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The Crisis of Authority


It is a little over year since the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott praised the movie “Hannah Arendt” for answering a “hunger for engagement with the life of an extraordinary mind.” “Arendt,” Scott wrote, “was a writer of long books and a maker of complex arguments.” She was possessed with the “glamour, charisma and difficulty of a certain kind of German thought.” The only problem with the movie by Margarethe von Trotta, Scott suggested, was that it wasn’t long enough. He clearly relished the existence of a serious movie for adults, one that was also engaging and watchable.

Now Scott has written an essay in the NY Times Magazine about the juvenile nature of American culture. In “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” he writes:

[T]he journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of Y.A. books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups “should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.” Instead, these readers were furious. The sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as “Don’t tell me what to do!” as if Graham were a bossy, uncomprehending parent warning the kids away from sugary snacks toward more nutritious, chewier stuff. It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon. Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

adult_yalitScott assumes the role of the adult—at least partially. He, like Ruth Graham, understands the need to judge, to say to his colleagues and to his readers: Grow up! Wherever we look, supposedly responsible adults dress in sneakers and jeans, read children’s books, play video games, ride skateboards, and generally claim for themselves the privileges of youthful irresponsibility. There is in the now widespread cultural embrace of informality what Scott rightly sees as “the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed.” In performing solidarity with children, adults enact a “refusal of maturity [that] also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean.” As he bemoans, “nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.”

Yet Scott is too much part of the culture of immaturity to be willing to judge it. “I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.” Scott refuses to judge and embraces the joy in juvenalia:

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart, but Scott loses heart. He counsels having fun.

crisis_educationOf course a crisis of authority won’t bring Armageddon. But it does undermine all efforts to elevate societal or political virtues. If we act like children, we lose the right to discipline our actual children. When we refuse to judge stupidity, we demean the virtue of maturity. And if our cultural critics celebrate the juvenilization of America, there will be ever fewer people left to read serious literature let alone watch serious movies of the kind Scott enjoys. That is a given. The more important question is whether a culture without adults will have the collective seriousness and will to sacrifice personal interests for public virtues and ideas.

The crisis of authority, a given in politics, is disastrous in parenting and education. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay “The Crisis in Education,” the key element of education is the authority of the parent, teacher or professor. The teacher takes responsibility for bringing the child into the world, which requires authority:

The teacher’s qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world. Vis-à-vis the child it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.

The authority of the parent or teacher is, at bottom, a matter of his or her willingness to take responsibility for the world. In other words, the teacher must be conservative in the sense that his or her role is to “cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new.” The teacher conserves both the world as it is—insofar as he teaches the child what is rather than what should be or what will be—and the child in her newness—by refusing to tell the child what will be or should be, and thus allowing the child the experience of freedom to rebel against the world when and if the time is right.

studentArendt’s point is that education requires that a child be confronted with the world as it is, not how the student wants it to be. This will often be painful and uncomfortable. It requires authority, and it requires that the student learn to conform to the world. An essential part of education, therefore, is that the student not be in control and that students be led by an external, an adult, a respected authority. Which is why, for Arendt, education depends upon the authority of teachers and professors.

The cultural abdication of adulthood that A.O. Scott describes is real. It will not be stopped in its tracks, and he is of course right that we should have some fun. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a young adult novel now or then or skateboarding around in ripped jeans once in a while. But if the adult mindset becomes suspect and seriousness is disdained, we risk leaving to our children the impossible task of loving a world that we don’t respect enough to love ourselves. In such a world, serious people who risk making serious judgments—like Hannah Arendt’s judgment of Adolf Eichmann—will be seen at best as curmudgeons and at worst as those who rain on the party. That would be a crisis.

— Roger Berkowitz

This post is cross-published on the American Interest website.

Posted on 13 September 2014 | 9:55 am

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