A flash of Light


As I was wrapping up the second of two postings about the contents of my long-ignored archive, I had a profound insight, the kind that pulls together many seemingly disconnected strands of your life story. Years ago, I was thinking about my strange journey from psychologist to teacher when I suddenly realized that I had been on a consistent path all along; I was just using my preparations to be a psychologist in an unorthodox setting – the classroom. Voila, I had come upon a coherent narrative of my somewhat puzzling life choices.

Something similar happened when, in the final section of my second blog, I reached back to a quote from an early manuscript about the frustrations of working toward community control of the New York City public schools:

The true transformation which has been blocked is in the very nature of how people perceive and relate to authority. The idea that people at varying levels of authority could relate to each other in any way other than the traditional patterns of dominance and submission has been made to appear visionary and unattainable. The message that such a thing cannot happen is hammered home implicitly by the very structure of the institutions in which we spend most of our lives – school, industry, government, social clubs, political organizations, professional groups.

There it was! At every step along the way, I have been rejecting traditional patterns of authority, seeking alternatives to the binary of dominance and submission. My training as a psychologist would direct me to my own family history for the source of my preoccupation but that trail grows cold. My father was a sweet, gentle man who never imposed his will on me. My mother had complicated hidden control strategies that I managed to evade. Similarly, my own education offers no clues. Some of my Catholic friends had tales of domineering nuns who brooked no expressions of disagreement or resistance, but there are no parallels in my schoolingor in the families where people have had to contend with authoritarian adults.

So, although I can’t trace the source of my views on authority, the evidence of it is clear all along the line, beginning with my marriage and continuing through my parenting, my work as a teacher, school director and teacher educator. And my politics, particularly in this fraught moment in U.S. history, revolve around that anti-authoritarian North Star.

One of the activities in some Indian wedding ceremonies is a game in which the bride and groom sit across from a basket containing a coin buried in marbles or other filler material. The opponents battle each other to be the first to retrieve the coin. The winner is destined to dominate the marital relationship. Nothing could be further from what has characterized our marriage. I can’t think of a moment when either of us has attempted to impose our will on the other. All the big decisions, from where to live to how to raise our children has been a collaboration, never a struggle to seize the hidden coin. I know it sounds idealized, but I’ll stand by my description.

Raising children presents some complicated challenges to this anti-authoritarian commitment, challenges that, as you’ll see, have parallels in my teaching. Children need adults who are in sufficient control to make them feel safe, who act in ways that bring order to their lives, even though they may be unhappy in the moment with those actions. When I demanded compliance, the response to the inevitable question of “Why?” was never “Because I said so.” Instead, Rosellen and I attempted to explain the reason for our demand. I wish I had the good sense that my daughter Elana and son-in-law Ben displayed in these moments. Instead of issuing demands, they offered choices. “Would you prefer to have your bath now or would you like to do it after ten minutes of play time?”

Choice is the anti-authoritarian magic bullet, both at home and in school. Although I offered suggestions about which books to read during independent reading time, which topics to write about in their journals, which project to choose as a final assessment at the end of a unit, children were free to make their own choices. By exercising choice, children have agency. They feel seen and heard. They have some small degree of control over their lives. This is the stance we want them to bring into their future lives.

The period when it was most difficult for me to maintain a consistent anti-authoritarian stance was during my five years as school director. This is one of the places where traditional patterns of dominance and submission are most deeply ingrained. The wonderful teachers we hired at the school’s opening came to us from the public school system, the embodiment of top-down decision-making. Attempting to disrupt those patterns risked being seen as “weak” leadership.

 I’m reminded of my then 8th grade daughter, in whose hands we had placed the final decision about which high school to choose. After agonizing for days, she said, tearfully, “I wish someone else would choose for me, so if it’s the wrong decision, I’ll have someone to blame.” That characterized the initial reaction of our teachers, but when they finally came to an appreciation of the gift of autonomy they had been offered, they seized the opportunity and were happier and more productive for it. I’m oversimplifying here, omitting some bumps in the road, including my own shortcomings as a leader, but I think there’s truth in this account.

In our newly minted teacher education program, we were committed to the principle of teaching in ways that modeled the kind of teaching we expected our residents to engage in in their future classrooms. So, again, within the constraints of the requirements of the university and of the state certifying bodies, we honored the voices of the program participants by constantly asking for feedback on our practices and demonstrating that we actually used that feedback to alter the design of the program. We gave them as much choice as we could in deciding in which classrooms to do their residencies (aka student teaching.)

It pains and frightens me that there are so many people in our country who are eagerly responding to the siren song of a dictator-in-the-making. I suspect that the great majority of them have never experienced anything other than traditional model of dominance and submission – not in their homes, their schools, their churches, their workplaces. In the absence of those opportunities, they’ve never tasted the rewards of voice and autonomy and are willing to settle instead for a false sense of security they imagine will result from someone else calling the shots.

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Marv Hoffman

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