Compare these three uses of “struggling” I’ve heard from teachers:
- “Johnny is struggling to raise his science scores.”
- “Jimmy is struggling to understand long division.”
- “Jackie Jormp-Jomp is struggling to behave in class.”
I think there is a rather insidious, or at least incorrect, assumption being smuggled into the last of these. That is the assumption that a little man lives in your head that tries to control you, and who people will often assert really is you, but whose perspective is mostly aligned with local authority figures.
(to say nothing of “struggling to complete his homework”, which to me is literally the exact opposite of what it means: “not trying to complete his homework”)
Consider the meanings of both the words and the grammar used here. “Struggle” is basically “work very hard” and brings to mind an obstacle external to the subject. One can easily imagine for sentences 1 and 2 that “struggling” takes the form of study and practice. It is difficult to see what children struggling to behave are working against, if not themselves, and what progress toward their goal looks like. In what part of a misbehaving child’s mind is this struggle occurring?
The grammar “to (v)” refers to a goal, i.e. something you can imagine achieving and are trying to achieve. This makes more sense with sentences 1 and 2, as it is quite simple to imagine a test score higher than you achieved before, and a child who has not yet mastered long division presumably remembers what it was like to master subtraction and multiplication. A child that is “struggling to behave” not only probably isn’t actually working hard but also probably doesn’t have the goal that the teacher’s phrasing implies.
Hopefully you can see my problem with using this word and this grammar with a behavioral problem – it paints an absurd picture of a mind working against itself for a goal external to it. It summons a homunculus inside the student’s head and shanghais it into service for the teacher. As with all injunctions to let your central executive freely and rationally choose, it refers to a part of the mind that simply doesn’t exist (and people who appear to have such a part are also not freely or rationally choosing – the well-behaved kids don’t have a homunculus either).
This criticism isn’t to discount the subjective experience of being aware of the unacceptability of your own behavior as you perform it – I had this at a job interview not too far in the past – but we know kids don’t often behave with this level of self-awareness. The level of self-awareness implied in the phrase “struggling to behave” actually goes further than the usual mind-body dualism – it posits a mind-mind dualism and chides children for not listening to the part of their minds that the teacher simply made up.
Much of the time that teachers say this, they are doing so because it makes the child look better than simply saying that he or she behaves badly because he or she wants to. Still, we mustn’t let our diplomatic phrasing for the benefit of parents cloud our understanding of what is really happening.