Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Tonka-Truck Theory of History.

Someone recently commented on my blogs, and suggested that although I am very good at dismantling other people’s misconceptions, I seem to have a few of my own.

How true…

There are three obvious responses to this. The first is to note that I do not believe it is possible for a person not to have some pre-programmed misconceptions. No matter how broad your education has been, you are to some extent programmed by your life experiences and expectations. (See, post-modernism might even be good for something...)

The second thing I would note, is that these blogs are consciously a little over the top. When I re-read the draft before publication, I have been known to adjust statements to be just a little bit more challenging than in the original version. My intention is not so much to convince people of my point of view, as to challenge them to come up with their own point of view. Whether my underlying point is sincerely meant, or merely idle speculation, the way it is phrased is hopefully designed to make people want to argue back. (Those who have seen me in the classroom or lecture theatre know that I am somewhat Socratic in my methods. I am likely to start a topic by saying “I think you should all pass an IQ test before being allowed to vote, do you think that’s a good idea?” Or "So give me a good reason why cannibalism might be a bad thing?" The former is a serious question, whereas the latter is an idle challenge to preconceptions. but in both cases I expect a reasoned response.)

The third, and most involved comment, is that this suggestion made me think seriously about what my wife calls the ‘Tonka-Truck theory of Parenting’.

My wife and I ran a Kindermusic studio for several years, and dealt with thousands of young children and their parents. Almost every parent we came across had a solemn goal to ensure that their child would never be exposed to such and such, which had blighted their own early life. After a while, Michelle developed a little story to make them all feel a bit better.

When Johnny was a child, he wanted a Tonka-Truck, Unfortunately his parents gave him a bucket and spade. When Johnny grew up he made absolutely sure that his child Jane got a Tonka-Truck, but unfortunately Jane didn’t want a Tonka-Truck she wanted a Barbie doll. So when Jane grew up, she made sure that her child Susan got a Barbie doll. Unfortunately Susan didn’t want a Barbie doll, she wanted a bucket and spade. And so the circle of life continues.

So let’s put this into and historical context.

The teenagers I teach now, probably look at somebody born in 1966 as quite old-fashioned, and fair enough. I was taught by a group of its teachers who were either Baby Boomers, or grew up during the Second World War. Presumably they were taught by a group of teachers who grew up during, or just after, the First World War.

I can well imagine that the people who taught the baby boomers were conditioned both by the Great War, the Twenties, and the Depression. I cannot imagine that this would do anything but impact on what they taught and how they taught it. So I am fairly confident that the baby boomers, with their relatively safe and luxurious lifestyles, had a different worldview to their teachers, and quietly sneered about their teacher’s ideas and perspectives.

(It is worth noting here that the research shows that ones height, weight, health and general life expectancy, is affected not just by you’re own life experiences, but also by those of your parents. The baby boomers may have been the first generation for a long time not to have experienced war or depression, but their children are the first to experience the effects of multiple generations of this (at least is the first since the Victorian/Edwardian period anyway). Walk into any high school and look at the students. Third and fourth generation Australians are usually bigger and healthier than their parents by the time they reach 14 or 15. Second-generation Australians, particularly from some of the more recent immigrant cultures, are much less likely to fit this category – though the exceptions are interesting.)

Naturally my generation, having had a considerably rougher ride than the boomers in terms of education and jobs, interpreted the world differently and sneered at the boomer perspectives.

But do the boomer’s kids feel the same way?

When I was paying my way through my first Masters degree working in the funeral industry, a constant refrain amongst the families I drove to Granny’s funeral was bemused boomer parents berating their University age children for not just getting a job and trying things. To the point that a couple of times I intervened to explain the facts of the early nineties recession to boomers who had never experienced anything but walking into a new job whenever they felt like it. Now that those kids are busy producing the boomers grandchildren, I sometimes speculate on what worldview is having it’s turn.

I am completely happy to acknowledge that my life experience, shaped by the period that I grew up in, has affected the way that I look at the world. I am equally happy to acknowledge that my generation, like every other generation in history, tends to treat the previous generation with some disdain. (Here I will happily put in the sort of challenging comment that I enjoy making… ‘but then I am quite comfortable with asserting that the baby boomer viewpoints are possibly more worthy of disdain than those of most other generations in the last couple of centuries’. Discuss…)

I do however, believe that despite the limitations of an individual’s experience in education, it is possible for them to search for greater truths. In fact I would go so far as to say that whereas the Depression era children wanted the bucket and spade, and the boomers wanted the Barbie doll, I want the real thing… I want the Tonka-Truck.

Perhaps it is the case that the annoyance I felt at the constant harping of my teachers on certain issues, makes me completely uninterested in taking those issues seriously. Or, perhaps it is the case that my life experience makes me incapable of accepting the viewpoints of people with a different life experience. Either of these possibilities may be true, and it would be foolish of me to dismiss the possibility completely. But it is also at least possible, that I have actually analysed what people said to me, and am then dismissing it for good and realistic reasons. I would be foolish to ignore that possibility as well.

After reflection, I have chosen to continue to take the Tonka-Truck theory to its logical conclusion. I will assume that what I am trying to convey is actually the result of reasoned analysis, but will accept the possibility that this might be a rationalization of the prejudices of my life experience. I will seek my Tonka-Truck, but try to keep in mind that I may be talking to people who have good reason for preferring a bucket and spade (though naturally, I can’t accept that there would be any good reason for preferring a Barbie doll! Discuss…)

I will write my blogs in the same way that I teach my classes. I will start with a proposition that I think is logical and sensible, but then present it in a way that is challenging as possible, in the hope of provoking a reasoned response. (Fully expecting to get some unreasoned responses too… sometimes quite foam flecked… or is that just my prejudices talking?)

Hopefully I will get the sort of feedback that challenges my own misconceptions.


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