Wednesday, December 11, 2019

#31 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (education)

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. (W.B.Yeats)

As student, teacher, mentor and mentee, I have had the good fortune to walk on the shoulders of men and women who found something worth challenging in the fat kid sitting in a desk. I have also witnessed a reductionism about education’s value, complexity and importance in the infrequency and the superficiality of public debate about the topic. About much more than numbers of students in a classroom, and teachers’ salaries, the formal education process, funded in Canada for the most part by tax dollars, plants the seeds of a culture in one generation that will “flower” when those students become leaders.

Technology, the new wave, is not a panacea, although it does offer various windows into the students’ learning styles. Nevertheless, the ‘job market’ has and will continue to have an inordinate influence on what is taught and how it is taught, and labour trends are filled with projections of the need for all students to be able to use digital technology in whatever employment field they choose.  A culture that can be diagnosed as dependent on the senses, when compared with intuition (see Jung Personality Types), imagination and sensibilities, especially one that continues to tilt favourably in the direction of a male “hard-wiring” that investigates, diagnoses and fixes whatever is not working properly, will naturally take pride in installing, and then integrating the latest digital technology into all  corners of the curriculum.

“Literacy” no longer is or can be restricted to the capacity to read and write words, to infer from those words, and to imagine how to use words in various life situations. Literacy now integrates a proficient facility to use and preferable even to program software, as a pathway to successful sustainable integration into the labour market of the future. All of that said, there is still much to commend fathers, executives, thought and political leaders of both genders, to reflect on the subtle yet impactful nuances of what is going on in the classrooms of their children and their grandchildren.

Experiments, broad experiences, themed curricula, team projects, imaginative yet responsible evaluation processes and teachers who themselves have already been “fired-up” about their significance in the lives of their students, all comprise the broad “flow” of the river that runs through the education system. Budgets, accountabilities to political dictates, keeping statistical data on various ‘incident’ reports…these may be necessary as demographic benchmarks for public comparison and political justification, at local levels especially. Yet, it is reasonable and not merely rhetorical to inquire how many parents in any neighbourhood really know the teachers and their approaches for their own children. Education suffers from, and has to endure, a cultural reality: every citizen has personal, first-hand experience as a student, and in small communities, many of those experiences have been with the same teachers who now educate their children. It has been my experience that the ‘content’ of the curriculum does not evoke many inquiries (except for what a public considers illicit literature titles) while report card marks and remarks generate affect, both positive and negative from parents.

So, parents themselves, whether consciously or not, impose a kind of political veneer on their expression of their expectations on the school system. If results are “OK,” parents are generally happy; if not, questions about “why?” emerge. Teachers take risks, for example, if they inquire, at parents’ night, whether the family has dinner-table discussion, whether books are important in the home, whether kids spend X hours on social media while at home, whether travel is important to the family, whether student ambitions and dreams are known and fostered. “You are invading our private space!” would be the emotional, if not the verbal reaction to such questions. Except for the social media inquiry, I know because I have asked all of the other questions, to the chagrin of several unsuspecting and surprised parents. The culture of the home, nevertheless, is a fertile greenhouse for the nurture and weeding and flowering of young minds, imaginations and aspirations.

And, while fathers would acknowledge the truth of that relationship cognitively, they may not be as invested in the generation of the greenhouse culture as the mother of their children. “Sexist!” I hear some readers gasping. Not really, if we are to be frank and somewhat confrontative of the ways in which family culture develops. Sports scores, DOW and NASDAQ indices, weather, perhaps a neighbourhood event, potentially an athletic competition and an adolescent budget or plea for new shoes…these are some of the topics of conversation in which fathers engage. Of course, most will want to know if a child is unwell, behaving in a manner that draws attention because of its being off-centre, or having some conflict at school. The affect of the child, however, from my experience, remains more of an irritant to many fathers, and a matter better left to the ‘expertise’ of mothers.

It is in moments of “abdication” like these that it says here men are most needed. Their young son or daughter, (yes either and both genders!) need to hear what both parents are thinking, feeling, fearing, advising and warning. For starters, such explorations open each parent to the fullness of the other’s personality; and then, the child finds out “who” his/her parents really are. Unschooled in intimacy, for the most part, men feel inadequate when time comes to discuss the details of incidents, unless they have a criminal or bullying component. Men, generally, consider personal encounters of jealousy, gossip and mere adolescent competition to be issues to be resolved by the participants, unless and until the incident boils over, and that boil-point will be different for each adult male.

Another deferral pattern, having invaded athletic coaching, corporate training, professional development and even some parenting is what has traditionally been known as “classical conditioning”…that  Pavlovian “training” into appropriate behaviour through the application of rewards, thereby conditioning the “learner” into knowing what to do to evoke the reward. More recently, many counselling practitioners have tilted their practices to the CB model, cognitive-behavioural therapy. 

This approach teaches unhelpful thinking styles, among which are: shoulding and musting, overgeneralizations, emotional reasonings, catastrophizing, black and white thinking, jumping to conclusions, magnification and minimization, personalization. While such vocabulary may be appropriate band-aids useful for parents to offer at moments of tension with their adolescent children, parents, both fathers and mothers, need to be able to discern when a situation is a merely passing frustration and when it is more than that.

Far from becoming a therapist in the life of our family, fathers/husbands can strive to be fully present emotionally, intellectually, physically and spiritually in our families. Segregating out each "component" facet robs us and our families of our full truth, even if that truth is not as pretty as we would like. Detaching itself, fails everyone!

Here is a time when one generation can be and often is caught in the “imprint” of our own generation, when things we considered insignificant have now become much more significant, even traumatic. We do not necessarily have to agree with the change in relative importance; yet we do have to try to walk a few paces in the shoes of our son/daughter, in order to empathize with what they might be experiencing. Our fathers and mothers might have resorted to insults, shaming, and incidental demeaning comments, in an attempt to ‘bring him/her out of the funk’…Today, however, pressures on our kids are very different from those we experienced.

Counsellors’ files are filled with stories, especially of fathers, who simply do not “connect” with their/our children, especially at moments when the child considers that connection relevant and important. And such moments have to be anticipated, long before they arise. Reading to our very young children, for example, shooting hoops with a small basketball into a low basket, tossing a ball or frizzbee…stories about life as we once knew it…these may be considered by many a layer of nostalgic dust that could only suffocate a young child. It is the discernment, and the capacity to remain open to the “moment” when a considered comment, a hug, a touch, a smile or even an invitation to take a walk or have lunch might be ‘just what the doctor ordered’ as a moment to be present…to listen, to try to imagine the situation the kid experiences, to coach, and even to caution, depending on the moment and the issue.

One of the more troublesome issues, for which most fathers have not been coached or prepared is how, when and if to express expectations to adolescent sons and to daughters. Young mens’ stories fill the ethos about how fathers were/are unrealistic, excessively demanding, pressurizing their sons into activities in which they were less interested than the father, or generating an impression that the son will never “live up” to the standards expected by the father. Fathers seem more likely to take a more ‘gentle’ approach with daughters, whether from a natural leaning or perception of a deeper sensibility of the daughter. Another dynamic that fills the files of counsellors is the tension between adolescent daughters and their mothers. Here is a conundrum inside of a puzzle, inside of a set of twisting nerves for the father to know what to “do” if anything.

Avoiding playing the role of the “good guy” in comparison/competition with the ‘evil mother’ is a first thought. Some fathers need to be “best friends” with their children, as opposed to being an effective, mature, responsible and respected parent. And this “BFF” stereotype can apply to both mothers and fathers, at their and their child’s peril. Fathers also need to check their anxiety about speaking with their spouse, when they/we notice a deepening tension between mother and daughter. Without “taking the side” of the daughter, fathers can offer a listening ear and an open mind and heart to a spouse who is struggling with attitudes, behaviours, beliefs, relationships of her daughter. “Peace-making,” while it may be a dream-role, may not be an appropriate goal for the father to set for himself. These situations are often not immediately remediable; it might take months or even years to fully resolve.

What one parent can provide, however, for another who is engaged in a kind of negative drama with a child, is begin to open windows into what might be at the heart of the tension, from the parent’s perspective. Often, without conscious recognition, a parent may be re-visiting a traumatic moment, a death, a divorce, or some pivotal and painful moment from his/her life, that is being triggered by an incident, statement, gesture from the present. One father of an eight-year-old boy  was exerting pressure on his son, sufficiently strong to drive the son into the arms of his mother for comfort. When a family therapist suggested to the mother that father and son could work this out, and mother complied, the son’s question about why the father was being so “heavy” to his father prompted an aha moment for the father. He was eight when his father died, and he had not grieved his father’s death. That simple realization lifted the cloud from both father and son.

Men tend to disparage emotional upset, their own and their family member’s. Men also tend to minimize physical and emotional pain, their own and their family member’s. Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, is one of the best/worst examples of a father’s disconnect from his society, and thereby from his children. Ms Westover’s doctoral graduation from Oxford, following what can only be diagnosed as a traumatic childhood for herself and her siblings, give testimony to the strength of the human spirit, and the resilience of the human imagination.

Fathers can offer support for the academic choices their children make, even if they/we do not agree with those choices. Knowing if and when to offer comment, knowing how much to intervene if at all, discerning the precise need of a child or a spouse…these moments depend primarily on a conscious awareness of his/our own feelings, perceptions, beliefs, aspirations and fears.

To detach from such intensive reflection, rationalized as unimportant, irrelevant, better left to some professional or a female spouse/daughter/parent/grandparent or simply beyond the limits of personal time and energy is to fail the self, as well as failing the spouse/daughter/son whose specific moment of ferment/torment can and will best be assuaged by a tender and loving moment with a sensitive father. Such detachment robs both father and “other” of a kind of intimacy which can be the seed and flower of a memory and a gift for each.

The “fire in our belly” will ignite a new curiosity, a new potential and a courage to risk exposure, even if such exposure is barely tentatively appreciated. And the hours our teachers invested in our “fire” will continue to light the pathway to a new generation of “fires” in the lives of our children and grandchildren.

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