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Generally Recognized As True: Frank Furedi on the crisis of adult authority, with implications for our crisis of education

Friday, November 06, 2009

Frank Furedi on the crisis of adult authority, with implications for our crisis of education

Regarding the crisis of adult authority, British sociology professor Frank Furedi, as usual, has a lot to say and is usually right.

'All the big debates about pedagogy – how children learn to read, whether English literature is superior to media studies, whether history teachers should focus on the Napoleonic wars or the Holocaust – all these are really secondary issues’, says Furedi. [...] Today, we have an inability to give meaning to education because we struggle to give meaning to adulthood.


The struggle to give meaning to adulthood is expressed in a number of familiar ways. From parents struggling to know how to tell a two-year-old to behave to teachers feeling threatened by ‘violent’ four-year-olds and politicians threatening parents of truanting teenagers with jail, discipline is one area of life that used to be taken for granted but has now become an endless source of conflict and anxiety.

A related trend is that which Furedi terms ‘socialisation in reverse’. Socialisation, he notes, ‘is the process through which children are prepared for the world ahead of them’. [...] Today, however, this intergenerational responsibility is being usurped by a new breed of professionals, so-called experts ‘who transmit values by directly targeting children’. Parents will be only too aware of the way that children now come home armed with advice for their parents about how to eat healthily and recycle their rubbish correctly.


One result of the devaluation of adult authority is that ‘the proper relationship between education and society has been turned upside down’, and ‘education is used as the site where the unresolved issues of public life can be pursued’. As adults are infantilised and children are treated as mini-grown-ups whose voice must be expressed and heard on every matter from the content of the curriculum to the attributes of their teachers, education becomes viewed as a place where political debates can and should take place.
It's been awhile since I've read one of his books but I am about due for another visit, I think. He is becoming a fine successor to Neil Postman, now that the latter is no longer with us.

In these times of non-violent coercion that we presumably picked up from our participation in the Cold War -- where political and social pressure is used in an organized and concerted way in lieu of physical force -- public education is in some ways becoming a racket in that it occasionally exhibits a violation of the public trust and an illicit misuse of education where the child is used as the violent social weapon of strongly implied but ostensibly optional enforcement.

I was sitting in the waiting room of a music store a couple of weeks ago and overheard a young girl quietly chastising her Dad for not buying her music book from the store where she also did her lessons. "But if you buy it here then [the store] will get the money," she said. "So you have to buy it here, OK?". You could hear the wife in her voice. It was calm and collected with a strong insinuation that you'd not be spoken to for a long time if you didn't act appropriately. The Dad stood there in near silence, seemingly unsure of how to handle the situation. He made a few uncertain comments about the books at the store being expensive and in bad physical condition.

It makes me wonder if children are also being told in school that they have to support local businesses. Is the Chamber of Commerce giving talks in elementary school now? I don't really know. But, she was not of an age where she would have reached this conclusion herself.

The child, however, likely does not comprehend such detail. I have written at greater length and with more detail about this problem of child indoctrination by the public school system in the past.


richard said...

Coercion has always been used. Societies exist based solely on coercion: call them tribes or cliques or gangs or nations. You either belong or you don't. If you don't belong, you get banished. Alone,w e don't survive very long. And those onthe fringes of society don't survive very well (or long).

I don't think the problem is with giving meaning to "adulthood"n but giving meaning to life, to being a decent person.

The phrase give meaning to adulthood makes me think of a complaint Seneca wrote in one of his letters to Lucilius: "You know what I would like those fellows [sophists - rr] to tell me? Not how many meanings there are of the word friend; not how many ways the word friend can be used, but what are my duties and obligations to a friend."

mattbg said...

Aren't they the same thing (meaning to life vs adulthood)? You spend most of your life in adulthood... when you are a child, you are preparing for "life", which is essentially a euphemism for adulthood. If adulthood has no obvious value other than to physically get older -- which makes it a negative -- then why should we listen to the more experienced?

richard said...

I am not sure that "adulthood" and "life" are the same thing. When you are and "adult" you get certain "prividges / rights" - smoking cigars, getting drunk, tellig bawdy stories and being the cog that fits into a partuclar place in society (butcher, baker, candlestick maker).