I was on the bus on the way back from my Spanish tutor a couple of days back, and I think it must have been an old song that came through my earbuds… you know how a smell or a tune or something will all of a sudden coalesce a vivid constellation of memory? I got a flashback to a certain part of my mental state when I was a kid.
I remembered how much anxiety I felt when I was young and unsure of myself. I was constantly alert to ways in which I might be being judged by others or making myself vulnerable to their negative judgment.
On one hand, this is natural: We come into life ignorant of our cultures’ standards of behavior and have to learn them largely through observation and through trial-and-error. So when we’re young we’re especially sensitive to the judgments of others.
On the other hand, this is partially exaggerated and artificial: We create environments like schools in which children spend hours and hours every school day being run through a gamut of external judgments by institutional design — these days, with the current mania for testing and tracking, more than ever.
John Taylor Gatto was a schoolteacher in New York, and was declared the state’s “teacher of the year” in . He’s since become better-known as a critic of institutional schooling. One of his criticisms is that in addition to whatever individual subjects are being taught in school at any particular time, the institution of school is itself constantly teaching a set of lessons that are more pervasive and enduring, and many of which are malignant.
He once described six of these lessons that every schoolteacher teaches. Here is the fifth of these:
I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer’s measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students’ homes to spread approval or to mark exactly down to a single percentage point how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these records, the cumulative weight of the objective-seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers. Self-evaluation — the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet — is never a factor in these things. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.
It is common for people to get to the end of their school years being so accustomed to trying to perform in such a way as to get external validation that they never grow up to that stage in which they are able to judge themselves and internalize appropriate standards. They graduate with a stunted ethical immaturity and no hints on how to get over it or why.
As a youth, having to monitor myself without the confidence of a mature internal judge, it was as if I were simulating the standpoints of multiple, contradictory, external judges — without any coherent way of discriminating among their judgments, and only the most rudimentary methods of guessing what those judgments would be. And so a question like “am I going to get made fun of for wearing these shoes” could become a consuming angst, with dozens of these simulated judges in my head trying on new ways of mocking my sneakers and the import of their judgments exaggerated beyond all reason. Oh to be a teenager again.
After I had this little flashback to the mental state of my youth, I felt thankful and relieved at having gotten past it. Some people never do, it seems, and that must suck. On the other hand, I’ve heard this surrender of self-judgment to others described in other contexts as a relief or as laying down a burden, so maybe I’m missing something.
Hannah Arendt pointed out how this lack of confident self-judgment — she bluntly called it the act of refusing to be a person — makes people ungrounded and easily-manipulated into committing atrocity. She was writing of the Nazi transformation of Germany when she wrote:
…the few rules and standards according to which men used to tell right from wrong, and which were invoked to judge or justify others and themselves, and whose validity were supposed to be self-evident to every sane person either as a part of divine or of natural law.… without much notice… collapsed almost overnight, and then it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.
She looked at the examples of people who refused to go along with the madness and found:
Those who did not participate were neither people who were old-fashioned enough not to accept new standards nor were they in possession of better ones. Their conscience did not function in this mechanical way — where you have a law and then subsume all particular cases under it. They were arrogant enough to judge by themselves.
I don’t think “arrogant” is really called for, even if, in the context, it serves as a complement. “Confident” seems to work better. An arrogant person judges himself and denigrates the judgments of others. A confident person judges himself and scrutinizes the judgments of others — learning from them rather than passively accepting them or trying to avoid them. Learning to judge for yourself doesn’t mean you can start ignoring other people’s opinions, but that you have a basis from which to evaluate them and appreciate them and you no longer just have to flinch from them or deny them.