Pocket Peter Marris—Loss and (Social) Change

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Back in the mid-1990s there was a flurry of activity in the area of using Bowlbian attachment theory as a theory of social change. In 1996 sociologist Peter Marris released his book entitled The Politics of Uncertainty—Attachment in Private and Public Life. In that same year an edited volume was released entitled The Politics of Attachment—Towards a Secure Society (Sebastian Kraemer and Jane Roberts editors). As stated in the acknowledgements to The Politics of Attachment, “The idea for this book arouse out of a conference of the same name held at the Tavistock Clinic, London, in March 1995.” John Bowlby called the Tavistock Clinic home for many years. I wrote executive summaries of both The Politics of Uncertainty and The Politics of Attachment (contact the Foundation for a copy of either executive summary).

Just the other day a request came in for my Marris summary. I typically like to read my summaries before sending them off just in case I have overlooked typos or grammatical errors. After reading my Marris summary (and correcting a few mistakes) I thought to myself, “Peter Marris certainly had his thumb on the pulse of using Bowlby’s theory of attachment as a theory of social change … I wonder if Marris released any other books on this topic?” Well, turns out he did. In 1974 Marris released his book entitled Loss and Change. Marris re-released Loss and Change in 1986 with a long introduction that brings in new research concerning loss and grief expressed at the social level. This new introduction also talks about how important John Bowlby’s completion of his trilogy is to the area of attachment and social change. I decided to read Loss and Change (revised edition). What impressed me was how observations Marris made back in the 1970s could be readily applied to what is going on today. In this blog I’d like to point out an example where Marris’ words from the 1970s would fit comfortably in today’s social environment. First, allow me to set the stage.

Throughout Loss and Change Marris talks about the constant conflict between what he calls the conservative and progressive impulses. According to Marris, much of political and social life is about resolving these two conflicting impulses. Simply, the conservative impulse is about keeping things the same or constant. In contrast, the progressive impulse is about a search for change. This squares nicely with Bowlby’s theory which holds that we make excursions into the unknown as a part of our exploration impulse, and returns to our home base where we find safe, secure, and predictable relationships. In essence, our need for conservation is balanced with our need for exploration. As Marris puts it, “Adaptability seems to depend … on the interaction of two contrasting qualities. Without confidence in the continuity of our purposes and sense of the regularity of social behaviour, we cannot begin to interpret the meaning of any [new] event.” Attachment relationships, if all goes well, are where we learn to balance out the often conflicting impulses of conservation and exploration. As Marris points out in the above quote, it would be hard if not impossible to assess change without a background of constancy of some kind. If everything is changing, change could not be recognized as such. According to Marris (and Bowlby would no doubt agree), mourning, then, is the process of finding balance once again between conservation and exploration. “Thus the management of change,” writes Marris, “depends upon our ability to articulate the process of grieving.” Marris gives us this “bottom line”: “[I]f we do not know how to mourn, we cannot know how to live….”

Now, allow me to turn to a section of Marris’ book entitled The Ambivalence of Democratic Education (which starts at about page 142). Marris describes two opposing poles in education. He describes teaching in the following way: “We understand teaching as the fostering of ability. Ideally, it seeks to cultivate every valuable skill—instrumental, emotional, social or imaginative—a child may be able and want to develop.” On the other hand (pole), “[T]he educational system institutionalizes the allocation of vocational opportunities. It must therefore deny most children the chance to acquire skills which only a few can exercise.” Marris goes on to describe the conflict between these two poles thus:

The contradiction can only be reconciled by assuming that the distribution of talent corresponds to the distribution of opportunities: the number of potential surgeons providently equals the number society can support in their accustomed style. But this equation can only be given appearance of reality by a system of competitive examination, which regulates standards of qualification to suit the places.

I found Marris’ 1970s analysis to be trenchant in that, today, there is talk of free college for all while at the same time the standardized testing environment has become a pressure cooker for both students and teachers. On one side we have a postmodern desire to not place any restrictions on a child’s ability. On the other we have a conservative environment within which standardized testing has achieved a fevered pitch. “Both the expansion and the counterbalancing restriction are, I suggest, essentially conservative,” reveals Marris. Writing back in the 1970s, Marris sees the conflict between expansion and conservation as reaching a crisis point. In my opinion, we are once again at that same crisis point, which Marris describes thus: “The disparity between the promise of education, the abilities it encourages children to discover in themselves, and the openings to which it leads become more and more glaringly obvious.” Today we have more and more college graduates unable to find meaningful employment. The supply of college grads outstrips the demand. To add insult to injury, these same college graduates are saddled with student debt that is crushing. Again, I believe we are at Marris’ crisis point. As this recent article title suggests, generation X and millennials have lost life’s lottery. As Daniel Brook talks about in his 2007 book entitled The Trap—Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, lottery ticket liberalism—holding out a promise of a college degree for all—ultimately dashes hopes and desires for many. Is this not a huge source of loss and grief?

So, is there a solution? Can we as a society mourn this loss, this change? Marris further defines the conflict between exploration and conservation as he talks about his research in ghetto areas.

If teachers in ghetto schools disparage their pupils and deny their talents, they may be unfaithful to their [progressive] educational ideals, but they acknowledge the poverty of their pupils’ vocational chances, reflecting honestly enough the repressive [e.g., conservative] aspect of the educational system. And for this they are regularly attacked by a society that will neither give up its egalitarian ideals, nor translate them into an egalitarian employment policy.

As a result, “radical solutions gain ground” (quoting Marris). I would suggest that Common Core is one such radical solution. “Either education must be restructured, as a part of an egalitarian revolution: or the whole egalitarian tradition must be discarded,” writes Marris. The solution is probably somewhere in the middle where a balance of exploration and conservation could be found. Progressives will have to retreat from their position of free college for all (as if college for all is necessarily a good thing). And the largely conservative economic environment will have to retreat from their position of more jobs for robots and automation. Both sides should once again champion professions such as being a plumber, truck driver, or machinist—all well-paying professions that are having a hard time attracting new entrants. And I agree with feminists: The caring professions—social workers, teachers, day care workers, etc.—should get huge pay increases so that these professions could attract and keep quality talent. Hint: back off on the almost obsessive focus on standardized testing.

All will be for naught unless something is done about student debt. Here’s a factoid that we must pay attention to. According to an alumni newsletter article written by the Provost a few years back, 40 cents of each dollar of student tuition was paid by the federal government back in 1982 when I was a graduate student at UT Dallas. Today … wait for it … four cents! The article went on to say that this huge reduction in federal spending on public higher education was at the root of the student debt problem. The article finished by asking a provocative question: With so few federal dollars being spent on public colleges and universities, is public education still public education?

It would seem that kids today “want a degree on their own terms.” However, no self-respecting professor will grant such a degree “without a compromise of intellectual integrity” (quotes by Marris). Again we see the balance between a desire for exploration and a need for constancy. And, again, Marris frames this as actually being an overall conservative process. On the other hand, “universities cannot arbitrarily restrict their recruits to the numbers they can place professionally without betraying their liberal traditions of worldly detachment,” writes Marris. Here we are today with criticism being leveled at for-profit universities for their practice of admitting as many students as possible without concern for graduation let alone placement rates. Rather than attacking for-profit universities (who, surprisingly, are acting in an egalitarian way by admitting as many students as possible), maybe we should spend some time attacking the business world and their obsessive desire for higher and higher levels of efficiency that ultimately rubs out productive and meaningful human labor. And while we are on the attack, how about a federal government that has all but abandoned public higher education. Abandonment on the part of the federal government has contributed to a predatory student loan environment that rivals the predatory lending that ultimately led to the housing crash of 2008. Just saying.

I agree with Marris: we’re at a crisis point. And to move past this crisis point both sides are going to have to suffer loss, which undoubtedly will trigger mourning. Without mourning there can be no change, no life. I think this is one of the central messages in Bowlby’s work.