The late Teachers College adult learning theorist Jack Mezirow believed that truly transformative career changes result from “disorienting dilemmas” that prompt people to critically reassess their deepest assumptions and explore new roles and relationships.
Jason Mazeski, an instructor and curriculum designer for the New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism Training Section, studied Mezirow’s theories as a master’s degree student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and he believes the NYPD currently is in the midst of its own disorienting dilemma.
“There’s a growing rift between the community and the police,” says Mazeski, who in 2017 received SUNY Buffalo’s Adult Education Award for his efforts to expel bias and culturally motivated profiling techniques from the counterterrorism-training curriculum. “The department’s training conveys the negative connotation of bias, but there’s little attempt to get officers to understand that implicit bias is something that happens to everyone, and that it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
This past June, hoping to equip his fellow officers with a more “metacognitive” effort to understand their own attitudes and assumptions, Mazeski enrolled as a doctoral student in the Adult Education Guided Intensive Study (AEGIS) program that Mezirow founded at TC in 1982.
I think there’s a great opportunity for academia to help law enforcement training change from a primarily behavioral program to one that creates better people through transformative learning experience. Change in behavior is certainly warranted, but change in personality and thinking is what we should be striving for.
“I think there’s a great opportunity for academia to help law enforcement training change from a primarily behavioral program to one that creates better people through transformative learning experience,” he says. “Change in behavior is certainly warranted, but change in personality and thinking is what we should be striving for.”
Mazeski says he’s thrilled to be in the program that Mezirow created, and to be working with faculty members such as Terrence Maltbia, Victoria Marsick and Lyle Yorks, whose work he’s read. At the same time, studying at TC hasn’t always been the easiest of pathways. His employer might have been a bit more enthusiastic and supportive, he concedes, had he pursued a doctorate in something more directly law enforcement-related – though ultimately he’s hopeful that the department will recognize the potential applications of theories by Mezirow, John Dewey and Paulo Freire. And at TC, just as on the force itself, he has sometimes run into people who are guided less by evidence than assumptions – in this case, about police officers.
“There are biases toward police officers just as there are biases toward people based on color, gender and sexual orientation,” he says. “It’s easy to focus on the officer on the ground who upholds laws and inequities – which are real – but there needs to be a broader dialogue. Having a preconceived notion of anyone – racially, culturally – puts us in a really bad place as a society.”
There are biases toward police officers just as there are biases toward people based on color, gender and sexual orientation. There needs to be a broader dialogue. Having a preconceived notion of anyone – racially, culturally – puts us in a really bad place as a society.
Mazeski absorbed that broadminded view in part from his father, who was an elevator mechanic with the New York City housing authority.
“He saw the differences in living accommodations in public housing compared with private buildings,” he says. “It made him aware of what people struggle with, and the different resources they have.”
Mazeski has been through some disorienting dilemmas of his own. Initially he joined the force as a transit cop, but switched to counter-terrorism after a two-year detail at the 9/11 memorial site.
“There were so many people coming every day with so much emotion,” he recalls.
Then about six years ago, an older friend on the force retired, found himself without purpose or direction, and ultimately took his own life.
“It really made me think about how I could make a more impactful change on the force and on myself, so that we understand that there’s more to life than law enforcement,” he says.
Teachers College has given him some answers, he says. “I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to bring some of this back to the law enforcement community, because it’s desperately needed.”