Geographic Reality versus Authoritarianism19 January, 2009
Tonight, whilst preparing dinner, my daughter pulled a bowl of baked beans (canned) out of the microwave ((Wife) and I had leftover angel hair pasta with ragu bolognese con salsiccio) and, reacting to the heat, said, “Washiita!” (at least, that is what her cry of pain sounded like).
I immediately said, “Oh, that’s a mountain range down in Arkansas.”
Girl says, “Huh?”
“The Ouachita Mountains. Come on, kid, we gotta keep your geographic knowledge up,” which brought to mind one of my teachers from middle school and the collision between an authoritarian teacher and a well-travelled student. Miss Babcock (not 100% sure of the name, but I think we nicknamed her ‘Grabcock’ (hey, junior high boys are not the most mature people on earth)) taught history and geography. Unfortunately, I don’t know if she had ever been further from the Cumberland Valley than Frostburg State College. I was, to say the least, much more travelled.
She was teaching about Arizona and New Mexico (this was the same school year that I moved from Arizona to Maryland). “Arizona,” she said, “is a desert state. Except for Phoenix, which is irrigated, the entire state is desert.”
I raised my hand. She called on me. “Miss Babcock, the whole state isn’t desert.”
“Yes it is.”
“No, ma’am. The northern part of the state is more than a mile above sea level. There are forests, and it snows in the winter.”
“Billy, it is a desert state. That’s why they have a cactus on the license plate.”
“The Grand Canyon’s like a mile deep. That means the rim is more than a mile high. We got, one year, about 200 inches of snow. And there are pine trees. And I learned to ski in Arizona.”
“Billy, that’s enough. I don’t think you’ve ever even been to Arizona.”
The next day, I brought in a photo of me on the rim of the Grand Canyon. I also brought in a copy of Canyon Shadows, the Grand Canyon Elementary (and Junior and Senior High) School year book. Before class, I showed her the photo and the year book (with my photo). I also showed her, in the geography book, a photo of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff (complete with a forest and snowfields). Her response? “How dare you insult a teacher in class? I don’t care where you came from, but here in Maryland you are to respect authority. You do not question authority. You do not question God. You do not question your teacher. And, on your test, any answer other than the one you get from me will be marked wrong. You got that?”
I spent the rest of my time at that school keeping a low profile and mindlessly regurgitating whatever spewed from the teacher’s mouth. I find this mindset frightening. The idea that one should never question authority is a recipe for totalitarianism, for theocracy, for fascism or communism. Oddly, this teacher had no problem at all questioning the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. She had no reservations about telling us that he was an idiot, that he was sinner who was destroying America, that he had violated God’s covenant by giving away the Panama Canal, that he was a communist socialist out to destroy America.
I know that this teacher has (had?) children. Did she teach her little moppets (who attended a Christian school over in West by God Virginia) that they were never allowed to question authority? Did she teach them to never question adults? And did she teach them to question liberal politicians?
I find it fascinating that authoritarian personalities, people who want to be told what to do and tell others what to do, are able to decide who actually counts as an authority figure. As near as I can make out, if the person in charge thinks like you do, they are an acceptable authority figure and must be obeyed! If they have different political or religious values, then, regardless of the actual power of the position held, they can be ignored, mocked, and questioned.
It also helps (to me, at least) explain how today’s conservatives can create world views so completely in apposition to reality. Her view of Arizona was faith-based and, damnit, she was not going to let facts get in the way.
I have raised both of my children to both question and respect authority. There are battles worth fighting, and battles worth ignoring. I still don’t know how it will turn out for them, but I have hope for the future.
Tomorrow, Barack Obama will be sworn in as President of the United States. I am not entirely happy with many of his positions, but he gives me hope for the future of America. He is (and I may be wrong about this (but I hope not)) not an authoritarian personality. He questions received wisdom. And people like Miss Babcock will question, ignore, and mock him.
Miss Babcock, what I learned from you is, most likely, not what you intended to teach. And I hope you are no longer inflicting your narrow-minded authoritarianism on students.