I also do not believe that the most common criticisms are justified.
There is one in particular that I’ve heard lately that I’d like to address now. That is, that youth don’t respect authority. But whenever I hear people say this my first response is, why should they? What has authority ever done for them? In fact, as Frank Fruedi writes (The Australian, 20th September 2014), in his article Youth Rebellion that Embraces Authority, the most recent examples of young people who submit to authority are those travelling to war zones to fight and die as jihadist. If these young people were less willing to submit to authority the story may be different.
I grew up at the end of that era where respect for authority was automatic. I think I may have just scraped through in that period where we never thought to question authority. If a teacher, parent, police officer said jump, we jumped. If they said you’re a bad kid, we believed them, if they said here’s a detention we were more worried about how mad our parents would be (and what their own punishment might include), we didn’t stop to think that maybe the authority figure was wrong.
Now, I’ll accept that not all kids were like me, and sure there were some crazy free-thinkers back then who had the cheek to ask ‘why?’, but on the whole we did what we were told. We knew, even though it didn’t happen often any more, that a parent or teacher or police officer could hit or smack us. We were afraid, in part, but it was more than that, we had never stopped to consider an alternative, nor did we think for a minute that the person in authority had anything but our best interests at heart.
Times have changed. I often hear people cry that young people no longer have any respect for authority. Not like they used to, not like back in my day. And while I do think that in some cases we are all suffering from a serve nostalgia complex, let’s face it, there have always been naughty kids. I do agree that times have changed. However, it is not young people who have changed but authority. Young people aren’t doing anything differently. Authority is doing, or to be more precise, authority has got caught doing something differently. Authority has always used its powers for evil, we just never knew about it before.
Let me explain. At this point I could probably talk about a time long ago when authority respected itself. When kings were entrusted with a sacred responsibility to honour and protect their citizenry. Where knights fought gallantly, no cheating, to protect the virtue of fair maidens. But I’m not going to talk about that, because it never existed. Politicians have always been corrupt, soldiers have always been dishonourable and citizens have always got swindled. That’s not to say that all politicians, soldiers and other authority figures acted this way, but neither will I allow that they were all perfectly virtuous.
Something about authority has changed though. We view it differently. We are bombarded with images of the corruption of authority on a daily basis. It might be a government turning violently on its on citizens, the police beating a suspect, our favourite singer being found guilty of multiple counts of child abuse or businesses defrauding investors. We can’t respect authority anymore because authority has cheated us and mass media means we hear about it more often. We all thought authority cared for us, that it took the trust and faith we gave it and tried to make our lives better, but it’s been proven, time and again, that we have all been cheated.
My generation has grown up in the shadow of genocide, child soldiers and the violent response to peaceful protests. Tiananmen Square, Pol Pot and Stalin, among others, hang as heavy reminders of authority’s abuse of power. And, more shockingly, the abuse of children by highly respect members of our community. Not only this, but the systematic denial, cover-ups and repetition of these incidents. The hurt isn’t just in the happening, but authority’s inability to stop it. Authority, in short, did not protect us, like it promised it would.
So how can we expect young people today to respect authority blindly? And would we want them to anyway?
In many situations it is the people who questioned authority and held it accountable that made a change for the better. When authority told lies about the Jewish people, she said, ‘But my friends are Jewish. Why should I deny that?’ When authority said ‘Rich people deserve to be rich.’ He said, ‘Why can’t we all share in wealth?’ When authority said ‘Shoot’, they said ‘What has this person done?’ When authority said ‘The poor/criminal/mentally ill can’t be helped.’ They said, I’ll help them anyway.
Authority needs to be questioned. I want my students to look at the world and wonder why there is so much injustice, and why governments might want them to act or think a certain way. I want them to question the world they are presented with and try to make the world a better place because they stopped to think for themselves. I want authority to earn my respect, by proving that it cares about me. We can no longer assume our position comes with the respect it may have once demanded. Each individual needs to earn their own respect with the people they hold authority over.
This was the greatest mistake I ever made as a teacher. I assumed that my students would automatically respect, not me, but my position, and that this would be enough. I spent a great deal of time teaching them to think for themselves, to analyse the world around them, and yet, I was shocked when they questioned me. I realised I was giving them a very confusing message. I’ve tried to take a different approach. Now, when my students question me, I try to reward them. I tell them I’m not perfect, that sometimes I get it wrong. I say thank-you, you've given me a chance to reconsider my decisions and improve myself and my teaching.
Let’s not blame young people for having a lack of respect for authority. Let’s encourage them to rebel, to be unique and let’s hope that one day, all their practice defying us, will give them the courage they will need to defy injustice in the future.