America Has an Authority Problem

Who has the authority to go past "authorized personnel only" signs? Who gets to say?

I write this in the shadow of yet another mass-shooting. Though to be honest, with how frequently the happen, when are we not in the shadow of one? These events are tragic, senseless, and preventable, yet they’ve become so commonplace in only one country that those of us who live here think they’re normal. Some claim they’re unavoidable. Yet we remain the only nation that regularly experiences them. Our nation, which glamorizes gun ownership and valorizes military service over public service. Our nation, with the largest incarcerated population on earth, by total or percentage. Too many people in this nation think a uniform and a badge grant special powers and warrant veneration. Too many people in this nation misunderstand authority—its sources, its purposes, and its origins. We have an authority problem here, with too many people granting authority to the undeserving and relinquishing their own authority right when they should learn to preserve it.

All that starts in schools. (And churches, too, but I’ll stay in my lane here.)

Authority in K-12 Schools

In K-12 classes, we often follow the “information-transfer model” or what Freire calls the “banking model” of education. Knowledge, this approach asserts, already exists in perfect form and simply needs to be transferred from source (textbook or other authority) to destination (the student’s brain). To test the efficacy of this educating process, we ask students to repeat the information back to us. Thus, we verify the knowledge was successful implanted into their grey matter. We force-feed students information and demand that they digest and regurgitate it. We make academic foie gras.

Through this process, students conclude that the goal of education is to absorb what others know, do what others tell them, and follow instructions. Stand in a line. Sit in your assigned seat. Ask permission to use the restroom. Turn in a 500-word argumentative essay using Times New Roman 12-point, double spacing, 1-inch margins. The paper is due Sunday at 11:59pm. Show me your papers. Keep your hands behind your head. You have the right to remain silent.

There’s a pattern here, a through-line. In our public education system, we train students to follow orders just because. We teach students to conform, comply, and obey. In other words, more than any content, we teach students to respect authority—any authority but their own.

Authority in College

First, students spend their K-12 years being taught to respect the authority of others. Then the get to college, and we try to teach students to challenge authority, think for themselves, and help build new knowledge. At least that’s what we currently do. Check back in five years—plenty of folks have other plans for education. The GOP is hell-bent on stripping schools of their ability to teach students to think about anything other than what their parents already believe. But again, I digress. Back to my lane.

When students get to college, faculty ask them to struggle with and balance a variety of ideas and perspectives. Often, we’ll assign readings that conflict with each other, showing students there are multiple ways to approach a given topic. Rather than handing students a textbook with the Truth-with-a-capital-T in it, we hand students current debates in the field and ask them to weigh in, intelligently. This approach leads to interesting, nuanced debates.

Authority in Writing

When students write papers for college, they show their ability to think through complex problems. They make assertions. They propose. But they rarely state conclusively with authority. Getting students to that point is a challenge. We have to balance self-confidence with humility, arrogance with discretion. It’s a tough balance to strike, especially in light of students’ training to digest authorless, authoritative textbooks. In short, we teach students to read and write without authority, as Ann Penrose and Cheryl Geisler explored decades ago. They reached four conclusions that each go against the textbook-as-authority model (quoting from pp. 507-508):

  • Texts are authored.
  • Authors present knowledge in the form of claims.
  • Knowledge claims can conflict.
  • Knowledge claims can be tested.

Teaching those four concepts presents huge challenges. One of the clearest indications of the struggle shows up in the way students refer to sources. “The text says that…” or “the article talks about…” frequently appear as introductory phrases before quotes. What sounds innocuous enough at first ends up being rather ridiculous: Students assert that a piece of writing is not only animate but also able to speak. They accept that more easily than asking themselves who wrote the article. We have a long way to go to help students learn that authors use texts to assert their claims.

Baby Steps: Synthesis Papers

Recently, I’ve grown to love the power of synthesis as a writing assignment. Most students I work with have never had to explicitly synthesize material before. Instead, they always analyze. (They’ve also never made a hyperlink before, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.) To analyze a thing, we break the thing into its constituent parts and explain how each part works, thereby gaining a better understanding of the whole. For instance, if I want to explain to you how a computer works, I’ll explain the keyboard, the mouse, and the various interface elements. Violà…computer.

But to synthesize things, we take multiple disparate elements and explain how they fit together, better understanding a broader concept as a conclusion. The trick is finding the connections and asserting a novel conclusion. For instance, I lived in Florida for decades and saw recently that we haven’t had cold snaps like we used to—I hadn’t worn heavy sweaters in years. Now I live in New Jersey, and in mid-February, I can say the last time we had snow on the ground was the previous March. Then I read reports that glaciers are receding. I can synthesize those disparate data points and conclude that the world is ending. Well, you know what I mean.

We Have a Goal!

Asking students to synthesize challenges them to assert their own authority over their reading. It also challenges them to reach a conclusion supported by available materials. My snarky claim above that the world is ending isn’t supported by my three data points, but concluding that global temperatures are rising sure is. Synthesis asks students to be bold and to do something with the materials they read, not just spit them back out again. As a first step toward building students’ sense of authority, we at least owe them that as an expectation.