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Schooling in Agency

By Rosalyn Eves

Today marks the end of an online freshman writing class I’ve been laboring over since the end of May. I have a love/hate relationship with online classes: as a mother with young children at home, I’m a big fan of the convenience and flexibility. As a teacher, I struggle with the distance between me and my students, and the nagging sense that students, particularly in a writing course, might be better served in a face-to-face setting.

This semester, more than most, has been a lesson to me in agency (a theme we’ve been sounding recently at Segullah).  Right now (I haven’t scored the final paper), 10 of my 17 students are failing. Not because they’re poor writers—but because they simply haven’t done the work. As a formerly obsessive-compulsive student, I struggle to understand this.  Why would anyone pay good money for a class, and then not work hard at it? Or at least work at it? Don’t they want to succeed?

Sometimes I wonder if our Heavenly Father feels a similar sense of frustration when he looks at the choices we make. After all, when we look at the scriptures, the prescription for our earth life looks much like the syllabus for a course: the expectations and objectives are clearly laid out. Heavenly Father knows, too, that if we follow His course, our learning and growth will infinitely repay us for what we’ve invested in terms of time and sacrifice. And yet, so many of us choose not to follow the syllabus.

But I don’t think, ultimately, that God views our choices with the same frustration I view my students’ choices. After all, my frustration stems largely from my inability to separate my students’ agency from my responsibility. God, luckily, is smarter than that. I think he also has a deeper respect for us.  In “The Grand Inquisitor,” a fable from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Christ returns during the Spanish Inquisition and is arrested. When the Grand Inquisitor presents Him with a list of His crimes, he includes this denunciation:

. . . Thou didst ask far too much from him [humankind]- Thou who hast loved him more than Thyself! Respecting him less, Thou wouldst have asked less of him. That would have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter.

What the Grand Inquisitor mistakes as a lack of love is actually an expression of that love: God lets us choose. He doesn’t force or compel us.

I imagine God’s attitude towards us is much more like that of a wise mentor I had in graduate school, who told me one time, “My students sometimes have priorities in their lives that are more important than my class. And I respect that.”

I’m still struggling to learn that kind of respect. By respect, I don’t mean necessarily that I agree with or celebrate the choices made—but that I respect the individual’s right to make that choice. This is a lesson begun on my mission, when I confronted the limitations of my own will for the first time: no amount of prayer, love, or effort on my part could make someone choose to embrace the gospel. As a teacher, I find myself relearning the same lesson: no amount of preparation or effort on my part can force a reluctant student to succeed. This is a lesson I’m hoping to master before I’m called on to exercise it with my own children, who are still fairly young (probably a foolish hope, but one I cling to nonetheless).

I’m coming to believe this kind of respect is critical to developing true charity and compassion, because we cannot, with our limited perspectives, fully understand the choices that other people make. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in a remarkable speech given at the end of her career, argued before Congress that women should have the right to vote because, ultimately, before God’s tribunal, each woman is accountable solely for herself:

And yet, there is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self. Our inner being which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced. It is more hidden than the caves of the gnome; the sacred adytum of the oracle; the hidden chamber of Eleusinian mystery, for to it only omniscience is permitted to enter.

Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?

Maybe—just maybe—if I can remember all of this, I’ll be less tempted to pull my hair out as I calculate my students’ final grades. Instead, maybe I can remind myself that my students, like me, face hidden challenges that don’t show up in a simple tally of work completed in an online course. The question of their success and failure is a much bigger question than my class.

How have you come to term with others’ agency? What helps you as you learn to respect the choices others make, particularly choices you don’t agree with?

About Rosalyn Eves

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework. Her first novel comes out Spring 2017 from Knopf.

14 thoughts on “Schooling in Agency”

  1. Tears are running down my cheeks right now because I needed to read this so very badly. Right now. The short of my latest parenting dilemma is allowing one of my children the opportunity (still trying to see it that way) to fail. There is a huge disconnect between something she wants (to play on the school volleyball team this next term) and her choice to do what will be required (complete an online psych class in about 13 days) in order to be eligible (and also a disconnect between the choices she made that put her in this position in the first place). I am worried sick, disappointed and at times angry, fearful and also a bit heartbroken over the whole thing. It consumes me.

    I guess I need a crash course in respect for agency. Because I definitely would prefer to be responding with charity and compassion right now instead of anxiety and anger. So that will be something additional to pray for as this latest drama drives me to my knees.

  2. I feel anger toward my children most often when I feel caught like this–between my responsibility as their parent to school and guide them along the path of happiness and between their right to choose whether or not to follow. How do you know how much (and when) to coax, plead, push, yell or scream? On the one end of the spectrum you stand there and watch them use their agency to drive blithely over a cliff. On the other you smack them and grab the wheel. Somewhere there is a happy (or not) medium. Finding that can be frustrating.

  3. I needed this right now. I am often caught up in others choices and how "wrong" they are. I need to learn some respect.
    Also, even when other's choices truly hurt us, I think it helps to know that agency is part of the Plan and that we are all on a difficult journey and all make mistakes.
    My husband is a champ at all of this…I need to let him teach me.

  4. Thanks, Rosalyn.

    The Grand Inquisitor chapter is one of my favorite in all literature.

    It is hard to just take responsibility for ourselves and be an example rather than directing others (at least for some personalities!)

    My oldest son is moving out this month to start college. I feel alternately terrified I didn't teach him what he needs to know and a sense of release of my immediate responsibilty over many of his decisions. He's on his own a lot now and makes good choices. I have to not get uptight about the better choices I want him to make.

    Just gotta learn to love! And let go! (Easier said than done!)

  5. One day I was at a friend's pool, and my son said, "Mom, watch me do a back flip!" And before I could scream, "No! You're too close to the edge!" he had flipped and hit his head on the edge of the pool. No major damage was done, but he was hurting. After I pulled him out of the pool and held him on my lap to comfort him, I thought that that's how our Heavenly Father often sees us. He watches us do stupid things with our lives that end up hurting us, powerless to stop them, because if He did so, it would take away our agency. He will hold us and comfort us when we come to him crying, but he can't change the hurt.

    As a college professor, I identify with your insights into your students as well. It's hard to watch bright students fail because they don't pay attention to the syllabus and the deadlines. You can advise, exhort, and admonish, but ultimately, they decide their grade. In the end, they may blame you for their poor grade (my ratings on "Rate My Professor prove that!), which is analogous to cursing God in our trials.

    Parenting and teaching have really helped me to understand agency. Wonderful post!

  6. I think in parenting it is very difficult at times. The hard part is when I am hypocritical and the Spirit gently nudges or sometimes stomps on my foot to stop what I am expecting my children to do when I won't do it myself. It is very humbling. That is when I have to step back and remember that they have the choice to say no and know that there are consequences.

  7. Thank you all for your comments. I agree that agency is hard–especially as a parent, when you love your child and want so much for them to have a happy, productive life. It's hard when children choose not to take advantage of our (sometimes hard-won) advice. (It's hard with students too). I appreciate your additional perspectives; as I said, this is something I'm still working on!

  8. Well, I know it is hard to understand when you are so different. Sometimes there can be bad circumstances and I hope that is not the case. I have certainly heard your view from others who have been Teaching Assistants.

    Someday, they may do a lot more writing for fun then they ever did in college. 🙂

  9. The Grand Inquisitor chapter is one of my favorites in all of literature too! And Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of my favorite people. All around, a fabulous post.

    I would get really stressed in primary, young women's, and now relief society when we discussed the topic of agency. The topic always seemed sticky to me, especially when I was little: God gives us agency but still expects us to choose the right, and if we don't end up making the right choice, we're disappointing him, failing to live up to his high standard, and potentially messing up the rest of our lives. The fact that he would require agency while simultaneously requiring us to choose the right always confused me. I realize that this principle makes sense (it's made more sense to me as I've gotten older) and is largely true, especially when discussed with the concept of consequences, but might need to be tempered by the fact that it's okay for us to make mistakes–that even when we make mistakes, God still loves us. That ability to make mistakes is part of why earth life is so important; Adam and Eve's fall was a blunder or transgression that jump started life. It can be tricky teaching this to kids or applying it in parenting, since we shouldn't counsel our children to sin (obviously). But we can allow them to make their own choices, especially as they grow older, even if we might perceive some of those choices as mistakes. This is part of why I love the scriptures so much; it's filled with characters who fail and mess up and do the wrong thing and misunderstand over and over and over. The original twelve apostles are the perfect example. But Christ enables them to learn from their mistakes–even the worst misstep Peter perhaps ever took, denying Christ just before his death–and forgives and loves them regardless without stopping them from acting.

    A teacher told me that she thinks of her children principally as God's children, not as her own, which makes it a little bit easier for her to entrust them to him and not try to control them herself. I feel that her mentality has helped me as I've struggled to allow myself to make mistakes and still feel loved by God if and when I do so. He trusts us and is always with us, no matter what mistakes me make.

    That was a lot longer than I intended it to be! Anyway, fascinating post. Thanks very much.

  10. Rosalyn – Stanton's quote is truly profound. Especially in the context you provided. Thank you for this. A hard place of wondering – when it comes to the role of teacher. But I think you have a wise grasp of where freedom falls and the responsibility each of us must own. And I agree, several of our posts this summer have circled around this theme of agency.

  11. Sunday a testimony that was borne in our ward really struck me… We are not judged hour by hour. We are judged at the end as to who we become.

    I really liked that. It has made me think all week that maybe I'm too harsh on myself and others. I need to just relax, love others more completely, and let them become who they become.

    This is especially hard with kids. Boy oh boy, do I know that. I think it takes lots and lots of prayer on the part of a parent to raise kids. I have learned that sometimes I just have to give the problem back to my child. And that is HARD.

  12. She-bop, I like that idea (straight from the scriptures, but I didn't understand it that way). I need to relax and stop judging my kids and love them.

    I will remember to let God judge them in the end.

  13. i am a 57 year old mother to many. my greatest joy and success has followed letting them choose…letting go of the need to control. i have learned that i cannot force anyone to want what i want. this holy stewardship is all about wise love and then getting out of the way. xox

  14. I remind myself "Just because they/you have the agency to choose, doesn't mean dumb decisions aren't going to be made."

    I find it hardest when other people's choices (particularly their dumb, selfish, unthinking ones) have such a huge impact on those around them, particularly those who are innocent to the decision situation. That's when I have to tell myself that "You can choose what you choose, but you can't choose the consequences of those choices." It's a hard lesson to learn, from wherever you are standing.

    And when – from that thought – I decide how *I* would have acted/decided in that instance, or how I wish that person would act, I realise that I'm trying to take away their agency, however good my intentions.

    Sometimes I wonder if it was from good intentions that so many followed Lucifer – not because they were worried about themselves not being strong enough here on earth, but worried about their loved ones making the wrong decisions.

    Thanks for the great quotes and post!


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