Critical thinking as an antidote to stupid rules

At least once a week, I have to go to the post office to mail books people order through my website. I usually go to the same agency, which is actually a privately-owned postal franchise, near my house. This month, however, I was on vacation away from home, so I had to go to a different, government owned, agency. I can’t say it was a very good experience, but it got me thinking about what we are teaching, and therefore what our students are learning, at school.
Trouble started when the attendant said that, since I was requesting a discount fare for registered educational printed materials (known in Portuguese as “registro módico”), I would have to cut the corners of the envelope. I told him I have been shipping my books since 1998 and nobody had ever asked me to do that. He said “I cannot answer for other employees, or check if they are doing their work right. But the rule is that you have to cut the corners of the envelope, or else you can’t mail it”.
I did cut the envelope as demanded, but told him it was a stupid rule, because it only made the package more fragile without actually showing what was inside it. He answered that there was no such thing as a stupid rule. “If there is a rule”, he said, “it is because there is a reason for it to exist”, even though he couldn’t quite tell me what the reason was. I had to disagree with him, and inform the poor man that the world is, in fact, full of stupid rules everywhere.
“Do you work?” he wanted to know.
“Yes”, I told him. “I’ve been a teacher for over 30 years”.
“And as a teacher, don’t you have to follow rules?” he asked, as if trying to trick me into admitting he was right.
“I certainly do, and so do my students”, I replied. “But when I think a rule is stupid, I question it and try to change it. And I teach my students to do the same: to think, to question, and not to follow rules blindly”.
What the man said next really upset me:
“Well, then I hope my children and my grandchildren never fall into your hands”.
I then realized that, for some parents, the teachers’ job is to “tame” kids and turn them into rule-abiding citizens, not into individuals who dare to think for themselves and, in some cases, go against the status quo. But where would the world be if, throughout history, laws and rules had not been questioned and, eventually, changed? For starters, women would not be able to vote, and slavery would still exist. What an unfair world it would be.
So, yes, I felt angry about the attendant who was so intolerant towards rebels like me. But mostly I felt proud to have a job which allows me to teach more than English. As teachers, we have the power to teach our students to think, to be critical, and to want to keep on changing the world for the better.


P.S. – I filed a complaint about the stupid rule and the rude employee. The Post Office replied, apologizing for the attendant’s attitude and informing me that there is no such a rule requiring envelope corners to be cut. The attendant was wrong. So it was not only a stupid rule; it was a made-up one as well.

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Vivian Magalhães

Vivian Magalhães has an English teaching degree from UFRGS and a Master’s degree in Education from PUC-RS . She is the co-author of all the books in the series “Cem Aulas Sem Tédio”, as well as the author of “Teacher Tools” and the webmaster of In over thirty years of English teaching, she has taught children, teenagers and adults in many different settings. Nowadays, Vivian runs her own English school and also works as a freelance teacher trainer.

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