Wednesday, July 18, 2007


If you have not watched the video in the post below, from Taylor Mali, watch it now before reading this piece. Go on—I’ll wait. Good. Now reflect on that last line of his, about teaching our children not only to question authority, but also to speak with it. What does that mean—to speak with authority? I know a lot of people who speak with conviction—even passion. But what does it mean to speak with authority? And a corrollary, since I was an English teacher: What does it mean to write with authority? I don’t mean to write with correct grammar or good sentence structure—though maybe I do, maybe that’s part of it. But what else is it? Do we know? Have we seen it recently enough to even recognize it?

Am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood and stained with pollution is wrong? No - I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply….What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. (Frederick Douglass)

Author is in the word authority. And there’s something about ownership in there, in the word—owning your mind, owning your opinion, being the complete and sole author of what you think and what you say. And to get to that point—to own those things to the extent that you have authority—firm enough legs to stand on that you actually have standing—requires something else: rigor. Rigor. One thinks of…what? Rigor mortis, perhaps? Of course, those of us in the education biz have immediate associations with the word rigor, and they’re usually unpleasant, as the word is most often used—or rather, its absence or apparent lack is most often used—as a criticism and attack on our practice. I was at a meeting in the great city of Chicago, Illinois, last year, when a district leader talked about how the public school system’s new curriculum was going to be rigorous. There were groans, sighs, and occasional howls of derision. And then one brave soul stood up and yelled, “What do you mean, rigorous? What does that even mean? Rigorous is the most over-used word in education. Nobody knows what it means!” One thing you can say about the world of public education: there are no boundaries when it comes to professional behavior. Anyone, at any level of the system, can say anything, in any tone of voice, to anyone else at any other level of the system. And they usually do. But back to rigor. What does it mean? Let’s move away from rigor mortis to another association—one that I think will yield some insight. When one thinks of the word rigorous in the context of Everyday Life, one might come up with the phrase “a rigorous workout.” We’ve all heard that, or said it. (I’ve found, over the past few years, that in order to understand a lot of issues in education, I have to leave that world entirely and come at the issue from an entirely different context. This is one of those times.) Now, we all have a pretty good sense of what we mean by a rigorous workout, and how it’s different from a non-rigorous workout. You might say, “a rigorous workout is intense,” or, “a rigorous workout makes you sweat.” And those are on the right path. Let’s extend it a bit. Make it more than a single event. What is a rigorous workout regimen? I would suggest that the sign of a rigorous course or plan of exercise is that your health and your body are clearly and unmistakably altered. A rigorous workout regimen changes you. And a course of exercise that is less than rigorous leaves you more or less the same. It does not tax you; it does not challenge you. It may make you sweat, from time to time, but it will not make you different. Now, any gym rat will tell you that there are different types of physical training. There is strength training, which builds muscle and does visibly change your body. And there is flexibility training, which may not build muscle mass, but builds ability inside your body—ability to use and manage and control your muscles in a variety of ways. A good workout regimen requires the building of both strength and flexibility. Is the development of the mind any different, really? When we educate our children—when we do it well—don’t we aim for both strength of mind (deep and broad knowledge) and flexibility of mind (the ability to deploy that knowledge in a variety of contexts, for a variety of purposes)? Isn’t this combination exactly what we want to equip our children with when we send them out into the world—in the hopes that when these two areas of mental discipline are applied to Experience—or, perhaps, when Experience smashes itself up against their minds—the result, eventually, will be Wisdom? Have we, as educators, grimaced at and shied away from words like rigor precisely because they carry with them this association of training? I remember a teacher friend of mine recoiling when I said something about my then 2-year-old son and used the word “training.” He thought that I was treating my child like a dog. Animals are trained; children are…well, I wasn’t sure what word he would have preferred. Loved, perhaps. And yes, of course. God knows I loved my son. But part of the way I showed my love—and exercised my responsibility as a parent—was to prepare my son for the world…step by step, bit by bit. And the T-word isn’t always verboten—children can be potty-trained without anyone getting snooty. But they can’t be life-trained? Who are we kidding? When I lived in Brooklyn, I trained my son not to run out into the street. I didn’t suggest it to him rationally, or…I don’t know…love him into it. I trained him to stay on the sidewalk, and to stop at the red light. You better believe I did. His life depended on it. Why can’t Johnny read? Well, maybe it’s because we’ve tried to love him into reading instead of training him to read. It is, after all, a discipline. A discipline requires training—rigorous training. It simply does. Why has our thinking in education become so mushy, so rainbows-and-puppy-dogs? Learning isn’t always rainbows and puppy dogs. Sometimes it’s hard. Maybe some children are failing at it because we’re not being honest about what it truly takes to succeed at it. My son, now 7, is taking Karate classes. Karate is very disciplined, and requires patient and regular training. The mind and body must learn the moves and then be able to stop thinking about the moves—to simply own them, and use them in the split second in which they are needed. Little by little, I see my little boy gaining confidence as he gains ability and as he gains control. The knowledge of what to do and the ability to do it well are combining to give him a completely different kind of strength—a knowledge that he possesses something of power and importance, and is in full control of it. This strength of ownership, I think, is what we call authority. Don’t get me wrong—he’s still a silly, funny, wonderful goofball of a 7-year-old, and I wouldn’t have him any other way. But this growing sense of authority, of self-control, is an important thing. It is what may allow him, as a teen and as an adult, to feel that he is living his life, rather than having his life live him. We talk about freedom pretty recklessly in this country, thinking that it’s the same thing as license, or abandon, when it is actually quite the opposite. The person living a life of reckless abandon is a slave to passion and appetite, and a slave is never free. To be truly free means to have mastered all the forces, internal and external, that seek to exert mastery over you. Until you have that measure of self-control, you can never be free. And a man who is not in control of himself may be reckless and dangerous, but he is no real threat to Power. To speak with authority, then, is much more than speaking with conviction. After all, it’s easy to have convictions, lots of convictions, poorly considered and unearned, sometimes even contradictory. We are thin reeds, swayed this way and that way by strong opinions that convince us of things we do not understand, but feel passionately about. We live in an age where facts are fungible and feelings rule—where leadership is demonstrated by conviction and swagger, while actually knowing things, or having skills that required rigor and discipline to attain, is mocked. To speak with authority is to be the great oak, not the thin reed. And yes, the great oak cracks in the wind, because a lot of hot air is marshalled against great oaks. We tear them down as fast as we can because they are a rebuke to those of us who blow in the wind—and a threat to those who want to control the weather. To be passionately convinced is to serve your ideas, to be owned by them. To have authority is to be served by your ideas—to put them to use for yourself and your people—to own them. You don’t have to be afraid to follow someone who speaks with authority, worried that they’re going to lead you down a dark path into trouble—because the person with real authority has already been down that path, and has come back to report what lies ahead. The person who only has conviction believes he knows what’s on the path ahead without ever having been there. The person with conviction says “Trust me!” When someone speaks with real authority, he doesn’t much care whether you trust him or not. He’s not in the business of convincing, or swaying, or winning you over. He is simply sharing what he knows. He says, “I have the right to say this, because I Know. I have wondered, become convinced, tested those convictions, doubted those convictions, revised and reshaped them, burned them in the crucible of logic and reality, perhaps been burned or humiliated, and now I can say Yes, I know.” When you were little, perhaps you felt this way about a parent. And then, in your teens or twenties, the idol turned out to have feet of clay. Daddy was flawed; Mommy was wrong. They weren’t perfect, so they never really had anything to tell us. Authority was a trick. It was bullshit. Never trust anyone over thirty. And so on. But when I think of authority, I think of the later relationship, when you get over your feelings of betrayal and come to know your parents as people, rather than figures, and can read in their eyes and in their voices the long years of experience, of trial and error, of mistakes and regrets. And it’s then, I think, that you can come to treasure them as people who speak with authority, people who have been down the road you still have yet to walk. It’s then that they become your tribal elders. And I’m afraid all of this ends with a sputter here—with a whimper instead of a bang. Because what I’m left with, after spooling out this long thread of thought, is just this: Who speaks with authority now?

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