For a nation that has built a reputation as the world's greatest self-doubter, America seems remarkably un-examined.We have got into the habit of viewing life as a collection of "problems," which we then set about to "solve." And one way we "solve" them is to have a conference, symposium, panel or lecture. Here, we are given a review of the problem and finally are told about the steps being taken, or steps that should be taken, or the further conferences that need to be held.
Always it is somebody else who is going to solve the problem. Always it is something to be shucked off like a dirty shirt for someone else to lauder. Join a foundation. Support a charity. Write a congressman.
We try this technique in dealing with our own family entanglements, too, the conflicts and agonies of the human condition. Anything to avoid that hard, searching lok inside ourselves.
For the 200 people who heard psychiatrist Robert Coles in the Rose Kennedy lecture series at Georgetown University, there was no such luck. Even his title. "Children and Ethics," refused to guide our concern onto a comfortable proconceived problem solving track.
In his rolled-up shirtsleeves, speaking with contained passion, the pulitzer prize winner ("Children of Crisis") told a story about a Florida family he met in the early '60s in his Harvard researches. It was a grower's family. There was 10-year-old son, a good student, athletic and healthy.
One day the boy commented in an oral report at school that the migrant workers were unfairly treated and lived like slaves. His teacher took it upon herself to report the incident to the boy's mother. Not his father, of course, who employed the migrants. The mother said her son - who went to the Presbyterian church with her every Sunday - often told her of his worries about how his family lived in contrast to the migrants. He went off and played with migrant children sometimes.
The mother told the father nothing. She thought the boy would outgrow it, because "children outgrow things" and it would be a danger to make too much of it.
"I think you'll recognize this," Coles added dryly, "as 20th-century wisdom."
The mother tried to explain to her son that the migrants enjoyed living that way, in their shacks. She took him to the school principal, to the family doctor. The family's position in the local socio-political galaxy had to be considered.
The doctor urged that the boy not be taken to church anymore, that he be encouraged instead to work with his father on Sunday mornings.
Naturally, the boy was pleased to be told that his father needed him in his work, but he still asked his mother what had been said in the Sunday sermons, still-played with migrant children.
The following year he wrote in a paper at school that the growers had blood on their hands. School authorities were alarmed. Questioned, the boy said he felt people like his father weren't practicing the Sermon on the Mount, that growers should share more with their workers. Taken again to the family doctor, he went through a series of consultations. He told the doctor he liked his father but didn't like all the things his fther did - "a pretty good distinction for a 10-year-old."
The doctor's verdict: The boy was "probably troubled aout something else in his life."
At last, the child had it out with his father, face to face. And was shouted down. And ran away, came home again, broke down. Became a problem at school, was given tests "and what we in the '40s and '60s were pleased to call Help," as Coles put it. Finally he was sent to a nearby metropolis to see a psychiatrist.
"You don't think people like me hang around migrant worker camps to practise psychiatry, do you?" Coles muttered.
Coles saw the boy again 12 years later. He was by now a political activist on a Florida campus. He was working for a presidential candidate who had also once been deeply concerned about migrant workers but who had, like the boy, outgrown it. The candidate was Ronald Reagan.
What are we to make of this story? Coles used up most of his first hour telling it to a totally concentrated audience. He asked why and how a child who develops a concern is systematically taught in school and doctor's offices to have other concerns. He said the developing idealism of children should be guarded, and the ways they unlearn things should be studied: "how they learn callousness, learn to turn off their perceptions, how to be - how is it put? - "pragmatic" . . ."
We customarily give children enormous credit for sensibility and awareness. Coles said. Scientists study the ways children pick up on family situations, sense rivalries and emotional conflicts, learn to manipulate their parents. "We study this part, but we don't pay much attention to other things they pick up - the moral and political issues of out time. They're sensitive on these too."
We should study, for instance, the way children learn about political and social class, he said: "Why do we live here and not there?"
One by one, Coles laid out the questions. He had no answers. He didn't spare his own profession, which he sees as part of the status quo, an instrument of the Establishment which leads courts to consider civil rights workers in the South as "disturbed" and the behaviour of the politically active rebellious young "aberrant, a problem," refusing to admit the existence of opposition, let alone honor its legitimacy.
In the second day's lecture, Coles examined how children around the world come to terms with their nationality. He quoted a number of them. American children invariably said American is the best country in the world. Children of other nations said no such thing. How are these notions passed along?
As for the patriotism served up in schools, the Pledge of Allegiance, the nag, the anthems. Coles questioned the wisdom of a certain king of liberal parent who rejects these things out of hand for the children. He could understand the fear that the children would be intimidated by such parephernalia, but he wondered how the parents could be so righteously sure of their own views. Many of his young subjects complained that the whole business bored them.
"Where do children learn to be bored by so much?" he asked . . . "It can be overdone: skepticism and boredom can be a problem a mask for?"
And why, he must parents "A kid shouldn't have to think all the time. I recommended the flag and the Pledge. It would be nice for children to become more reflective, of course, but I hesitate to turn elementary school children into endlessly reflective beings. They are children. I like having children believe in their country, and I hope later they'll learn to ask questions."
Acccused by some listeners of being ambiguous and ambivalent. Coles pleaded guilty without apology. He defended spanking, even with a ruler a "strenously disruptive child might welcome a little control) and called for something he called transcendence, "something beyond the secular liberal beliefs of the parents . . . something beyond the ego and id and legislation and liberal concerns, the everydayness of life . . ."
And at the end, what did the audience have? A lapful of questions.
What are we really teaching our children, between the lines? How are we contriving to repress "their developing moral acuity?" What goes through the mind of a mine owner's young daughter when workers are killed in an explosion? Can a psychiatrist be morally neutral? How would "that migrant preacher Jesus Christ have fared in the psychological tests of modrnAmerican institutions? Could Lincoln have got elected under the scrutiny of TV. the great levelor? Why are we worried about being depressed? Why should't we be depressed sometimes? Why does anyone think life can be lived without problems? Without being emotionally torn apart by conflict now and then?
Interesting: At the end of both sessions, the audience appeared to be stimulated, more aware, thoughtful. Was it because answers are an opiate?
"Would that more of us," said Robert Coles, "were conflicted and torn apart by the Problems of this country."