A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Thursday, April 21, 2011

“Push’em Back. Push’em Back. Waaaay Back.”

From the general public perspective there is nothing that resembles politics so much as small town high school sports.  Creepybriarville vs. Downhome Town is not just a football or basketball game; it is food for the soul, it is the breath of life.  The star player in your town can do no wrong while the players from the other school are criminals.  These are not rhetorical arguments, but deeply held beliefs with punches thrown, windows broken and lies told in defense of these certainties.

It is a sad, occasionally recognized truth that high school was the best time in many people’s lives.  I find this difficult to imagine and try not to dwell long on the implication…the real explanation has to be that the rest of their life is worse than high school.  I was there as a kid and I have been a watcher, a parent and a teacher; if that is the best that one can hope for in life, then we in public high school America are getting royally screwed (seriously; screwed by the new royalty).

A large number of people seem to have reached the peak of their social and emotional development in their teenage years and therefore apply the pleasing and rewarded habits of that time to many of the events of their supposedly adult lives [1].  I remember how almost everyone was co-dependently attached to some school based activity – usually, though not always, sports.  It was a certainty, in my experience, that a person would be shunned or hurt if they bad-mouthed the school or ‘the team.’

The team, the cheerleaders, the band, 4-H, school clubs, these were high school.  But no activity was complete without the contest with neighboring schools.  I thought, back then, that the competition was to see who was better, but no.  It was to excite the sense of community, it was to make us into a tribe that emotionally fed of off each other in ways not available in any other way then or since.  And it was magnificent.  Everyone with the same bright, yet glazed eyes, shouting the same words, supporting the same cause; the common purpose, the physical freedom and closeness, all so real and exciting compared to the insecurities and anxieties of everyday life.

If the fulfilling habits and events of high school attachments are mixed with a slow boil of anger at the vicissitudes of a disappointed life following high school, a good bit of the political behavior of the general populace begins to make sense: try to recreate the feelings of excitement and belonging while at the same time using the implied freedoms to explode away some of the anger accumulated around bosses, spouses, children, failures, dashed hopes. 

The majority of America’s titular adults ended their most deeply engaged community experience when they graduated high school.  Some continued that experience with the only somewhat modified experience of the military.  And some others went to college largely transferring those experiences to the new tribe.  Seen in this way, it is not the presentation of idea that matters as a way to influence people, but rather it is the creation of the tribal organization with secret handshakes, special language and exciting meetings that remind of pep-rallies and football games.  Right-wing astroturf groups follow this pattern.

I am confident that we, as a people, have the capacity to become more grown up – I don’t believe that the present levels of social and emotional immaturity are native to the species – but I can’t see how to accomplish it in our present paradigm.  Maturity is attained by being in the company of mature people with the realization that you are an unfinished learner.  That is how it has always been done. 

We know better than to take a human raised orangutan and return it to the forest without retraining.  There is a protocol for the training based on the skills and habits needed to survive.  We have no such protocol for ourselves.  And if anything, our present political, economic, media and educational systems are strongly counterproductive of the forms that would support an increasing national maturity.

I think that we are faced with rather stark possibilities for the future: a totalitarian plutocracy allowed by a socially and politically incompetent polity or conditions that dramatically increase the national maturity sufficiently for a popular social democracy to function [2].

[1] Where are the ‘adult’ organizations with grown up expectations, organizations that have the view of high school antics, even college social groupings, as childlike practice for the real thing?  Our emotional and social development seems to be artificially terminated at about 18 to 20 years of age.  I have been part of agricultural and industrial work gangs, field biology study groups, college faculties, independent professional service provider groups, school governing councils and various ad hoc advisory and action groups; other than each group having their own cultures and codes, there was not a great deal of difference among them as regards the maturity of their functioning.

I think it has to do with the point in time when people are led to believe that they are effective agents in life.  There has been, through out my whole life the presentation that ‘teenagers’ are a special grouping with unrequited capacities of authority – many ‘teenagers’ come to believe this commercially driven storyline.

There is another part to this; the point at which support is withdrawn also signals the beginning of ‘adult’ responsibilities.  This point ends a certain kind of learning – puts new learning in a different box if you will.

[2] I have left out the ecological considerations that will be (are) enforcing an utterly unforgiving timeline on these changes.

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