Friday, December 11, 2009


My mother was a psychology professor, and she used to teach continuing education courses-- “Human Factors” -- for Air Force and Army officers back in the 80s. She liked teaching military officers. No back talk, no excuses: you gave the assignment, and they gave it their best shot. Even this kooky psychology stuff.

One day she gave them the assignment of writing an essay about how their command style was influenced by their ethnic background, and one of them, a full colonel, finally protested. “But ma'am,” he said, “I can't do that. I'm a white Presbyterian from the Midwest. I don't have an ethnic background.”

One of those golden teaching opportunities, and my mother made the most of it. I sometimes think that my mother, center-right, Eisenhower/Clinton-style Republicrat that she has always been , was at that time the most effective subversive in America. There were, of course, plenty of feminists preaching to the choir, then as now: but she was taking it to the chauvinist heartland. Another time she gave this class the assignment of keeping a log of their emotions for a day, evoking another of those heart-felt, bewildered protests: “but – what if I don't have any emotions that day?”

These were not stupid men. You don't attain that kind of rank (no matter what antimilitary prejudice may say) if you're dumb. But no one had ever invited them to think of “white Midwest Presbyterian” as an ethnic group, or to examine their feelings. And my mother – cheerful, disarming, unthreatening, and rather obviously delighted by men -- was maybe the perfect person to extend that invitation.

No comments: