Friday, June 26, 2009

The force of fear 11/24
   The first reality: the way of the criminal

Fear is a primal human reality. We live surrounded by forces that may destroy us. Some of these come from nature, but many come from society. In this dangerous world, the crudest of human societies are those derived from fear and ordered by force. When two-year-olds disagree about who gets a toy, the strongest wins. This is quite natural. It is close to the animal world. It is the way of the criminal.

Fear is not entirely bad--it is one of our most effective teachers. After all, simply having a body puts one at risk. Anyone who has a head must fear situations, of which there are more than a few, that could lead to decapitation. Within limits, fear can be a strong ally of education. Fear of consequences leads us to understand and prepare, fear of disapproval leads us to seek to please our loved ones, and fear of failure leads us to invest mightily in good causes.

But though fear might tempt us to learn, it isn’t fear that actually teaches. Some poor teachers use fear simply to cow or to beat down an inconvenient or annoying learner, and when this happens the child is less likely to learn what is good than to learn that he or someone is bad. While fear may urge us to desire understanding of better forms of social order, leading us toward justice, fear itself doesn’t create justice any more than hunger creates food. Fear, without hope, leads to anger and hatred, to revenge and conspiracy, to destruction. Inspiration, a breathing into from a power beyond, is necessary.

Still, some teachers and parents have thought too little of fear. Every teacher meets children who come to school fearing only their own weakness, and without the right fear they are nearly unteachable. Robert Coles, who has seen and worked with children who had no fear of violating the moral codes of a society to which they had no sense of belonging, has warned us that “for education to proceed children must have learned to fear something before they come to school.” In our desire to overcome repression and from our experience of crippling pain caused by unloving parents and cruel leaders, we have been to quick to assume that fear, like guilt or like wolves, has no positive role in earth’s story.

Throughout history, groups of people have formed and taught moral norms that make cooperation more likely. Being good together is the strongest response to fear. People organized into groups are far more capable of meeting the demands of life. Cultures that endure teach their children to walk in fear of violating the culture’s moral codes.

To be sure, some such codes are better than others, and an important goal of education should be to help young people make such judgments. This is especially important in a postmodern culture where traditional boundaries have dissolved and adolescents must decide amid a din of competing narratives what core values to live by. A critical examination of the history of mores, establishing standards of evidence and following through time the consequences of various beliefs, can help keep our folkways fresh and vita--but we should fear losing sight of the truth that it is those folkways far more than the critical evaluation of them that teaches most of us how to be good.

When it comes to peace and morality, what we learn informally from the narrative environment--especially stories that are lived rather than merely told--is more powerfully educative than posters purchased with this year’s federal grant.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/26 at 07:25 AM
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© 2009 Michael L. Umphrey
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