Francis Fukuyama is probably best known for his late 1980s contribution to political thought in his book ‘The End of History’. Following the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of communism in the East, Fukuyama posited the notion that the ideologies of the past had come to a moment of dénouement and concluded that the new dawn that Berlin blinked into being was the nirvana of liberal democracy. I don’t think it fair to say this was a heat of the moment prose piece which illustrated Fukuyama’s optimism, but it is the case that the liberal democracy he envisaged has not quite come to pass.
Toward the end of last year, he published a new book, ‘Identity’. Fukuyama faces a challenge to reconcile the possibility of a liberal democracy in the context of a market economy. Can one ever have a genuine open society or political equality where there is considerable economic inequality? Simon Schama is a touch more brusque in positing that democracy is taken by some to be an opportunity to sell what they want to those who don’t have what they need.
Into this heady mix of political and economic turmoil Shama places the emergence of religious factionalism. ‘Identity’ asks similar questions about the rise of minority or so-called minority groups within society. Fukuyama challenges the notion that your being born into a particular context should condition your identity. Democratic society needs a set of values about which we can all agree and through which we cohere into a group. He sees identification with a faction and the notion of difference to be a challenge to this cohesion. I do not believe he is arguing for homogeneity, but that amidst the differences there is a set of commonalities, e pluribus unum, if it isn’t seen as ironic to use that motto.
It may seem that this has little to do with school and our life here, but this is not the case. In considering the sense of identity, you are now or soon will be in the company of an adolescent. Few moments in our evolution are as transformative as these years and there is within every adolescent the drive both for sameness and for difference. Their landscape is akin to Fukuyama’s Berlin. Gradually and perhaps in some cases less gradually, there emerges the desire to self-actualise, the feeling of the restrictive boundaries of parental so-called interference in their lives and the ubiquitous misunderstanding that the ancient regime of parental guidance is defunct before the new dawn of adolescent enlightenment.
To coin a Kurt Vonnegut phrase, ‘so it goes’. There is little new under the sun and the adolescent quest for identity is as old as time. As a school and as educators, we have seen it hundreds if not thousands of times. There can be a feeling of uncertainty, feelings too of hurt as adolescent behaviour may take you into confrontation or to have the experience of remoteness or even rejection as a son or daughter expresses an embarrassment that you dare to exist, having just dropped them off and sacrificed your evening to return to pick them up.
But don’t we all have some sympathy for the coming of age that is adolescence? Sarah-Jayne Blakemore questions the acceptability of mocking their clumsy thoughtlessness when it is not socially acceptable to mock the elderly for their lack of agility. I wouldn’t want to get too caught up in an argument about political correctness, the difficulties of youth are much the same as they have always been.
Questions of how to be the best version of me, how to fit in, sometimes to the clothes that were too long yesterday and are too short today. If the coming of age is a constant state of becoming, the paradigm within which they work themselves out has been in constant flux. We are prone to question the acceptability of behaviours and the concern for the future that our own parents expressed as we grew through adolescence.
As they navigate the narrow strip between being and becoming, they rely on the guidance our expectations provide, even if they challenge them. They need the security of the boundaries we mark for what we will accept and not. They do not need us to be their friends, but to be the steady state rails against which they can bounce back, find security and a constancy of love and acceptance. Their friendship groups can be volatile landing grounds; today’s daggers drawn enemies are tomorrow’s bosom buddies. Heaven help those who would design and build their child’s friendship groups.
Within their world of becoming, though they may grumble at what they see as restrictive practice, they appreciate the stabilisers parental support provides but perhaps not in exactly the same way they accepted them on bicycles. Fukuyama may wonder about ‘Identity’ on a global scale, parents have a more intimate domestic one to occupy them as their child becomes themselves through a variety of versions and settles down to the ‘which me’ of their identity.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School (@HeadmasterHCS)