Commentary

Victims of Freedom and the Failure of Adult Will

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If the past is any pointer, current calls for educational excellence face formidable obstacles. Not only has the progressive century repeatedly rejected the goals of basic schooling; its strain of sentimental individualism has helped gradually to inflate the child's status to demented parity with the adult's.

For years now, the critical mass of parents, teachers, and community members able and willing to set coherent standards for young people has diminished in size and power. What the historian Christopher Lasch calls the culture of narcissism includes the decomposition of clear generational hierarchies. Many adults, eager for kicks or rejuvenation, try to imitate the manners and attitudes of the young. In doing so, they degrade themselves. It should not surprise, then, that fewer kids feel obliged to defer to such craven "authority."

As late as the beginning of the 1960's, the superior status of adulthood (not to be confused with the charismatic power of a few adult individuals) tended to subdue even the most unruly or selfish child. In legal conflicts over authority between the generations, jurists invariably sided with adults.

The near-automatic authority of adults--whereby relatives, neighbors, teachers, police, clergy, and others were empowered with prerogatives of in loco parentis--made transmission of local standards to the young relatively easy.

No longer. For youngsters, new authorities, especially television, rush in to fill the "guidance vacuum." Many adults who tremble at "imposing their values" on children at the same time decry the lack of juvenile discipline. Audaciously, they expect the schools to instill superegos singlehandedly. Social and cultural disjunctions, meanwhile, intensify. The school is unjustly and recklessly blamed for not making them go away.

For a decade or more, parents and teachers have been enormously susceptible to modernist ideologies. Many of them were "liberalized" by the Great Society. They embody an apparently epidemic liberal paralysis, wherein they endorse permissiveness but cannot with any certainty define its bounds.

By now, almost every adult knows those who have gone entirely around the bend to pursue eternal youth and more: the father who develops a taste for disco bars, or the mother who forsakes family for a feminist rap group.

It was just 10 years ago that black activist Dick Gregory rode the circuit of high-school and college auditoriums beginning his speech, again and again, "You are the most moral generation in the history of mankind." Too few adults were willing to tell the young what a vicious lie that was. Too many of them believed it. Haunted by self-doubts, they allowed young people to face them down as materialists, oppressors, and baby-killers. Adulthood began to seem faintly shameful.

Even today, plenty of adults remain hypnotized by the mirage of Rousseau's Emile. So goes the romantic litany: Children are pure and precious individuals, easily corrupted by tainted adults; they are sensitive, never sullen or spoiled; they are virtuous, even when they appear vulgar or mean; they are imaginative and creative, not inherently ignorant.

Could it be that, on the whole, children display about the same levels of individuality, sensitivity, morality, and creativity, no less and no more, than adults, that the experience of adults can sharpen these traits in the young? This in not, yet, to be confessed in many enlightened circles.

"Many adults are not so much interested in children, as in the idea of children," the University of Wisconsin professor R. Keith Miller has said. "Children as individuals hold less interest for them than children as the mythic representation of all they feel is lacking in their own lives."

Today, the child is free. Modernism has emancipated him from absolute, restrictive, puritanical ethics. It has rendered virtually all aspects of juvenile life, including effort,voluntary. It has also left many young people--like all atomized individuals--dangerously isolated, with little control over themselves or allegiance to their communities. Hedonistic adults, at least, have the reference point of their own relatively strict upbringings to act as interior gyroscopes, even as they rebel against their past. But for too many youngsters who have grown up over the last 15 years, "freedom" has begrudged them the very tools they need to direct their own destinies.

Not surprisingly, we witness the increasing hard-edged division of the student population into strivers and non-strivers. For the self- or family-propelled student, educational opportunities continue to increase. For the rest, and there are probably many more of these, the times are hazardous. Underachievement has become a student "right." Because fewer adults are willing to intervene in the affairs of the young, marginal students can readily slide toward torpor or anomie. And the shame is that, once, with adult prodding, many of these non-strivers would have ultimately become strivers. The young victims of freedom are not the congenitally ambitious or hopelessly alienated. They are, instead, those innocents who have never been shown or told what striving really means. They are the ones, to use a current phrase, who fall between the cracks, and who were never warned about the cracks.

The cracks are widening, I'm afraid. And there is no good reason to think that this trend will reverse itself until more parents, teachers, local leaders--and the reigning elites--publicly advocate attitudes that most parents seem to hold when it comes to their own children: That schools should make children literate. That they should reward hard work and encourage competition. That they should teach "good" values. Loyalty, friendliness, kindness, obedience, thrift, bravery, cleanliness, and reverence, for example, being not a bad list.

School improvement all sounds so easy. And yet, it requires a wholesale reconsideration of adult power and a collateral revaluation of certain traditional values by those hostile to requirements on principle. Dissonant ideologies, systemic rigidities, groups intent on preserving their image and vested powers, all this works mightily against school improvement. But in the end what is most likely to abort school-reform efforts of the 1980's is sheer lack of adult will.

The sadness of the coming decade may be this. Research now underway will prove without much doubt that effective schools require authoritative adults in schools and communities. But paralyzed by the siren songs of individualism and relativism, a majority of adults will discover that, collectively, they have lost the stomach and nerve to implement those findings. They will, somehow, justify abdicating their natural duty to inform the young. They will have forgotten their own former prerogatives. At that moment, perhaps, the culture's sybaritic moment will have arrived.

Vol. 01, Issue 11, Page 17

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