Geographic Reality versus Authoritarianism

19 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?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

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.



  1. WOW what a douche bag Miss Babcock is. No wonder there are so many under-educated people.

    “Respect authorities only if they deserve it, not because they demand it.” something I read or heard many years ago, something that everyone should know.

  2. Oz: Damn. The perfect quote. And I’ve run across that many times before. I hereby bestow upon you a “Halleck” award for pulling out the perfect quote. As far as teachers go (public school) I’d say about 10% are idiots, 10% are superb, and 80% are adequate. And yes, I am an optimist.

  3. Douchebag indeed. I only had a few of these authoritarian teachers, but thankfully they were math teachers so they had an agreeable method to their madness.

  4. I’m willing to bet she grew up with a lot of authority, and perhaps her authoritarian behavior shaped future authoritarians. I think it’s the same as abusers being abused as kids. You learn that’s what power is and you emulate.

  5. It seems to me that ideal of “no questioning” and “blind obedience” are very essential in most religions. If people question, they tend to leave.

  6. We had just gotten back from Ethiopia, I was (sort of) in 8th grade, and One of several bete noirs (or is it betes noir?) was a Mrs, White. The Ass’t principal figured in this as well.

    As I am dyslexic, it was hard for me to do, but I wrote a paper about Russia, and I discribed a Siberian tiger.

    I was made to stand up in class, told I was a “fool, just a stupid, stupid, fool”, and that if she had her way she’d send me to “be with the rest of the feebs”.

    Running against authority in school being no virgin experience, I atgued back and told her I could prove it. She told me if I could she’d apologise in front of the class and give me an “A”.

    Next day I came with a letter on National Zoo letterhead backing me up (one of our neighbors was head keeper in large mammals, he told her that the zoo actually had a couple of Siberian tigers, I’d called him at work right after I got home) and a book I’d gotten for christmas which showed such an animal. Pretty expensive book, too. $12.98 in 1960 was a pretty hefty price.

    Showed the teacher, she said she’d be right back, got up and left the room. Returned with The Gestapo:Ass’t principal, a shop teacher, and a gymn teacher, who dragged me and my material to THE OFFICE and stood me in fromt of the vice principals desk.

    After suitably ignoring me for about ten minutes while he busied himself with other work, he looked up with a “when did YOU get here expression” and we got down to it.

    The upshot was that he couldn’t allow the teacher to be challeneged like that, no matter what she said. I asked what about fairness, truth, justice we heard about almost every assembly and that we had to invoke every morning in front of the flag.

    He conceded that these were nice, great concepts, but he was actually more interested in authority, discipline, and order, and unless I went back and apologised it would be the worse for me.

    I didn’t, got suspended, and the book disappeared. My parents were real happy with me, yes they were.

    Confirmed what I’d always see about authority in any form, religious or secular.

  7. DB: Oddly, my math teaches tended to be the most rational. Maybe it has something to with “faith will not make 2+2=5”.

    Philly: Reality recapitulates maternity?

    Poodles: Agreed.

    Sarge: “He conceded that these were nice, great concepts, but he was actually more interested in authority,” discipline, and order,” sounds like the last eight years. Screw the rules, I’ll do anything I want to make things happen my way. Bleah.

  8. But it must have got better since then, mustn’t it? I mean, c’mon! Teachers can’t possibly teach their students stuff that’s just plain outright wrong, then get all huffy when the evidence is presented. I mean, nowadays there must be better teaching, surely?

    Oh… wait…

    Much as I hate to say it, guys, if America doesn’t buck up its standards of education soon, the next couple of generations are going to regress your country right back to the Bronze Age. Hopefully your shiny new President (any politician who gets on the cover of Spider-Man is good by me) will start turning the tide. I hope for all your sakes that he does.

  9. Yunshui: We seem to be pulled in two directions here: those who want artificial certainty and those who want natural doubt. Artificial certainty is much easier to sell to the (sometimes willfully) ignorant.

  10. Yunshui, here in America ‘going to school’ in a public school means different things to different groups.

    Some people, early on, are identified by the system and are actually educated. They are groomed for a future, doors are openned for them. They may sometimes have a rocky social life, but things are done on their behalf, things are made available to them.

    Then there is the “social set” which is also pretty much involved in the school direction, sports, etc. There are different rules for them.

    There are the school criminals and delinquents, who are steered a certain place, but are part of “school life”.

    Most of us were/are there to be “schooled”, not “educated”. There is quite a difference.

    Most of us have very few teachers, we have warders, gate keepers, persons who are sort of winnowers of the stuff of society. My father became a school teacher after he retired from the army. My mother got a job as a school secretary. Their idealised view of school kind of changed.

    My father was an actual ‘teacher’ and mentor. He was a gate openner, a guide, and a lot of people who were written off by “the system” made it through and even excelled because of him. He wasn’t thanked by those in authority.

  11. Sarge: I never really looked at it that way but, in retrospect, I think you rae right on. I was always on the college prep track (as was my wife and kids). We were (are) the ones to be educated. None of us have been full fledged athletes.

    As to the differention between warders and teachers, I stand by my previous statement that about 10% of teachers have thrown in the towel, 80% are adequate (some are adequate as teachers, some as warders (kudos, sarge, I never realized that one before now)) and 10% are really good.

    At my kids high school, the proportions are about that. However, even the best, most imaginative teachers, do work with the ‘hopeless’ reprobrates. One or two a year wake up and become students.

  12. Well, I noticed some things. I was an army brat, and some of my father’s colleagues had been POWs. The treatment and attitudes they discribed from their captors was pretty much like how the teachers regarded and treated me.

    I trained horses in my teen years, and this was actually where I started see ing the difference between “education” and “schooling”. We “schooled” the horse. This was more for the benefit of the rider than the horse, as was, I saw later in basic training when I endured the “school of the soldier”. This was more for the benefit of the state whose chattel I had become than for my benefit. And so it was that society “schooled” me for the same reason from grades 1 – 12.

  13. Mark 16: 16 He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.


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