When fathers are teachers

I’ve decided this year to celebrate my experiences of being a father. Not all of them deserve to be celebrated, of course. I still regret the time I punished one of my kids for an offense another kid later confessed to. But two things have happened recently that have put me in a celebratory mood and I’d like to tell you about them.

The first happened in 2005. I remember the date so well because I met and married Bette in 2005 (January and December, respectively) and a good deal of calendar year 2005 involved introducing her to people whose reaction would be important to me. One of those was my son, Dan. Dan and Julie were living in the Seattle area at the time and on one of their visits to Portland, the four of us went to see a movie called Thank you for Smoking.

One of the principal characters (Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart) was a lobbyist for the tobacco companies. [1] They didn’t play him as a bad guy. He was just someone who worked for the bad guys. He was also a father and by the account given in this movie, a pretty good father. It is just how Naylor went about being a good father and how Dan responded to him that I want to tell you.


THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, Cameron Bright, Aaron Eckhart, 2006, ©Fox Searchlight

Nick’s son Joey is struggling with an essay he has to write for school. Nick is across the room, reading the paper. Joey is in such distress that Nick asks what is wrong. “Oh…I have to write a paper about why America is the greatest country in the world.” Nick slowly puts the paper down and looks across the room. “IS America the greatest country in the world?” he asks.

At that point, Dan leaned across me in the theater and said to Bette, my brand new girlfriend, “You are looking at my childhood.” And he said it in a voice that insured that I would hear it. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. THAT is what my son wanted to tell a woman I was seriously interested in marrying.

The second story is going to take a little longer to tell because it will require that we review some material. It happened last Thursday, June 2, when my younger son, Doug, and I were chatting on the phone. He had just read the essay I called Authoritarianism III, which reflected on my years teaching at Portland State. The point I was making in that essay was that I did not see that my job as a teacher involved pushing the students to become more or less authoritarian. [2] I built a little model that helped me say that I wanted to help them clarify their values and to see clearly what actions those values would support; then I wanted to examine the relationship between the actions they chose and the whole array of effects such actions might cause–not just the effect they were thinking of at the time.

As an illustration of that model, I wrote about an imaginary classroom in which 81 father 2students routinely registered for the class and only 27 desks. It’s an interesting example because some students are interested only in getting one of those 27 seats for themselves; others are much more interested in making sure that there is a seat for everyone. [3]

Doug took the side of the students who wanted to desks for themselves. He didn’t announce that we were going to do a little role playing; he just dropped into the individualist/conservative position. Teaching politics is half role playing anyway, so I picked up my part.

  • I tried to clarify just what value(s) he was pursuing by trying to solve his own problem rather than the class’s problem.
  • I tried to specify what kinds of action he might take that would be consonant with those values.
  • I tried to project what kinds of outcomes those actions would have.

Doug raised objections every step of the way.

  • Why did I say these actions and not those were in line with his values?
  • Wasn’t that too narrow?
  • Why did I say that these side effects would be a part of choosing those actions and implementing them?
  • Was I making the side effects more negative than was really realistic?

On and on. It was a great pleasure. We were playing a game we both knew how to play and enjoying each other’s performance. When we were done, he said, “Well, that’s what I thought you’d say.”

“Why did you think that?” I asked, sensing that the subject was about to be changed and not knowing just what the new one would be.

“Because,” Doug said, “That’s how you raised us.”

And he wasn’t talking about politics in our home. It could be anything. A school project, a playground hassle, a clunky assignment, whose job it was to clean up the kitchen tonight. How are the values I know you have being expressed in the actions you are choosing? What kinds of effects to you expect to produce by choosing those particular actions.

Those weren’t his words, exactly. They are my own words of today. But he recited them as if they were so familiar he didn’t have to work at remembering what they were. I think that’s what I liked best.

And I heard what Dan said to Bette as meaning about the same thing that Doug played out in our phone conversation. I can hardly tell you what warmth I take from those memories.

Thanks, guys.

[1] The names are part of the dark fun in this movie. Eckhart is Vice President of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. His colleague Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) works in the Moderation Council (alcohol). The third of the trio is Bobby Jay Bailey (David Koetchner) who runs an organization called SAFETY and promotes the gun business. They call their meetings, meetings of the MOD Squad—Merchants of Death.
[2] “Not an evangelist for anti-authoritarianism” is the way I put it in the essay, thinking of my friends who would say that is exactly what I should be doing.
[3] Both honest orientations toward policy, but with very different outcomes. It was my job to point out the differences in the outcomes.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Education, Living My Life, Political Psychology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When fathers are teachers

  1. thinkydoug says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed that as much as I did, Pop. I knew when I read your “Authoritarianism III” post that I wanted to go through that exercise with you, and I knew exactly the roles we’d play. More than anything I guess I just wanted to play them again. Good times. 🙂

    • hessd says:

      I think the very best thing is that we sensed the exchange coming and leaned into it. You don’t do that unless you’re both good at it and both friends.

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