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Respect my authority? April 6, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood.
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve spoken many times about the first book-review I ever wrote for a newspaper, which was the result of an angry letter to the children’s books editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, whom I accused of not reading The Amber Spyglass before reviewing it. Her response was that if I thought she hadn’t reviewed the book well enough, why didn’t I have a go at it myself? But the review which gave me a permanent freelance reviewing career was one I pitched to The Canberra Times just before the fifth Harry Potter book came out: an article about the similarities between J.K. Rowling’s series and the children’s works of Roald Dahl.

One of the points I made was that both Dahl and Rowling tapped into a longstanding, Dickensian, British tradition of depicting adults as cartoonishly villainous and/or inept. While both authors do have many examples of functioning, intelligent adult characters, these are outweighed by the bumbling, idiotic, sadistic and cruel examples of adulthood, and by the shining, idealistic, courageous and intelligent child characters.

That’s not to say that either author (Rowling in particular) writes flat, two-dimensional characters. Both Harry Potter and Dahl’s works abound with examples of rounded, nuanced, flawed individuals. But on a basic level, both authors work on the underlying assumption that there is a dichotomy between children and adults. Adults are more flawed, less able and less honourable. Children are more idealistic, more able (or at least more willing) to confront the evils in their world and more courageous. And for both authors, an essential part of the process of growing up seems to be the slow erosion of trust in even the most trustworthy authority figures.

This is a criticism I’ve seen levelled at both authors; Rowling by one of my former housemates last year, Dahl by a member of an internet forum of which I am a member, several days ago. Both people said that they disliked Dahl or Rowling because they thought the books taught children to challenge authority and that this was a dangerous and improper thing to be teaching young readers. It’s a criticism I have very little time for, both because it’s not entirely accurate and because challenging authority is precisely what children should be learning.

Let’s look at the accuracy of the criticism first. It’s probably more fairly levelled at Dahl; most of his adult characters are cartoonishly evil or exaggeratedly ineffectual. There are very few positive portrayals of adults (aside from Miss Honey in Matilda, the grandmother in The Witches and perhaps Charlie’s relatives in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator). But the Harry Potter books abound with positive portrayals of adults: Mr and Mrs Weasley, Augusta Longbottom, Minerva McGonagall, Albus Dumbledore, Tonks and Lupin, and I could go on but won’t so as to avoid lurching into spoiler territory. Harry and his friends respect these adults in varying degrees as the series wears on, and they are certainly established as positive adult figures, albeit with a variety of flaws which serve only to emphasise their complete humanity.

Both authors operate as writers within the established traditions of children’s literature: that in order for child protagonists to do anything, adults have to be removed from the scene. This is entirely correct and justified. The most common theme in children’s literature is coming-of-age and establishing a separate identity as a person distinct from one’s family – a process with which many children and teenagers can identify – and it is difficult to explore such a theme with the protagonists’ families cluttering up the plot. Thus, Dahl and Rowling’s protagonists operate at a remove from the adult characters, always keeping back some of their intentions – just as (in Harry Potter in particular) these adult characters withhold important information that may have made the children’s quests and struggles quite a bit easier.

So far I’ve been discussing the structural reasons why the children in Dahl and Rowling’s books operate at a remove from adult authority, and why it is incorrect to suggest that they are teaching children to ‘disrespect authority’. I’d now like to move on to address my larger concern, which is the argument that it is wrong to teach children to challenge authority.

I would argue that it is precisely the ability to question and challenge authority that we should be teaching children, every day of their lives. Authority is not, and must never be allowed to be, empty respect for a person’s position without reference to whether such respect is warranted or justified. Authority – and respect – must be earned. Children should be taught to question whether authority figures deserve respect and deserve the exalted positions in which they exist, because a person who is not taught to be discriminating in this manner runs the risk of blindly following orders whether those orders are morally correct or not.

This is not to say that we should teach children to be disrespectful in the sense of rude. But you will notice that neither author advocates this. Harry and co are exceedingly polite to the adults they decide deserve their respect – and when they are not (Harry’s explosions of anger at Dumbledore and Lupin, Hermione’s defiance of Umbridge), it’s with very good reason. Such instances should make every reader sit up and take notice, because they are key in Rowling’s argument that respect for authority must be earned, demonstrating massive betrayals of trust on the part of the adult characters, and representing defining moments in the child characters’ journey from childhood to adulthood.

I have no patience for people who criticise Dahl and Rowling for their depictions of ‘defiant’ children who challenge authority. Have such people never read any other young-adult literature? Every child in every bildungsroman (whether such coming-of-age tales be structured around a quest narrative or not) takes the first steps towards adulthood by walking into a world not inhabited by their parents, by keeping something of themselves back from adults. And every child cannot but be better off from having read about children who think indepedently and critically about the authority figures and structural forces that underpin their worlds.

Question authority! Challenge it if you think it’s in the wrong! Make use of your independent mind! Always, always, always ask why.



1. Emma - April 13, 2010

I cannot agree more with this post. I don’t know what else I can say about that. I think that Dahl’s constant portrayal of ‘evil’ adults more than likely stems from the fact that his own childhood was spent under the thumb of manipulative and controlling adults (apart from his mother – perhaps the reason that his reasonable adult characters are female?).

As someone who’s occupation is based around being an authority over children and young adults, I firmly believe that every child should be taught to challenge authority. I think that’s why I love teaching books like ‘Holes’ by Louis Sachar. Not only is it clever and beautifully written – but my year sevens are for the first time confronted with adults that have motives that aren’t blatantly good or evil. They pretend to be doing things for the good of the boys in their care – but really, they’re being manipulative and cruel.

Even those who think that they are genuinely doing the right thing (the police, or the judge who sentences the protagonist to hard labour) are in fact following the party line, and failing to take in the possibility that a child is in the right, and an adult in the wrong.

Adults make mistakes, and the people that try to deny it to those who are younger than them are doing them a great disservice.

dolorosa12 - April 13, 2010

Thank you for your comment! I’m glad that someone who works more directly with children and young adults than I agrees with my beliefs. As I said in the post, I think that teaching children not to challenge authority fails them as human beings.

It’s really interesting to hear how your year sevens reacted to books with this perspective, and it shows how powerful literature can be in helping people to realise the importance of challenging authority. (I’m sure that I picked up this message indirectly through the books I read, which tended – like most children’s books – to involve children having adventures and saving the world without adult supervision, and often saving the world from adults.)

I suspect you’re spot on about Dahl. I know people who grew up in the same English boarding school experience as he did, and they told me it was absolutely horrific and emotionally scarring.

2. Micaela - November 22, 2010

Hello, I came across your post as I am currently researching for a dissertation that I am writing on politics and Harry Potter, I was wondering whether you could please let me know the title of the article you refer to at the beginning of your post in The Canberra Times, as I would very much like to read it.

Many thanks

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