of relationship should a teacher cultivate with their students? I started this article by outlining my own practice in this regard: a relationship of (somewhat extreme) professional distance. Is there any reason to think this is the wrong approach?

Not really. What I have suggested is that it makes sense to think that the ethical character of teacher-student relationships should be determined by the purpose of that relationship: to educate the student (in the broad sense). The problem with this is that this purpose is vague. There are many potential definitions and conceptualisations of what it means to educate someone. But even if this purpose is vague, it seems clear that sexual or intimate relationships between teachers and students are fraught with risk, and tend to undermine the goal of education. Furthermore, even friendship, particularly in its more meaningful forms, creates perceptions of bias and distracts from the educational mission. One can be friendly with students — open, tolerant, respectful — without being their friend.

That said, I would qualify this approach in two respects. First, given that the purpose of education is unclear, and that teachers may not even be able to help students achieve that purpose if it were clear, there is a reason to think that I should focus more attention on the ongoing dynamics of my interactions with students and less on whether those interactions achieve some vaguely specified goal. This is similar to the argument I made about the purpose of parent-child relationships some time ago. Second, taking onboard Shuffleton’s point, we shouldn’t let the demands of teaching detract from the demands of basic human decency.

* One colleague once told me that I should have children because children are like students that you can follow throughout their whole lives. It was such a bizarre analogy that it has stuck in my head ever since.

SAKHRI Mohamed

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