The Leader: Digging for Dissent

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A society of citizens who fall for every narcissistic, self-glorifying, and self-comforting appeal is not a very promising society; it is a society of weak-minded suckers.

Cultivating something called "leadership" is high on the academic agenda these days. College-admissions officers look for "leadership potential" in applicants, while commencement speakers at all levels address the "future leaders" of America. The more this message is sounded, the more students of all ages must scramble to hone their "leadership skills." This exhortation makes me nervous. I assume that, whatever the intentions behind the summons, those hearing it will turn for exemplars to one of the leadership models flashing across today's cultural screen.

Oversimplified, we are primarily exposed in contemporary America to two types of leaders: what I will call the charismatic and the facilitator. The charismatic leader draws us by force of his larger-than-life persona. We worship his superhuman qualities, even though, and in part because, they are beyond emulation. The attraction is visceral, irrational, yet irresistible. Examples of this type are the athlete, the cult founder, the big-man-on-campus. The facilitator, by contrast, taps not what is beyond, but what is within us. She leads by virtue of her insight into who we are and what we want. She is consumer- and customer-oriented, taking her measure of us (by intuition or by polls) and then articulating our desires as her own; she leads by following. Examples of this type are the politician, the advertiser, the salesperson.

Opposed as they are in many respects, these two leadership styles have a shared essence: Both ask very little of their followers--which is fundamentally why they make me nervous. At best, they make us forgetful of ourselves. We are lost in their appeal, we fall for them without knowing why. At worst, they titillate our vanity (we too can dream of becoming superhuman), and they attract our greed (we too can have every desire fulfilled). Theirs is an easy, feel-good sell; it is virtually instantaneous and difficult to compete with.

Both leadership types have an inspiring alternative version. An alternate of the charismatic leader is the genuine hero, a person whose superhuman qualities are less gifts bestowed by the gods than virtues acquired and honed through years of self-disciplined, self-denying, persistent devotion--a Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King Jr. An alternate of the facilitator is the genuine and deep consensus-builder; a person who taps our better selves, our nascent longings for a harmonious community. Such a leader enables us to transcend disagreements for the sake of the greater good--a Vaclav Havel, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Winston Churchill. These variants of the charismatic and the facilitator do make major demands upon their followers. They may ask for firmer commitments, for harder-to-acquire gratifications, for postponement of familiar pleasures. They are not immediately captivating; we don't tumble for them quickly. Such leaders have to convince us, to engage our minds as well as our hearts. Except in times of national emergency, they make infrequent appearances in the public press. They offer a hard sell, one slow to take hold and usually overwhelmed by the competition.

How do we, as educators, position ourselves among these choices? Undoubtedly we feel chagrined if and when our students become easy prey for the first two leadership styles. Long years of schooling are poorly spent if students do not emerge buffered against seductive appeals to their fantasies and desires, without at least minimal ability for rationally based judgments. A society of citizens who fall for every narcissistic, self-glorifying, and self-comforting appeal is not a very promising society; it is a society of weak-minded suckers.

On the other hand, we may (rightfully) believe that, given the sacrifices required, creating classrooms of Mandelas, or even of Mandela followers, is too ambitious a goal. So too is aspiring for graduates who seriously and habitually consider the public good as equal or superior to the private good. Schools cannot be responsible for grafting onto students leadership models that go so against the grain of today's norms. Educators might further demur that, who of us, even if so inclined, is worthy to teach to these aspirations?

A third type of leader may better suit the strengths and roles of educators: the Socratic model, the leader-as-inquirer. This style of leader may indulge in aspects of the others. Like the charismatic, she may inspire by her ideas or example. Like the facilitator, he may highlight the fundamental commonalities shared by a group--in a classroom or school. Mostly, however, this type of leader will lead by a steady insistence that students, individually and collectively, think hard about how they (and others) do and should live, and think regularly about alternative choices. This leader will persistently, doggedly, relentlessly pester students with questions and lay out her own judgments along with alternatives, not for the answers they yield, but for the self-questioning they promote.

This is a much more difficult task than meets the eye; it goes well beyond the usual educational admonition to engage children in their own learning. First, asking questions without having in mind a preferred answer leaves everyone off-balance. It requires an uncomfortable flexibility on the part of both instructor and instructee. I, a teacher, am knocked off stride when a student challenges me on a fundamental premise (rather than on a fact or interpretation). Committed though I am to openness, when I pose a question, even if I do not have a specific response in mind, deep down I am looking for a familiar type of response. An answer from a different system upsets my equilibrium. I try to get the respondent back-on-track, back on my track, that is, through such comments as: "I don't think you understood what I was asking," or "You have a good point there, but what other explanation might you give?"

Consider a hypothetical civics teacher who asks his students, "Why do we value liberty?" He expects answers referencing the value of diversity in expression and behavior, or liberty as a defense against tyranny. Instead a student, throwing a curve, says liberty is overrated, those most in need have least, it is a sanitized rationalization for the exercise of power. He quotes the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin: "Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs." Quite a challenging wake-up moment for the teacher seriously committed to engaging alternatives.

Prolonged inquiry is an admission that answers to many important life issues are tentative.

Secondly, genuine open questioning appears to remove customary authority from the teacher, turning both teacher and student into apprentices. (In fact, a teacher who identifies the important questions and knows the disputed territory is hardly without knowledge and authority.) Prolonged inquiry is an admission that answers to many important life issues are tentative, and that the best teachers learn from, and change as a result of, contact with students. Socrates tells Meno (in the dialogue by that name) that not only is he ignorant of the meaning of virtue; so, too, is everyone else. Such modesty about knowledge does not, at least superficially, fit well with the acquisitive approach to learning--learning as the stockpiling of information--although it is not in direct conflict either. A teacher could, and surely many do, simultaneously teach what we know and how little that amounts to, particularly as questions get more profound.

Chiefly, however, the Socratic approach is difficult because it creates dissension. Despite lip service to the wholesomeness of diversity, in matters of opinion as well as culture, my experience with university students and educators of children suggests engagement of differences is often superficial--tolerance yes, disputation no, particularly no disputation on matters close to the heart.

We are so taken by the values of sensitivity and toleration that we "take on" the views of others reluctantly. Without a willingness to disagree, to probe the grounds of our disagreements, discussions become mere statements of opinion; opinions unlikely to change without the encouragement of sustained back-and-forth discourse. We have confused respect for others' opinions with deference to them. This is unfortunate and unnecessary. Respect for a person and for his beliefs means understanding that no one has a monopoly on truth and that frequently there are many truths; it does not mean that we should withhold arguments favoring our own. Indeed, respect for the other might well enhance the desire to persuade him or her of our beliefs.

The leader-as-inquirer has, then, a demanding task. He and his students simultaneously reveal and risk their own certitudes. That is uncomfortable, but there is considerable payoff. Students exposed to a Socrates over many years will not easily be seduced by appeals to quick gratifications. They will be questioning, demanding, and wary followers, making their own decisions on the basis of reflection, deliberation, and discussion.

So built, they may also become (largely unintentionally) admirable leaders. Others will be drawn to the qualities they combine: the strength and independence of our first leadership style, the listening abilities of the second, and, most especially, the respect for dissent of the third. That's surely my kind of leader!

Joan F. Goodman is a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Vol. 19, Issue 5, Pages 32, 34

Published in Print: September 29, 1999, as The Leader: Digging for Dissent
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