Thursday, December 22, 2005

Questioning Authority

Do you remember when you lost your respect for authority?

I do. I was just reminded of it, while re-reading Terry Pratchett's "Hogfather", which has a small subplot about children's drawings of houses and chimneys with smoke spiraling out.

I was in the second grade, I believe, and our teacher was telling us about wind. As part of the lesson, she asked us to draw a house with a chimney and smoke coming out, and to show how the wind could blow the smoke.

I had become very interested in wind not long before (so powerful, and invisible, a force, must be explained) and had been watching things blow around for some time before this assignment. The thing I had found most interesting was how wind, especially in physically crowded environments, took on multiple directions - deflected by objects, generally. I would note how a bush would be blowing in one direction on the ground, but occasionally in a somewhat different direction higher up. I also noticed that wind could change direction very suddenly, and things would sometimes blow one way and then the other.

So I eagerly drew a picture of a house with a chimney, and smoke blowing in two directions at once - to the left as it came out of the chimney and to the right higher up.

The teacher didn't accept my drawing. She said that wind only blew one direction at a time. I attempted to explain to her that my drawing was based on empirical observation - not interested. Not only that, she didn't put my picture up on the wall with the others.

And my reaction was, essentially, "what an idiot" - along with resentment about not getting my picture on the board, of course.. It struck me, very hard, that just because someone was a teacher (later, generalized to other authorities) didn't mean that they knew jack. That was not the first time that I was right while a teacher was wrong, nor the last, but it was definitely formative. (Hey, I remember it vividly after 30 years, so it must have been important.)

Note to self: when daughter asserts a different set of facts, be willing to listen and investigate, so as not to destroy my own authority by being the dumb-ass who doesn't know that the wind can blow in more directions than one.

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