Living in Layers – Part V – Fear and Loathing

At a profound level that underlies our need for power, control, and security, is a sense of fundamental fear. We fear a loss of basic ground, identity, meaning, death (both physical and psychological), and numerous other losses and even gains. Such fear creeps into our consciousness, where our thinking dwells and elaborates upon some aspects of this fear. This thinking serves to make this fear claustrophobic, which, in turn, leads to avoidance, aggression, and clinging to whatever remnants of security we can find. We avoid exposing ourselves. We push others away and cling to routines and material goods and ephemeral notions of self, deities, and the world. Such patterns are reinforced by the hierarchical stratification of identities, meanings, power, and control. Opportunities to break the cycles of fear and loathing can be found in holarchies with their unifying patterns of relationships and insights of self as holarchy.

Fear may be one of the most fundamental emotions shared by humanity. Yet, like the topic of death, we rarely discuss or confront our fears in this society. We tend to actively ignore such confrontations and work diligently to fill up our lives with other activities in order to avoid the feelings of fear. Of course, many people will watch scary movies. In a way the “rush” of watching such movies provides a “safe” way to release the tensions of being afraid, but facing our real fears is quite another story.

Several years ago, I asked my students who had been working with a fairly rough group of children, if anyone was afraid of children. No one in the class made the admission. Although the possibility existed that no one was afraid of children, my hunch is that at some level a majority of them were afraid of children. Over the years, I have watched my students nervously enter their first situation of working with children. Even after several sessions, I have seen many students avoid working with children in ways that are engaging to both my students and the children. Many take on more formalized personas and drift away from being themselves. Even among many experienced teachers, the same patterns of how they manifest in front of children still occur. The fears of children asking questions, for which teachers do not know the answers, of children challenging a teacher’s knowledge claim or a classroom rule, and of the possibility of chaos haunt teachers as they proceed through each and every day.

A major area of the professional knowledge and skill associated with teaching is referred to as “classroom management.” The term itself implies a hierarchical notion of power and control. We need to manage and control children. But, why do we need to control children? From where does such a notion arise? Teachers enter their first day of the school year with implicit and explicit expectations of what classrooms should look like. Such classrooms need to be orderly and reasonably quiet, and the children need to be “well-behaved.” Such notions are deeply embedded in the psycho-social contexts of schooling. We have experienced such expectations throughout our own experiences of schooling. For teachers, who are afraid of reprimands and negative feedback from those at higher levels of authority, such fears are compounded by the fears of losing control. We begin to see children as objects to control and manage. We generate expectations that all children need to conform to specific types of behavior, talk, thinking, and so forth. Classroom management and the wide range of associated expectations seem to have arisen from a basic fear of losing control.

Even as an experienced teacher and teacher educator, I encountered my own deeply embedded expectations several years ago when I taught a middle school science class for several months. After the first day of introducing the topic and how we were going to proceed, I initiated an activity that I hoped would engage the children and challenge some of their existing understandings. Well, it worked. On day two, the children began an argument (about density) that spanned five days. As the children continued the argument each day, they became more animated, vocal, and much louder. As the tension increased, I confronted the deeply embedded expectations as a dilemma of my own. “Should I control them? Or, should I let it go.” At the front of my mind, this kind of argument is just what I wanted, but I was plagued by all of the old expectations I had experienced as a classroom teacher years ago. As I bounced back and forth between the two questions, I finally decided to let it go. As it turns out, the children delved into some very complex conceptual problems involved with the notion of density. Had I controlled the situation and provided them with the “correct” answers, such depth and complexity of thinking never would have emerged. Their passion would have been muted and their sense of ownership over the content and process would not have happened.

All too often children are not treated as human beings, but rather as objects to be controlled, censored, forced into conformity, and, as suggested by Robert Bly1, molded into some adult’s fantasy notion of how they should act and think. Arising from the hierarchical layers of the institution of schooling, we create layers around ourselves (i.e., teachers) for protection and project layers of expectations around children.

On the other hand, I have witnessed a number of teachers who have managed to create more holarchic classrooms, where children feel free to be themselves and take ownership over the classroom community. In one such grade 6 classroom, the teacher was talking to the whole class to introduce a new activity. A boy, who fit the profile of the typical “trouble-maker,” got up from his seat, walked to the chalkboard, erased a word the teacher had just written, changed the word, and quietly returned to his seat. He had seen an error and corrected it. The teacher noticed the action, but never said a word or skipped a beat in her presentation. In many classrooms, a child might make fun of the teacher for making a mistake (which is a student’s vying—for—power strategy and a sign of dysfunction) or the teacher would admonish the child and assert her or his power and control.

In a grade 4 classroom, the teacher had been absent the day before I visited. The principal mistakenly cancelled her substitute. As the day when I was visiting began, the teacher asked the children what they did without a substitute. One little girl responded, “After a while we realized you weren’t coming, so I took the attendance and took it to the office. When I got back, we discussed it and decided to keep reading [some novel they had been reading aloud]. And, then we discussed it.” The teacher asked rhetorically, “well, what do you need me for?” Exactly! The classroom was a true holarchic community, where everyone shared control.

In a coffee shop, where I have done much of my writing, the owner was away at a meeting. I jokingly commented to one of the workers that she must be the boss for the day. She said, “there are no bosses here.” The owner occupies the center of the holarchy and helps to induct employees into the business. He cares for each individual in a context of mutual respect and trust. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so attracted to the establishment. I have always felt comfortable plugging in my laptop and working for hours on end.

By contrast, hierarchies perpetuate the fear of losing control, as well as a distrust (which is just another manifestation of fear) of others – of those at lower levels (subservients), of those in the same layer (competitors), and of those above (superiors). Out of such fear, we utilize whatever strategies we need to solidify our sense of control and power. Individuals, schools, businesses, and governments have their own ways of perpetuating their own power and control. Over the past couple of years, it has become clearly evident to me that we as a nation breed a fear of others, although the official rhetoric often states otherwise. Our leaders introduce just enough of a fear factor to allow them to implement strategies for more control and power. Such strategies are quickly supported by the media in their pursuit of power (ratings and income). Although the September 11, 2001, intentional crashing of planes was tragic and horrid, our government with the support of the media quickly took advantage to initiate frighteningly anti-democratic initiatives in order to secure power. Amidst rumors of governmental complicity, we started down a path towards achieving global control. And all along, the public is left in the dark with no sense of the real agenda, the real situation. Was the government complicit or not? After the initial media coverage of the smallpox “letters,” we heard nothing further after it was traced to a military laboratory. Was this a government operation to up the ante of fear with low risk of mortality? Was it some crazed individual or group? Or, was it a terrorist action? The questions, rumors, and fear continue. Although new events (real and imagined) continue and “facts” are what politicians and the media say they are, propaganda continues unabated.


1 Bly, R. (1996). The sibling society. New York: Vintage.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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