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Let me begin by stating upfront that I have wonderful parents and by making the first point I am about to offer, I fear suggesting something far more negative about my father than I intend. But the point is really important so I am risky this.

Two things about my father impacted me greatly when I was growing up: Most of my childhood, my father drank Crown Royal and smoked cigarettes (both parents smoked with my sister and me trapped in the house and car with them as was common throughout the 1960s and 1970s) while holding fast to his repeated mantra as an authoritarian parent (which included belt-whippings, also common at mid-twentieth century on the good ol' South)—"Do as I say, not as I do."

The not-so-subtle message from my father was that I was not to imbibe or smoke, although he did, and the reason was simply that he said so.

Developmental psychology has revealed to us that children and especially adolescents are deeply concerned about fairness (thus, teens punctuate a huge amount of their responses to authority figures with "That's not fair") so it is not a surprise that my father taught a particularly powerful negative lesson when I developed a keen aversion to hypocrisy and authority during my youth.

As an adult and a professional educator for almost thirty years now, I have come to develop a similar aversion to a correlate to my father's parenting philosophy: Do as I say although I have never done it.

Why Authority Fails

"Do as I say, not as I do" and "Do as I say although I have never done it" are central to authority, especially in how adults interacts with children both in parenting and education. And both are the reasons authority fails.

Since I have been a college professor for 10 years now, I have developed a different mantra from my father, which is something like "I taught high school English for 18 years in rural South Carolina." (And in my mind I am telepathically sending another message: Don't discount me because I am merely an academic.)

My nearly frantic verbal tick has a great deal to do with addressing why authority fails. I want people to know that I have risen at 6 a.m., arrived at school by 7:30 a.m., taught five classes of 125 students total throughout the day (with 20 minutes for lunch), and then rushed to the soccer field to coach both the boys and girls soccer teams (practicing five evenings a week except on match days when we usually didn't return to the school or finish those matches until 10 p.m., or much later).

And during soccer season, I often ran to the locker room between classes (yes, literally ran) to wash and dry my teams' uniforms for the next match.

And I did this for 18 years. (And many teachers have done [and will do] this for 30 and 40 years. I become more aware each day of life that the authoritative weight of my 18 years remains in the shadow cast by many other educators.)

Some of this I did really well, and some I didn't. Some of the success and failure was my fault; much had little to do with things I could control.

Teaching is hard work, and it is spectacularly complicated and unpredictable.

But the central truism about teaching that people rarely acknowledge is that education has almost exclusively been run by people who have taught none or very little.

Politicians and political appointees have been overwhelmingly without any experience or education in the field of teaching and learning. And the administrators who often run schools in ways that mirror my father's strategy (for example, a principal who has a bathroom in his office telling teachers and students when they can and cannot use the restroom) have risen to their positions with as little as 3-5 years in the classroom (and increasingly, superintendents are being hired with no experience as classroom teachers).

Paulo Freire makes a distinction between "authoritarian" ("Do as I say, not as I do" and "Do as I say although I have never done it") and "authoritative" (Let me guide you to becoming a writer because I am a writer"). And this is where I now see why authority fails.

To be specific, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan holds forth on education because he has been appointed to his position. He and the many people in power who make claims about education are simply unqualified to make their claims, and spectacularly unqualified to make policy. Those with the status of authority also beat the accountability drum while being without any real accountability themselves.

Maybe I am getting too cynical, slipping over that precipice at the edge of skepticism, but something terrible happens to humans once we grow through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. We stop saying "That's not fair."

Most children who speak up and acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes are routinely ignored or punished [1] so we learn to ignore and even tolerate the hypocrisy of authority without credibility—obeying the King simply because of the status of being "king."

And I suspect it has been beaten out of us, our natural and healthy moral barometer that says that "Do as I say, not as I do" and "Do as I say although I have never done it" are cowardly, bullying, and simply wrong.

Leadership, especially when being a parent or a teacher, must be authoritative, not authoritarian, if we are to reach the lofty goals we claim to embrace: human agency, social justice, peace.

The education reform debate and the current state of education policy are absent authoritative leadership, and like the century leading up to today, we will remain mired in bureaucratic insanity at the expense of students and the wider American society.

It is past time that we acknowledge some harsh facts: Without his political appointments, Arne Duncan's claims about education would fall on deaf ears (as they should); without his billions, Bill Gates would also be largely ignored. The same can be said about presidents, governors, senators, and members of congress all across the U.S.

Credible leadership springs from "This is what I have done."

All else is the failure of authoritarian hypocrisy. And even a child can see that.

[1] See the chapter co-authored with E. Welchel, "The Practitioner Has No Clothes: Resisting Practice Divorced from Philosophy in Teacher Education and the Classroom," in Regenerating the Philosophy of Education.

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Comment Preferences

  •  authority fails because it's illegitimate (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Controlling people in general breeds resentment of that control.  Hypocrisy doesn't matter quite so much because people are generally prepared to let you live your life the way you want and let you profess the values you want, even when they conflict.  But even if you're a rigorous fanatic who practices everything he preaches, people are still going to hate you for trying to control their every word and movement.

    Choice matters.  People can endure a lot if it's ultimately voluntary but turn into the princess and the pea when it's not voluntary.  Who benefits also matters; people will trust an authority who they believe wants the same thing for them that they do, as opposed to one who's openly self-serving or simply determined to change them to suit himself.

    Never attribute to stupidity what can be adequately explained by malice; stupid people couldn't hurt us so effectively.

    by Visceral on Sun Feb 19, 2012 at 11:24:59 AM PST

  •  In my latest (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    post on Daily Kos, I made a similar point in the end of what I wrote and in some of the comments. I think it is extremely important for people to continue saying when things aren't fair as well as leading in a way that is respectful and has integrity.

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