Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We Fight Authority (and we win...and lose)

I wrote a couple of years ago about "authority" as it relates to education (here), but the idea has been nagging at me ever since.

Now I see this, over at Joanne Jacobs' edublog. Very interesting take on what's fueling the achievement gap in education. And you can believe it or dismiss it, depending on your political point of view (since we live in an age where political point of view determines the truth value of any statement, data be damned). But I think it's pretty indisputable that parental authority, and especially male parental authority, is in crisis.

Here's one example, from just last week. Look at what they say about our sitcoms and family movies and TV commercials. Men are doofuses. Men are dolts. Most are bald; most are fat; all are clueless. The younger versions--pre-baldness and pre-fat, are just overgrown children. And the women? The women are patient, kind, understanding, and generally long-suffering. What they have to suffer is us.

The flip side of the picture, of course, in our harsher, less pleasant entertainments, is that men are greedy, violent, unscrupulous, and cruel.

If you're looking for the adult male role models of yesterday, you won't find them. There is no Atticus Finch in our movies. There is no Father Knows Best on television. And, as the students in the Jacobs article protested, in far too many families there are no men at all.

All right, you say, that's fine. They were all lies anyway. There were no Atticus Finches. There were only Don Drapers. Sure, they dressed better back then. Men wore ties, even to go out to a baseball game. But they were the same dolts, doofuses, and overgrown children they are now, deep down inside. We just didn't show them that way in our entertainments.

And yes, we've all had to grow up, and realize that our gods have feet of clay. But does that mean that, as children, we should have no gods? That the process of growing ujp and becoming independent--the process of leaving the Garden and entering the World--should be gotten rid of entirely? No more garden--at all--for anyone? Is it really healthy to bombard our children with images of their parents--of all the adults in their community--being hopeless morons? Is it really healthy to teach children that they are smarter than everyone else? I know they think that already--that's part of being a child. But have we really decided that growth--all growth--is an illusion? That there's nowhere to go but down? Really?

Every movement that brought us to this place was right and righteous, and just and justified, even if they gave us some unintended consequences. Feminism's drive to balance the scales between the genders was right and was needed. And it did quite a lot of good. But I don't think it's brought us to the place we want to be. In too many couples, men and women compete for the traditional "man" role, neither of them wanting to be stuck with the nurturing, home-making role. Is that the healthiest way to raise children, I wonder--with both parents saying, "no, you do it"?

Outside of the home, the anti-authoritarian impulses of the sixties were more than justified, after Vietnam and Watergate. But where have they left us? We still have people placed in positions of authority over us--but we trust and respect none of them. We tear them down as quickly as we can, but secretly beg for someone with true authority to take their place. We mock our fathers and dream of some ultimate Daddy who will finally set things right. Robbed of the growth from dependence to independence, we grow up out in the cold from day one, dreaming of some theoretical warmth we've never felt. Isn't that a recipe for fascism? Truly free, independent people need to grow up feeling competent, capable, self-controlled, and well-informed. Do we get that by raising kids to believe that they can trust and rely on no one--not even as children?

And our own, personal sense of authority and command over our lives? We have none. We suspect all of our impulses and desires, both indulging them and hating them. We take on positions of authority at work or at home, and undercut and second-guess ourselves constantly. Raised to believe that all authority is suspect, we have no firm center. We are un-grounded. We do not stand upon the earth--we waver. We shuffle. We qualify every statement. We are weak.

Bugs Bunny used to be the animated character that symbolized America at its best--the way we wanted to see ourselves: witty, resourceful, optimistic, cocky, capable, unflappable. He epitomized the "can do" spirit that we thought we had--that we hoped we had. It was the spirit that looked on a problem and said "let's fix that."

What cartoon character do we see in the mirror now? Homer Simpson.

Personal authority shouldn't have to be a mirage. And it shouldn't have to be based on violence or the threat of violence; it should be based on wisdom--on understanding--even on empathy. There's nothing wrong with empathy--we naturally invest our trust in people who we feel understand the challenges and problems that others face, and sympathize. But that empathy is not a weak, watery sentimentalism. It doesn't wring its hands or bite its lip. It is grounded. It comes from a place of strength. And it is pointed--always--towards action. It says, "let's fix that," not "what a pity."

Let's fix that.