Getting tough

I watched a talk this morning by an economist named Tyler Cowen about the impact of stories.  Every time you tell yourself this kind of  story (good guys/bad guys good neighbor/inconsiderate neighbor, good teacher/bad teacher etc.), Cowen says, you’re lowering your own IQ.  He’s taking liberties, of course but his point is well taken nonetheless.  Stories of good/evil right/wrong disregard the vast complexity of, well, everything.  And they leave us with little more than the comfort of believing we’re right or that we’re in the right camp.  Forgoing this kind of dichotomy means digging deep, looking farther into things than we generally go to the trouble to look.

In Cowen’s talk about stories he mentions the common story structure of “getting tough.” When we’re faced with what feels like an untenable problem, we often resort to getting tough. This is a popular one, he says:

“We [tell ourselves we] have to get tough with the banks. We had to get tough with the labor unions.   We need to get tough with: some other country, some foreign dictator, someone we’re negotiating with.  Now again the point is not against getting tough.  Sometimes we should get tough.  That we got tough with the Nazis was a good thing. But again this is a story we fall back upon all too readily all too quickly when we don’t really know why something happened we blame someone and we say ‘We need to get tough with them.’  As if it had never occurred to [a] predecessor, this idea of getting tough.  I view it usually as a kind of mental laziness, a simple story we tell: we needed to get tough, we need to get tough, we will have to get tough.”

He didn’t mention one of the greatest domestic examples of the getting tough story.  In the realm of education, we almost always resort to getting tough, on one thing or one party or another.  We get tough on teachers, we get tough on school systems, we get tough on budgets, we get tough on everything that has anything to do with the education of children. Because, I think, we can’t figure out what else to do.  And getting tough feels noble.  It feels consistent with the work ethic of our culture.  It hollers “Look how committed we are!  We’re so tough on this!  That proves how much we care about it!  We never give up!  We get tougher and tougher!”

And of course what happens is that all that getting tough trickles down to kids, who for the most part are doing what kids do automatically, which is learn, learn, learn, explore, explore, explore (though it sometimes looks like testing or pushing).  And then when it doesn’t work, when kids still don’t learn what we think they should when we think they should, we get tough directly on them. We take things away, we limit, we lay down the law.

What if we dug deeper?  What if we were to take the case that Cowen’s right, that this getting tough is a lazy story – a fall-back response born of paralyzing complexity?  Because it is.  So complex: Every time a new person is born, the adults charged with preparing that person to thrive on its own have an entirely new problem.  We say everyone’s unique, but if everyone is, which we know from genetics that they are, then we have a major challenge on our hands.  What works for one will not necessarily work for another. In fact it probably won’t.  What on earth can we do about that, if we really mean it that we want the best for everyone?  Who can blame us for falling back on an easy story, for saying “OK, well, we better just try harder to get them to memorize their facts and sit still and toe the traditional line.  Even if it seems like it’s wasting their talents, making them fight amongst themselves, making them sick. We don’t have much choice, because we can’t possibly give each of them something different even if that is what they need.”

What if we wrote a new story?  What if we wrote a story like “We have to get creative.”  Or “We have to start from scratch.” Or “Maybe we should listen to what kids are trying to tell us.”  What if we noticed that getting tough isn’t working, hasn’t worked for years, decades probably, and it’s not about to start working just because we say it louder or convince more people that we have no choice?


2 Responses

  1. Topical, timely and well said! Like always. Within your articles I often find the nugget that applies to what I’m going through as a parent/teacher. I so appreciate another thoughtful viewpoint/approach on this subject and the many others you’ve written about.

  2. One of my favorite “stories” is one that is told in positive psychology circles ( — and among Buddhists too — which is that we already are enough, that we all come into the world with the ingredients we need to thrive and that the job of parents or therapists or teachers is primarily to remove the obstacles to growth.

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