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The Many Subtle Faces of Authority

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 not.

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 territory.

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 authority figure?

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 pictures.”

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 physically.

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 section.

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 meetings.

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 community.”

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 readily.”

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 reap...”

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 about.”

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 with you.”

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 feelings.

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 – children.)

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 learned diddly-squat...)

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.

Marion Cohen 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.)

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