Thursday, 5 February 2009

What Life Asks of Us

Climbing with Tania, my daughter, when she was 12 years old. I took my daughters on journeys of self-discovery in the hope they would see the world in its many different shades, including a trip to Pakistan and India where they saw the worst of poverty,

Having raised seven children I often used to hover between bringing them up in a very liberal manner, and using some of the more conservative established institutions to built on solid parenting. In my younger days as a father, I felt my children should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values. Thanks to God and a wonderful Mother, my children have all turned out well and have not only survived, but flourished in a mixture of the two styles mentioned above.
Recently I read an article by David Brooks that really challenged and stimulated me, and I believe proves that “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.” I see too many young people today who have been brought up with a very liberal education, believing the world owes them a living.


A trip up the Franz Josef Glacier with my five daughters.

Have a read of David Brooks article and see if it provokes you as it did me !

A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”
The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.
This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.
In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.
Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.
New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”
The rules of a profession or an institution are not like traffic regulations. They are deeply woven into the identity of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to her sport, a farmer’s relation to her land is not an individual choice that can be easily reversed when psychic losses exceed psychic profits. Her social function defines who she is. The connection is more like a covenant. There will be many long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out.
In 2005, Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. Heclo cites his speech as an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution:
“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.”
Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him, “These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.
“Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect ... . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game ... did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do.”

Four of my daughters when they were bridesmaids at the wedding of their sister Kira.

I thought it worth devoting a column to institutional thinking because I try to keep a list of the people in public life I admire most. Invariably, the people who make that list have subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution.
Second, institutional thinking is eroding. Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like “Mary Poppins.” But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction.
Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity.
But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.




20 comments:

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
A lot of food for thought there, things I have not about before.
I am not a huge baseball fan but I used to love the Cubs, and Ryne Sandberg was just amazing to watch, certainly a sportsman I deeply respect.
Certainly, your children, at least the ones I have had the pleasure of meeting, are loving, giving, and caring people which is to me the greatest measure of success both for them and their parents.
I guess I too am using a mixture of both philosophies with my boys though sometimes it feels like I am flying by the seat of my pants.
A very Happy Waitangi Day to you Bob, very hot here and I am about to get the grill fired up and crack a very cold beer! I shall toast you my friend.
Cheers,
Robb

Marja said...

Respect for institutions, people, communities are not breed in schools but in families.
I think most new Zealand schools are very conservative but I have seen never so much disrespect. I have sent my child to a very conservative relegious school with high discipline and took him out of there. A lot of bullying even by the teachers when you are not academic.
Have a great day, marja
Luckily I thought my child to stand up for himself and in a respectful way he talked to the teacher and she apologised to him.
I also think that children need to
learn to think for themselves to challenge prejudice and more. When my children were small and went to a holiday programme one child couldn't climb on a pole. One child rediculed him and all followed. My girl stood up and said to them "you need to encourage him" and started to do that, a leader and me followed and some kids did.
I was very proud that day. Yes we need to serve the community but not folow them blindly. My kids are now in a very liberal school and learn to think even more for themselves which means thinking before acting. Asking why they do things.
Our children need to
be able to accept differences and to think for themselves instead of just being followers or sheep.
Yes it is easier for everybody to lead the sheep. But we also need
leaders, entrepreneurs , artist etc and they wouldn't be good if they were sheep.
Anyway I think both are important but it depends on the person were you put the stress on. You know mine now.

Marja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marja said...

Oh and your daughters are gorgeous you must be a proud dad. Aroha from Christchurch

Bob McKerrow said...

Kia Ora Robb

Glad you knew Ryne Sandberg. Sounds a good club man: staunchly loyal.

The subject is a fascinating one and as parents we try to do the best when raising our children, and most times we get it right, often through giving love and support, and stability. The institutional approach I struggle with but it does seem to produce results.

Take care Robb.

Bob

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Marja

You know the fields of family and education. I like you comments " Respect for institutions, people, communities are not breed in schools but in families." So true.

I enjoyed reading the comments and examples you gave about your children.

We need leaders and followers in this world, but followship should not be sheeplike, but people who feel comfortable being well led.

Thanks for your comments Marja. I really value them.

Bob

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Marja

Thanks for the comments on my daughters. I am very proud of them. Yes Aroha is from Ch Ch.

Bob

D'Arcy said...

A beautiful family Bob!

I agree. As a teacher of 16, 17, and 18 year olds, I can see a lot of truth in this.

Have you read "Generation Me?" It puts forth very similar ideas. I actually make it required reading among my students and have several discussions. One of the biggest developments in the world is this idea of fame. This need to be famous, even if it's on horrific reality tv shows. It's an interesting subject and one I am trying hard to understand and help solve.

Marja said...

Thanks you Bob I agree that followers should not be sheeplike I find however that many institutions do produce sheep. In institution kids have to conform to all cost and just have to digest information and spit it out.
I did some psychology papers. As long as you produced the material they provided in some way you got high marks. When you came up with new ideas which were also scientifically underpinned but came from a completely different field Like I waved sensory integration into a paper about behavious modification and encountered a lot of resistance.
I know institutions produce results but it goes at the cost of a valuable part of our most creative kids and only caters for academic and sports people.

BTW I saw intreped journeys on TV
It was about Jakarta and java Very interesting. So sad that tourism is almost zero It is such a beautiful place. I hope to go to Indonesia one day My brother said they were the most friendliest people fom all the asian countries he went

Bob McKerrow said...

Good morning D'Arcy

The dawm is just breaking on Jakarta.

No I haven't read " Generation Me" but I'll try and get a copy of it.

Reality TV and the need to be famous is an interesting concept, but it cam teach values which leads to humiliating people.

I am very interested that you teach 15 to 18 year olds. They can be a very rewarding group to teach if yjhru are imbued with the right attitude/

I was Director of the NZ Outward Bound School and I instructed silver spooners to young gous released from jail for the course. We had amazing breakthroughs with the latter and I think it came down to basic respect. If you respect people and treat them as you would like to ne treated by them, the anger dissapates and I used to find a beautiful constructive person inside.

Keep learning as I am !

Bob

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Marja

A good discussion is developing. Frankly, it depends on the instituation we talk about. I ran an institution called the arapaepar Outfoor pursuits centre ion the foothills of the Tararuas, near Levin. 90 % of our students were heading for maximum security prison and had raped, armed robbery, attempted murder etc.

We had no locks which floored them or arrival as they wanted to break into everything. We made huge changes in their lives and followed up b visiting their communities. I was proud of that institution until the national Govt. pulled the plug on funding.

Marja, Indonesia is such a diverse country and as your brother said, such friendly people.

Let's continue the dicussion as I feel your passion and experience for the subject.

Bob

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
Your experiences with the kids in the Tararua's is an amazing one really. I recall you saying that first some of these tough guys needed to be broken down, and what better place than the mountains to rally gain some insight. Both D'arcy's and Marja's comments relate to what I posted about music and the program Mike Chunn has started for these teen agers. Yet to write a song, or perform a song is still using an institutional structure is it not? I mean you have to understand the rules of musical scale, or writing poetry and lyrics, ect. But the action and result comes from a different place, locked up emotion waiting to be released, a failure to be able to communicate any other way how a boy feels towards his father in these akward teen age years, how it is to have your bet friend kill himself at age 15, or tell your parents you love them. All in beautiful music, and to create a place where New Zealand musical icons are giving something back in an unusual way is to me a perfect example of combining established institutions with somewhat liberal treatment of how it gets done. The results are amazing.

Bob McKerrow said...

Kia Ora Robb

The discussion gets interesting, You mention the music and the program Mike Chunn has started for teenagers. And you say "Yet to write a song, or perform a song is still using an institutional structure is it not?"
Yes, but some structures are useful and value free, and let the individual develop naturally. Even jail as a structure has its place, if there is adequate emphasis on reform, remorse and rehabilitation.

But what scares me is the increasing violence on TV, on computer games, portable play stations and around us on the streets. Don De Lillo in his book Mao II, says “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our [the writers’] decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

The words - "what terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness " - is frightening.

9/11, Bali bombings, London bombings and graphic scenes from Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza has whetted people's appetites for more violence and the poor novelist's labour lies caked in dust on a shelf.

The novel dies as more people die, whilst the industries thrive as the pedal violence in its many guises.

I better stop there as I feel I am rambling.

Bob

Marja said...

Hi Bob I think we are talking about a lot of different things here The concept of institution is broad and yes there are many different ones.
To keep it simple I define it as an organisation with rules to govern behaviour of a group of individuals.

Ok nothing wrong with that. Institutionalisation has some side effect. I talked about education. The set of rules in this area hasn't changed in a 100 years while our community and demand for certain people has changed enormously. Life changes faster than ever before and the demand for creative innovative people therefore as well.

In many institutions rules and values are established without ever questioned again. In some childrens home are rules wich is far off a normal home. Everybody inside sees them as normal An outsider would question them.

I think an institution works when you ask all the time. Why was this rule made Does it still make sense. Does it stil serve the people and community etc. Not just apply it just because it is there.

You probably did the right thing for these young people and got good results.

I think many instutions don't deliver the right results for everybody and everybody is important or not. Anyway I hope I can make myself clear and you underatand what I mean

So inflexibility and being rigid is my problem

Marja said...

one more thing. The problem of violence again starts in the home.
I think people don't value children enough. Many parents work both full time Have no time to raise kids. I have worked in preschool factories were kids don't learn values
I can give many examples and write an extensive paper on it. Institutions won't save them

Marja said...

.......and the ones who can don't get the funding. Ok now I stop

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Marja

Where to start and where to finish. I find your passion and knowledge on the subject admirable and I generally support your views. It is hard to get acciracy in these blog discussions but I like the comments which have come through in the last days.

I suppose it is like a fridge full of healthy and unhealthy food. We as parents have to have the knowledge to know the good from bad, and try to teach our children the same. Institutions, like the fridge contain the healthy and unhealthy, but do we know them well enough and their hidden agendas.

Guest have just arrived so I have to fly.

Bob

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