My Opinion of Authority (1999)

Recently found college essay, revealing my early resistance to appeals to authority…

When I was younger, I was under the impression that figures of authority were different from ordinary people. People in high positions ranging from the Vice President of the United States, to teachers, meant they must be special. It was not until my mid-teens when I came to a realization that all people, no matter their rank in society, are just people like me.

My younger brother and I started buying cigarettes from vending machines when I was in 2nd grade to prove that kids only three feet tall could do it. We testified and helped get an ordinance passed that banned cigarette vending machines in Montgomery County. The law was later overturned in court, so we began to testify yearly at the Maryland State Assembly on tobacco-related legislation. Over the past 10 years, my brother and I have created many opportunities to see what politicians are like and how they are normal people. When I was 12 years old, my brother and I met with Maryland State Delegate Hixson and she told us that our vending machine stings were illegal and that we could be arrested. Two weeks after this little chat, we testified before her committee in support of a state ban on cigarette vending machines. We told the Committee what she told us and then explained that we looked at the law and what she told us was far from the truth. Publicly embarrassing the Chair of the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee felt quite empowering. This experience confirmed my suspicions that politicians, aside from their views differing from mine, could be sneaky and manipulative, even to a couple of kids. She was just a person who disagreed with us. In the end, we set her role of power aside and were able to correct her error without feeling any risk despite the great difference in power between us.

Students Oppose Smoking (S.O.S.), which I am currently the chair of, was invited to participate in a “Roundtable Discussion” with Vice President Al Gore. Our countywide student-led organization has accomplished a great heal during the last few years, including a tobacco survey reaching over 10,000 high school students and 5,000 middle school students. Unlike us, most of the other youth invited to this White House event had not done much at all on the issue. When we were told to put on matching T-shirts and sit cross-legged on the floor, it became clear this was essentially a photo-op so Gore would be seen talking about smoking with kids. We resisted blending in during this televised event. Instead we raised powerful data from our extensive survey to support solid ideas that had never really been discussed at a national level. After multiple members of our group had presented almost the only substantive arguments, a person on Gore’s staff told us to stop bringing up our data when we spoke. We disregarded this request, and continued to make excellent points using our statistics.

This encounter made me realize that at the Vice President’s so called “Roundtable Discussion,” he did not really want to listen to what we had to say, but merely wanted to look good for the cameras. If he had actually wanted to discuss this important problem with us he would have shown more real interest in our proposals. To the public, it was important to show he cares, but in reality he was placed in this position as a normal busy person who can pretend to be concerned about anything. If I had watched the White House event on television, I would have thought he really wanted to get more opinions. But because I was there as a participant, it became clear that even one of the highest politicians in the country, whom I otherwise like, was for the most part just another person smiling and nodding, and not much different from another charismatic individual.

One last example of how the pedestal of authority figures was significantly lowered dates back to 10th grade when I attempted to represent Richard Montgomery High School for a project in the Final Frontiers competition held annually at the National Institute for Standards in Technology (NIST). It was required that all 11th grade physics students build a contraption for one event of the competition. At the in-school competition to determine who would represent the school, I was the only sophomore competing against a large group of juniors. The project I had chosen voluntarily to construct was a catapult made out of straws and tape designed to throw a ping pong ball the furthest. I ended up being the runner up for our school and the alternate at NIST. The 11th grade group who beat me performed terribly at NIST. At the competition, I had known I would not be able to actually participate, so I had asked an official judge to measure how far my catapult would throw. My design would have been good enough to win second place at the countywide competition.

This experience was awful for me. Although I was happy with the caliber of my design, I was disgruntled not to receive credit for it. I wrote a letter to another physics teacher explaining how I felt the teacher in charge of the in-school competition had made a bad judgement call and how she probably should have had a run off between the catapults. The results between my catapult and that of the juniors were so close, measurements had been so inaccurate, and she seemed to favor the other team of three girls. I hoped this expression of my opinion might help to prevent this possible unfairness from happening again. I still respect the teacher but I definitely see that she is just like other people and perhaps made a mistake.

Although I never had a defining epiphany, it is because of a serious of experiences like these that have made me less intimidated by adults no matter their position. I maintain great respect for those deserving, but I feel more confident to discuss or debate with adults (especially powerful adults) because I know they are just people like me and they have their imperfections.

This attitude of questioning authority also occurred recently in my college application process. Although several adults, including my parents, urged me to apply to several schools, I took their arguments into consideration and prescribed my own point of view that the University of Maryland was ideal for me and this should be the only place I should apply. I listened and considered the opinions from many elders (figures of authority) and felt secure in making an independent decision. I have been stuck on your institution since I first toured the Engineering School in 9th grade. Even after seeing colleges like MIT and Georgia Tech more recently, these visits only confirmed that I wanted to enroll at UMD. I look forward to taking classes on all the specific topics I am interested in learning about and plan on staying in college for a long time to continue this learning process.