Parenting: The Dangers and Influence of Elitism

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I read an article, “The Master” by Marc Fisher about 2 weeks ago in The New Yorker magazine about an English teacher at the renowned Horace Mann high school in the Bronx.

The teacher’s name was Robert Berman, and the article was ostensively about sex abuse by Berman toward his male students during the 1970s. Accusations included all manner of abuse from emotional and psychological to physical and rape of these young men. Some of these students were so heavily influenced by Berman that they bought him a townhouse on Manhattan’s west side years after graduating from the school.

Since the allegations were made several years ago, Facebook groups have formed and legal suits against the school have been filed. Berman has maintained his innocence, and true to his reportedly elitist and highly eccentric personality (according to Fisher, Berman encouraged his students “to subvert standardized tests by answering every question with the word ‘five'”), Berman has remained a mystery and largely silent, requesting his privacy, insisting that he is an old man who wants to live out his final fragile years with dignity and solitude. He “speaks” through seeming disciples and communicates via hand-written letters delivered by the postal service or hand courier.

Part of the draw of people like Berman is their charisma and their personality; they create a mystique and an almost cult-like fascination for students who hang their achievement on their every word and preference. Many former students cited his strangeness but also considered him genius and a driving force in their successful careers as writers, artists, and musicians. This is all well and fine, for those who got away.

While the allegations are horrid and disturbing, the article discussed –but as far as I’m concerned largely glanced over–  a very subtle yet more sinister element in all of these troubling stories and that is the power of elitism — the severe and undue influence that any authority figure has over children (or any at-risk person), regardless of environment. The food of elitism is the subject’s desperate need for approval, acceptance, love and attention. What I’m talking about is really subtle: it’s not just that Berman did these things; but what I’m talking about is the how; the tool and the device he used to do it so insidiously.

Like the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal at Penn State, more times than not, many of these children were lured by these people because of their emotional vulnerability or a less-than ideal home-life: often they came from broken families or from families where the parents were angry, overwhelmed by their jobs, health issues or other major distractions.

Even kids from so-called good homes (both parents present, gainfully employed and stable families) were still susceptible to these types of authority figures because they were reduced by Berman. Everything they previously thought that was of value, was devalued. From music, to art; from literature to movies; from girls to sports, Berman found a way to denigrate their opinions and replace them with his. He found a way to tell them that what they loved before was worthless now because he deemed it so. By doing this with the students who were at risk, he groomed them to need his favor and his good opinion. They wanted to fit in … somewhere. This is a tool used everywhere, but it’s so subtle.

By replacing their esteem with his judgment, they gave away their power. They lost their bearings, they discarded their own benchmarks and valuations and began to engage in behaviors and studies and experiences to seek and win his approval. As time wore on, his admonitions were more severe and their appeasement became more desperate and his abuse escalated to untenable levels. Not all students were selected and preyed upon by Berman, and of those who were, not all succumbed to his advances. Some former students who stepped forward discussed their experiences with him and how they got away from him; and that once they did get away from him, that they were deemed “dead” to him. But of the others, the nightmares continue and the trauma is just beneath the surface.

Elitism’s power and the abusive influence of authority figures is not really about sex. Like all matters of abuse, it’s about power, control and the need to build a power base due to the abuser’s own issues with mortality and other screwed up reasons.

Revealed most recently: Rutgers University Basketball coach Mike Rice’s abuses. Why those huge college students put up with his crap is beyond me. But look further: these athletes are exploited plain and simple for the betterment and bank accounts of the colleges, advertising agencies and television networks. They pin their hopes on an NBA career and curry favor of the whims of insatiable coaches because of those hopes.

As parents, we need to do a better job: we need to talk to our kids about these subtleties. As a parent of three boys, all of whom are engaged in sports (two at the neighborhood club level, my oldest in a high school rowing program), my husband and I do our best to make sure the boys respect the coaches; that they listen to their opinions and practice good sportsmanship as well as work on their skills. My oldest son is just beginning this journey. Regardless of the benefits and challenges of a rigorous rowing training program, he needs to know of most of all the concept of self-respect and what that looks like not only for himself, which is paramount, but what it looks like in his teachers and coaches. A good coach will show you how it’s done and train you do to it; a bad coach will strip you of your dignity, beat the crap out of you and denigrate you and reduce you to make himself feel better and to wait for you to appease him or her. While we’re at it: there is no place for inquiries about personal preferences, and opinions of behavior.

As high schoolers, we liked teachers and coaches who were like us: who cursed, and maybe smoked or showed some rebellion. We related to that; that was cool to us. Looking back: those teachers were needy losers.

As parents, we need to hold teachers and coaches to a high level: they must behave themselves and not work so hard to earn our kids’ favor. Trust is earned when it’s proven. It’s the same as “stranger danger” — as I say to my kids and any kid or their parent who will listen: “No adult ever needs the help of a young child to do anything.” Same goes for coaches and teachers and other authority figures. They are there to teach and train, plain and simple.

The article in The New Yorker is linked above; it’s long, as many articles can be in that magazine, but it’s captivating and important to read. Elitism from our friends, our parents, our siblings, relatives, teachers, coaches, priests — anyone really — is corrosive and dangerous; its intent is to breed subservience, supplication and submission. It’s the “mean girls” of anything we do. Anyone can have their own opinions, but the moment they become empirical, black & white, or critical of yours or your child’s is the moment they can become dangerous and they create a perfect breeding ground for inadequacy issues and second-guesses.

Thank you.

22 responses »

  1. I adore this post. So well written and a topic that is so important. I also encourage all to teach your children to question. Ask why? Ask, ask, ask about everything. While this strategy might seem to backfire when your kid asks, “why do I need to clean my room when I am just going to mess it up again.” It also gives them control and power to question authority, not fear. When my kindergartener came home with an award from school it was for “Posing and asking questions.” I have never been prouder.

    • This is such a great comment. I don’t think kids are taught or sometimes even allowed to actually think anymore and that is part of the problem. Thinking isn’t really celebrated like it once was. It sounds like you are doing an awesome job with your kids, Ginger!

      • On I dunno, Lil. I think kids are encouraged to think; it just can seem, in a structured environment like a school, that they have to meet certain benchmarks, but a good teacher will reward them for the *way* they arrived at those benchmarks just as much as they would for achieving the benchmark. My kids are all enrolled in “Socratic Seminars” at their schools where they are encouraged to think critically; no matter what the tangent. And trust me, some of those tangents are out there. However thy can connect the dots…

        And yes, Ginger, I love the award too! Lillian is right on that you’re doing a great job. 🙂

  2. “A good coach will show you how it’s done and train you do to it; a bad coach will strip you of your dignity, beat the crap out of you and denigrate you and reduce you to make himself feel better and to wait for you to appease him or her.”
    The same goes for parents.
    🙂
    ~Lyann

    • Yes, Lyann, the same goes for parents. I know that well too; I was toted to go there, but I want to make this post more general, or I suppose, more specific. I really wanted it to be about empowerment and positivity and proactive stuff. Any parent worth his or her salt though, knows that what you’ve shared is entirely true. They’re already on the right side. 🙂

  3. I think I am not so sure it’s elitism. There is an instinct in man to belong to society. The oldest form of punishment was to cast out of society. Belonging alone is enough a tool to turn weak people into sheep. Just a thought.

    • I see where you’re coming from, but if you’re not a controlling, opinionated, eccentric and manipulative dick who preys intentionally on the weak and this portrays yourself as the smartest alpha and casts an air of superiority on those you deem less-than, for the sole purposes of controlling them, what is it? This article in TNY was all about the power elite academe; I don’t think it’s just about belonging. Robert Berman would be a cultural elite regardless of whether anyone followed him. The danger, yes, is in the need to belong; so you’re right there, but without the opportunity to exploit that due to the echelons of learning in a place like Horace Mann or on a basketball court from an authority, he’d be just another blowhard, so I like how you’re thinking. This is good to gnaw on. Thanks, K.

      • I think the elite exploit the desire to belong all the time. Just look at all of the exclusive clubs. People like to belong to exclusive clubs because it makes them feel special. I’d imagine that people who aren’t feeling particularly special might find themselves doing things they don’t want to, or that they know is wrong because of their desire to fit in. So, I think, in some ways (like any power) the people in elite positions sometimes abuse their status.

  4. A sad state of affairs but too common. Probably a lot of it stems from drifting from a focus on character (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”~JFK) to a focus on success and fame. Narcissism plays a huge part in this. The spoiled child later becomes the calculating white collar criminal, the celebrity who screams at the police “Do you know who I AM??” or the sexual predator.

    • Yes. Narcissism is devastating and I feel like it’s rampant these days. Facebook doesn’t help. None of this stuff does. But as long as we keep our bearings, we should be fine. I worry about kids though, from exposure to all this stuff. My 12-yo wants to be famous and is convinced YouTube is the gateway. The world can be a cruel place. Thanks, Wayne.

      • There’s a psychologist named Martha Stout who wrote a book called *The Psychopath Next Door* In the book she estimates 4% of the American population could be classified as psychopathic, according to the D.S.M. criteria. This doesn’t mean that they are violent or terrorists. They do have a personality disorder identified by characteristics such as a lack of empathy and remorse, criminality, antisocial behavior, egocentricity, superficial charm, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity, and a parasitic lifestyle. I personally think Facebook can be a playground for psychopaths and offers them an opportunity to exhibit their skills. :-0

      • i think i came from people like that. of course it’s all on a continuum with all of us; some of these are primitive survival “skills” from the cavemen days, but i believe yes, Facebook is a playground for that. it feeds that stuff. after about 10 minutes on the site i get an oogey feeling.

        i’m on it; it started back in 2008 to keep in touch with relatives in NY, but i pretty much hate it for the most part. as a writer, they say “build a platform,” “engage in social media” but i find at times that’s a false me. i can only do so much online.

        a great writer on the subject, Kristen Lamb, recently wrote about the need to back off of it as well and no overwhelm ourselves with it. gah.

      • They don’t take seriously honesty and decent behavior standards. Rules are for people “not special” like they believe themselves to be. As far as other people, they are useful only to the extent they can gratify their needs. Otherwise other people are like dust; to be brushed off the table and disposed of. Never expect real gratitude or remorse from one of them. It’s foreign to their nature 😦

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