The Many Subtle Faces of Authority By Marion Cohen
Homeschooling parents and activists often talk
about how important it is to try to overcome the fear and influence of
authority. By authority, what they often mean is authority associated
with schools – teachers, principals, officials, rules and so on. But
often the very things which homeschoolers turn to in order to replace or
balance the above-mentioned school-type authorities are, or are at risk
of becoming, authorities in themselves.
I’m talking about things like adult-run “kids”
organizations such as the Y, or regular activities like gymnastics or
art classes, or concert series “for” children, or even libraries, even
sometimes books themselves.
It’s very important to say that I don’t view these
offerings in themselves as necessarily harmful. The harm is in what I
call “the authority status” that many people – homeschooling people,
too...children, too – sometimes give them. And the point of this article
is that life learners need to realize that many of these offerings might
sport the same pitfalls as schools, such as too much structure, too much
testing (and too little trusting,) exaggerated emphasis on peer group
and, in general, too much invasiveness in the lives of children and of
families. Parents and adults need to be wary of these offerings, and to
strive to decide when it’s advantageous to accept them and when it’s
We need to know how to use them, rather than let
them use us. Bob McDougall, one of the first homeschoolers I ever met,
once said to me, “When you begin to question school, you begin to
question everything else.” Also, when you begin to make choices around
education issues, making choices around everything else goes with the
When Offerings Become Authorities
It depends on the situation – the offering itself,
the people involved, in particular the children involved, and what
everybody’s needs, interests and vulnerabilities are.
Some offerings are short-lived, rather than
ongoing. For example, one day, years ago, when my daughter Marielle was
six, I took her to see a magic show. She seemed to enjoy it very much
and so did I, but afterwards, when she went up to the magician to
compliment him, something happened that disappointed her. “I like your
play,” she told him, and he answered (too automatically for her,) “Thank
you very much, dear.” Immediately afterwards, so Marielle noticed, a
little boy about her own age approached the magician and said the same
thing, “I liked your play.” And this time, for some reason, the guy
turned to the boy, bent down closely, and said, “Oh, thank you. And how
old are you...?” Marielle was profoundly hurt. “And during the show he
seemed so nice,” she told me later.
Why did she care? Was she anxious to somehow please
or impress him, as I recall trying to do with a magician that I went to
see when I was a kid? Was he somehow like a teacher? In other words, an
Of course this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take
our kids to magic shows (any more that it would mean that adults
shouldn’t go to restaurants and deal with difficult wait-people). But it
does mean that we need to be aware of the “authority-ness” that
offerings can, in our schooling society, assume.
In the midst of a Franklin Institute magic show the
magician’s look, voice and entire manner suddenly and completely changed
as he said, “Some of us need to stay in our seats.” And at a Borders
Bookstore children’s concert the guitarist suddenly switched whom he was
addressing: “Could you try to keep them back?” How can kids not sense
the presence of something school-like?
Sometimes just plain life itself seems to get in
the way. Once I took Devin, then about ten, to a program involving three
live animals: a boa constrictor, an iguana and a cockatoo. Devin and I
liked the cockatoo; there seemed to be a kind of happiness that he
exuded and we also sensed a genuine friendship between him and the young
woman presenting the program. But towards the end of the program, when
it came time to let the kids handle the animals, the woman said, “We
have time for only one animal.” Apparently they were running behind
schedule, and apparently it was a schedule set in stone.
“Your choice,” she continued. “What’ll it be, the
iguana or the boa constrictor?”
“What happened to the cockatoo?” Devin and I
whispered to each other.
But the woman’s body language told us that we
shouldn’t ask. I forgot which the majority (or the loudest, or the
first) of the kids chose, but whichever it was, the kids seemed to have
lost interest, anyway. The line shuffled along; the kids were told that
there was time for “just a pat.” Devin wanted me to take a picture of
him with an animal but time wouldn’t permit. The woman and the bookstore
people kept looking at their watches, and the whole thing seemed both
funny and sad.
Was this turn of events life itself? Or was it
authority taking precedence over life itself? At any rate, parents don’t
need to feel pressured to race around chauffeuring kids to magic shows.
And not-taking kids to magic shows, or other performances “for”
children, doesn’t make one a bad parent.
It seems to me that the phenomenon of performances
“for” children is but one example of a more general phenomenon by which
adults first tell kids to “play,” “have a good time,” “be uninhibited,”
“use your imagination” (as though kids wouldn’t do these things anyway)
and then – in the form of school and school-like things – tell them not
to play (to sit still, to “hurry along – we have time for just a pat.”)
There seem to be some very mixed messages here.
Many parties get served via the phenomenon of
performances “for” children. Businesses and schools sponsor them,
parents and other caretakers of children get assured that they’re
“providing” educational or interesting experiences, the performer gets
paid (or at least publicized, or maybe publicized – I know this as a
poet who “worked” with children in my daughter’s school.) And if “using
your imagination” – a phrase often heard, sometimes in situations which
do not involve much imagination – is the point of it all, that point can
easily get lost in the midst of adult priorities and ambitions.
As a child, Devin was often denied play time with
fellow homeschoolers because of various scheduled activities. “I can’t
come over your house,” Johnny would tell him. “I have to go to
gymnastics.” Often, Johnny had long ago lost interest in gymnastics.
What had once upon a time begun as something to be excited about
(perhaps begged and pestered for – or, on the other hand, perhaps joined
because he felt, in some vague way, that he should join) – was now
something that had outlasted his interest, simply going on too long.
“But it’s good for children to learn commitment,”
some parents might say. I’m not sure. Throughout his young childhood,
Devin chose not to embrace such commitments. Yes, now at age 20, he is
very much committed to the love of his life, his girlfriend of almost
four years, and to other things too.
“Kids don’t have to practice being committed,” said
Kitty Anderson, who used to host a homeschooling support group
with me. “When they find something they’re truly...well, committed to,
they’ll be...well, committed.”
I often wonder whether the motive behind things
like aikido, ballet lessons and, yes, homeschooling “field trips” is,
more often than we might realize, guilt feelings, along with worry and,
again, some kind of subtle fear or veneration of authority. And perhaps
the appearance of being “organized” or “official” or “committed”
assuages (or seems to assuage) these feelings.
Many homeschooling parents are, very
understandably, scared because it’s scary to do the opposite of what
most people are doing. And they seem sometimes to need things to grab
hold of – namely, those things that I call potential “authorities.” Girl
Scouts, the Y, music lessons – all of these are things about which many
parents, homeschooling and otherwise, might tend to feel guilty if they
don’t partake of, and that they might be able to list in homeschooling
logs, or about which they can say, “Johnny doesn’t go to school but he
sure does keep busy” or “he really does interact with the [real] world.”
And it’s understandable that many parents feel more comfortable – in
park bench and cocktail party conversations – telling people that
“Johnny’s taking an art class at Fleisher” than “Johnny loves drawing
Again, the art class at Fleisher might indeed be nothing but beneficial to Johnny. Or it might not. Or it might for
awhile. Adults need to allow Johnny to quit the classes, emotionally and
Bret and I really enjoyed Middle League during the
course of one summer. And he did not choose to join the following
summer. Arin at six went by himself to visit Philadelphia’s Mutter
Museum (a medical museum self-described as “disturbingly informative”.)
He would not have wanted to have to go every week, or even once a year,
and he would not have wanted to write a composition about “My Trip to
the Mutter Museum.” Devin and I really enjoyed and learned from a book
called Famous Americans, which I got in a thrift store. But he would not
have wanted to have to read every chapter nor, again, to have to take a
test on it.
When my sister Rosalyn and I were little, she and
several of her friends decided that they didn’t like their Brownie troop
leader and, over the course of several weeks, they decided to quit. I
suggested they form a “Quit-Brownies” Club. They had a Quit-Brownies
motto, Quit-Brownies slogan, Quit-Brownies song, and in conversation
often said, “Quit-Brownies honor.” As I recall, they never held a
meeting but they had more fun in Quit-Brownies than they’d ever had at
Brownies. Quit-Brownies became a beginning rather than an end. It lasted
only a few weeks (it was soon time for Quit-Quit-Brownies...) but it
lasted as long as it should have and quitting was not a big deal.
Offerings don’t have to become authorities.
When Authorities Become Offerings
For a long time during my childhood, one authority
was the library. It seemed to me that everybody was always wanting me to
go to the library. School assignments increasingly involved trips there
to look up some reference in some mini-print maxi-paged volume. And my
mother, who rarely pressured me in any other way, seemed to always be
saying, in what seemed to me a pep-talk-y sort of way, “Why don’t you
hop on your bike and ride on over to the library?” Going to the library
seemed almost like a sport! And reflecting on it now, I seem to recall a
worried look on my mother’s face, and worried tone in her voice.
I was then, as I am now, more of a writer than a
reader, although I have this more under control now, as an adult. I just
was not as enthusiastic about libraries as the adults in my life seemed
to want me to be.
But in my early and middle teens, I began to
discover that libraries could be something that I wanted to bike or walk
to. All of a sudden I discovered the Betsy-Tacy and the Nancy Drew books
and then one day I walked past the teenage section and into the adult
I learned and grew a lot with the help of
libraries. And I realized that libraries could be an offering, not an
authority. I was free to come and go as I needed and/or wished.
But I am very suspicious of the summer reading
programs that libraries almost always sponsor. There seems to be, in our
society, what I call a “library mania,” in fact a “book mania,” in
particular concerning children. Witness the prevalence of contests based
on the number of books read and how the kids cheat by not reading the
entire book or by taking out books already read. Various businesses gets
involved in these “programs.” Libraries and books have reached, in my
view, authority proportions.
This “mania” seizes hold of us all. At one point I
was feeling worried because Devin, age about four, was not particularly
interested in libraries. I was a little afraid of being judged, in
perhaps subtle ways, even among homeschoolers. (Not only didn’t he go to
school; he didn’t even go to the library....) The fact that we were
constantly buying books at thrift stores or yard sales, the same as or
different from those found at the library, or that our home was a
library full of books that we could keep or that he was constantly
writing books and that his mother was/is a writer of published books –
maybe all that didn’t sound as good as libraries at, say, homeschooling
The local children’s librarian at the time was
well-meaning and once I brought Devin to story hour. The kids, aged
three and four, were supposed to sit a certain way, behinds touching the
rug and not on their mothers’ laps. Afterwards I asked her why.
Shrugging, she answered, “It’s partly to get them ready for school.”
But back to my own early and middle teen years
after I had wandered into the adult section of the library. I would sit
any way I pleased and stay as long as I pleased. Nobody saw me and I
think I sometimes sat on one of the shelves. If my mother had been with
me, I might have sat on her lap.
Authorities can often become offerings or be
offerings in the first place.
Homeschooling Offerings and Authorities
“We should go on a field trip,” someone in our
homeschooling support group once said. “Sure, let’s try it. Where can we
go?” So we scheduled a trip to the Please Touch Museum. Well, not as
many people showed up for that field trip as for our regular meetings
around my kitchen table and backyard; in fact very few showed. The trip
was fun, but not at all necessary. We hadn’t needed it before and we
never needed it again.
At another one of our meetings, someone new came to
us with an idea that she wanted to kick around with us. “My idea is to
have kids get together once a week and decide what they’d like to do to
explore the community and then to go exploring,” she told us. (And, of
course, she would charge for this “program.”)
Bret, age 12, joined the discussion and he didn’t
like her idea. “Well,” he began tactfully, “probably a lot of people
wouldn’t feel like doing the same thing at the same time.” At another
point in the discussion he continued, “We’re already exploring the
I agreed and agree. I quite understand that some
people – schoolers and homeschoolers alike – would be tempted to put
their two cents into the lives of homeschoolers (and the lives of
children in general.) Children are fun and interesting to be with, and
there’s also money to be made. But the kids don’t need it. Not every day
and, for Bret, not even once a week.
“He values his freedom,” the homeschooling group
laughingly remarked after the woman had left. “He’s not giving it up so
Writing this, I realize that I feel this way, now,
as an adult. I’m thinking about choral groups, how all my life I’ve been
in and out of them. The artistic directors have never been anything
approaching authoritarian. And singing in harmony is absolute ecstasy.
And I’ve been first soprano in several groups. Every time I join I’m in
heaven. “This is the solution to all of life’s problems,” I think. And
people always think it’s great that I’m in a choral group.
I usually stick with them for four or five years.
Then I get tired of having to show up every Monday evening. I get
involved in my writing, or in some other thing that comes up various
Monday evenings or every Monday evening. I’d rather sing opera in my
living room with my friend Phyllis whenever we have the time (sometimes
it’s been more than once a week, sometimes less.) And I realize that the
time for choral group is not now. “There’s a time to sow, a time to
Yes, I value and guard my freedom. And I know when
choral group represents offering and when it represents authority. When
Devin was maybe ten, I did a couple of workshops at a homeschooling
conference. (One was on this topic!) Dev and I went through the
conference brochure to look for some children’s workshops that might
interest him. I asked whether he might be interested in the writing
workshop. I read him the description. “So?” Devin shrugged. “What would
we do?” “Well,” I answered, “you’d...well, you’d write!” “So?” Dev said
again. “So I always write.” “Well,” I tried next, a bit lamely. “You’d
write together.” “So we always write together,” he countered, referring
to his and my “parallel” writing, as well as to the way he and his
friends used to write together and discuss “what should happen next” in
their stories and comics.
To Devin, at that time, that writing workshop was
an authority. I’m sure that it was an offering to other of the kids at
that conference, but not to Devin.
Here’s a perhaps more subtle homeschooling
offering/authority: Devin asked me to tell him about what it felt like
to be a published writer. And I did. Of course, it’s a very long story,
one which I love to tell! But I didn’t get the chance to tell Devin (not
then, anyway) because he suddenly said to me, “Don’t keep on going!”
Is there ever an offering that is not in danger of
becoming an authority? Possibly not.
I have wanted my kids to feel positive about their
world – not only the homeschooling world – so I have looked for positive
offerings, which means, perhaps, that I have looked for offerings that
are positive at the time. And I want to keep them positive. So I’m
always on the lookout for signs that they’re becoming authorities.
Year ago, someone who’d read my homeschooling
articles and letters was in town for a few days and she phoned me,
suggesting we get together with our kids. We all had a delightful time
and over lunch she said to me, smiling in what seemed a fond way,
“You’re so contrary. I mean, you’re always finding things to complain
Well, yes. I seem to be a pretty good
“authority-detector.” I get suspicious easily and, often enough, wisely,
as it’s turned out.
Here are some other very subtle authorities or
potential authorities that I’ve detected – things that made Kitty, for
example, once say to me, “I used to think you were kind of nuts, but
then when I thought about the things you said, I realized that I agree
Books. I think that, in our society, kids possibly
think of books as authorities. Books are things that adults (in general)
want kids to read and like. “He devours books,” parents brag. And they
don’t brag about their kids not devouring books.
The above-mentioned summer book programs at
libraries don’t help matters. Like performances “for” children, books
“for” children are often wonderful, truly imaginative, often “cute,”
creative, enjoyable and profound. They also do a great job of describing
children’s (and sometimes adults’) feelings. And they have the potential
to put children and the adults in their lives in touch with these
But again, I have several reservations, not about
the books themselves, but about the ways in which they’re used in this
society. Namely, too much. I do believe that there’s a “book mania.”
People love and insist on books, often to manic proportions. Parents
often feel guilty if they don’t “encourage” their children to read books
(of if their children don’t want to read them, making it seem as though
the parent didn’t encourage them.) And, perhaps interestingly, the books
that the schools try to get kids to read are often different from those
which libraries try to get them to read, which are often different from
those which parents try to get them to read. (I agree that
“disadvantaged” children are often helped by reading and other programs,
but I think that that situation is not as simple as society seems to
think. I’ve analyzed this elsewhere; for example, there are other things
which disadvantaged children also need, which “books” programs often
don’t take into account. Also, there are features of many such
“programs” that are alienating to “disadvantaged” – and to all –
Everyone seems to want kids (and, to some extent,
adults) to spend a lot of time reading. In fact, everyone seems to think
that reading is what children and adults do when they want to be alone
and/or pensive. Reading is sort of equated with pensive or “quiet time.”
Perhaps reading is equated with thinking or with feeling.
As a result, so much time and energy is expended on
books and on activities involving books that there’s no time or energy
left for the kids’ own feelings to surface. It’s maybe a little as
though adults want kids to be told, by the books, what their feelings
are. A good book can be a catalyst, and affirming, but the way the
phenomenon of books is overdone, there’s often little time to develop
anything to affirm. In other words, books can be an authority.
I also believe that certain words have authority
associations. I believe that examples of these words are “education,”
“learning” and “creativity.” These words are simply too loaded, in our
society. It’s hard to be objective about them and, yes, I believe that
there’s an “education mania,” a “learning mania” and a “creativity
mania.” They’re buzz-words. Businesses use them a lot. They sell well.
It’s as though if a minute goes by when a kid isn’t
“learning” adults get manic. Suppose some activity were discovered that
were not “learning.” (Probably there’s no such activity, but suppose
there were.) Would that be so bad? Would it mean that we were bad
parents? Or bad teachers? Or just-plain bad? Would it mean that adults
weren’t doing their jobs by children?
Perhaps this sounds as though I think that
education, learning and creativity are bad things. Of course I don’t. I
learn, I teach; where would I be without education?! But I do not have
to be learning all the time. And my kids don’t have to be learning all
the time. And I don’t feel that I have to justify things that I like to
do by pointing out that I learn through them. (I learn all sort of
things, like through thrift-shopping, but I’d do it anyway, even if I
Also, learning isn’t always good. Learning the
wrong things – such as racism – is not good.
It’s the words and their authority status that I’m
questioning. In this society, every word is loaded, not only the
buzz-words that I was just talking about. That’s precisely the point. In
this society, we have to be careful of words, and of everything.
A home-educating mother once talked with me about
how she would like to eventually homeschool in an unstructured way and
about how the Waldorf method had caught her attention. It had not,
however, become an authority to her. “I’m fascinated by some of the
ideas,” she said, “by the way it views the human mind. But I’m not
necessarily interested in applying any of the methods. I just like to
read and think about it, and I’ll probably take a lot of it into account
when I interact with my children.”
This, perhaps, is a good model, for how to deal
with loaded words, ideas and all offerings/authorities – take them into
account in an informed way. And, again, use them without their using us.
is a grandmother with four children who are now grown. The two youngest learned at home for eight years and the family hosted a homeschooling support group in Philadelphia, where they all still live. Marion is a writer and part-time math prof, most recently at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of her published books are about pregnancy loss and chronic illness/caregiving.
They include Dirty Details: The Days and Nights of a Well Spouse (Temple University Press)
and a poetry book about the experience of math entitled Crossing the Equal Sign (Plain View Press.)