Move over, Rodney Dangerfield

July 06, 2000|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ORKNEY SPRINGS, Va. -- My experience coaching basketball earlier this year has led me into some musings about the place of respect in "the well-ordered soul."

These are portentous matters to have grown out of working with a bunch of 11-year-olds about putting a round ball through a netted hoop. But I hadn't been with a group of sixth-graders since I was one myself, and I was struck by a major change that's occurred since then.

To wit: I arrived at the first practice with some prepared remarks to launch our season. But when it came time to deliver them, I found myself struggling to get their attention, as in, "Please look at me." "Please stop bouncing the ball."

Forty years ago, when the coach said, "Listen up," all eyes turned to him while we boys silently awaited the word from on high.

Older educators confirm that respect for authority has declined among American children. Today's kids are less likely to conceive of any word as coming from on high.

During our basketball season, I found myself insisting on the respect that seemed so foreign to these -- generally -- good boys. But I also wondered why should I insist on it.

Some reasons certainly did not, themselves, command respect. For example, "Because that's what my coaches insisted on" is not a good reason. Nor did I feel entitled to demand respect to serve my own ego.

Nor does "because I'm the authority" sit too well with a child of the counterculture.

We who came of age in the era of Vietnam and Watergate learned that not all authority deserves respect. Many of us would have thought it a good thing for a new generation of American children to arise who are not in awe of their fallible adult authorities.

Indeed, my generation doubtless helped to create the culture whose children today have little space in their minds to regard some voice as higher than that of their own impulses and petty desires. But that's why it's important that adults insist on respect. It's not for ourselves or because we in authority are always right but because a well-ordered soul is one that has the habit of heeding a higher voice.

We live in an age of great, historically unprecedented affluence, which means that a great many of our wants can be gratified. That's a blessing, but it is also a challenge. Not all our desires are worthy.

If we heed no higher voice to tell us which of our wants to gratify and which to deny, we end up with some of the problems we see around us: The spiraling rates of obesity, even among children, and huge audiences given to mass media offerings such as "The Jerry Springer Show" that pander to our baser natures.

So the adults in authority -- parents, teachers, coaches -- are modeling a relationship that, as our children grow into adults, will become part of the structure of their inner lives. The habits they learn in relation to us will provide the model for how they govern themselves. Will they have learned to restrain their impulses and to quiet their chatter to make room for a voice of wisdom and judgment?

Insisting on respect doesn't mean returning to the authoritarian ways of the old culture. The counterculture taught a valuable lesson as well about not mistaking authority for infallibility. A responsible authority must work to deserve respect. And a healthy culture is one in which respect for the role of authority is combined with a recognition of the human imperfections of those who fill it.

As I stood before my team before the final game, I insisted that the kids stop interrupting me with whatever thought popped into their heads. I planned for several days what to say to ready them for the contest. I worked to make sure that my words deserve to be listened to more than their impulsive input.

We ended our season with a championship-winning 9-1 record. As I see it, if I've helped carve out a bit more space in their minds for respect, that's a bigger victory than any we won on the court.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His latest book is "Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide," published by M.I.T. Press.

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