The Long Road to Agency

women-voteI’ve just started reading a book called “From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present” by Jacques Barzun. Its the last of my three year long plunge into 27 books John Taylor Gatto recommended reading (at the end of his “Underground History of American Education”) to give one 10,000+ pages of context for the American education system. Barzun’s premise is to do a post mortem on the “Modern Era” which he says began around 1500 with the decay of medieval culture and the turning things upside down by the Protestant Reformation and presumably is now transitioning into a new era. Our so named “Information Age” I guess is the first act of this new era, and we can’t even begin to know how the era will be labeled five centuries from now.

I think we are in a multi-millennial transition from the purest forms of a dominator society – featuring hierarchies, “power over” and directive leadership – towards more of a partnership society – featuring more egalitarian relationships, “power with” and more facilitative leadership. If you look at that transition, you can see trends of surrendering control of other people and eventually giving them their own authority and self-control. So…

In the era of the great ancient empires – Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome – these bastions of “civilization” controlled a significant number of human beings of all races as slaves, that is, the property of another human being. If you were an owner of such a person you could treat them as you wish, including abusing them and killing them if it suited your purpose. You were given liberty by society to control their fate and enact any judgment upon them.

With the transition to the Axial age and the rise of the great monotheistic religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there was some sort of acknowledgement that only the one God could control your fate and that his judgment superseded any judgment of man. In this ethical framework, slavery was problematic and began to wane (though still applied to non-Western people of color) in favor of a new form of control, serfdom, which pledged your allegiance as a serf to your lord, with the understanding that your soul and your final judgment belonged only to God. As a serf you were still chattel, but your feudal lord was responsible for your well-being, within of course the context of his own control of his fief. This hierarchy was expressed in the Roman (Catholic) Church of the time by the parternalistic hierarchy of Pope, cardinals, bishops, and down to parish priests

With the Reformation and the transition to the Modern Era, the idea that a person could control their own destiny on Earth, if not before God, came into full sway. This era was marked by countries transitioning from monarchies to republics and the enfranchisement of ever more groups of people. In our country, that enfranchisement began with white men with property, then all white men, then black men and then women. Slavery and now serfdom as well was ever more problematic, seen by most people as ethically and morally indefensible, and eventually mostly abolished.

From my perspective, what we have seen is a transition from owning people (slavery) to controlling while being responsible for them (serfdom) to giving them the right to be responsible for themselves (citizenry). This transition is generally applied first to the “ruling tribe” as it were and then broadened out to “other tribes”. It also generally starts with men only and then is broadened to women as well.

So now with the dawn of what many people call the “Information Age”, many say that the Modern Era is coming to a close. They cite as evidence that many of the institutions and paradigms of the Modern Era – mechanization, standardization – are no longer effective ways of organizing our means of production, means of education, etc.

So some say youth rights are the next frontier of this trend toward agency for ever more among us. But when this idea is suggested, many adults have immediate concerns. They feel most youth do not yet have the wisdom and judgment to make important decisions, even regarding their own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Because of the complexity of contemporary life and the amount of time involved in preparing oneself for the most high-paying high-skill positions, youth need their time and focus managed by knowledgeable adults so those youth can enter adulthood with the opportunity to quickly mastering one of these high-skill positions and therefore being able to have “a good life”, at least economically speaking.

But I am wondering if the institutions (schools) and conventional parenting wisdom (directive rather than facilitative), designed to nurture youth development, both emerging in the 19th Century in sync with the Industrial Age, are now obsolete in our new Information Age. When I contrast directive vs. facilitative, I am thinking of Riane Eisler’s dominator and partnership paradigms she introduced in her book “The Chalice and the Blade”. Directive leadership is the tool of the dominator paradigm (“The Blade”) and facilitative leadership the tool of the partnership paradigm (“The Chalice”).

Today our youth are children of the Information Age and much more comfortable with all its powerful new communication and knowledge acquisition technologies than perhaps my generation is and will ever be. Perhaps they are better able to obtain needed knowledge directly without as many intermediaries (teachers) to instruct them. Perhaps the bigger challenge for youth is maintaining one’s balance in the midst of the complexities of life in this new Post-Modern Era. Perhaps that calls on adults (parents, teachers, others) who interact with youth to model, to witness, to encourage, more than to direct.

A lot more question than answers here, so I will be interested if you would share your thoughts on this subject with me.

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