The Teacher’s Authority


Martin Luther King Jr, who challenged authority on the basis of objective truth.

The Teacher’s Moral Authority

No community can function without the rule of law. In a classroom, it is the teacher who maintains order. He must enforce rules, or there will be chaos. The weak will suffer tyranny from the strong. There may even be physical threats to the safety of both pupils and teachers. Both teachers and pupils have been violently assaulted in British classrooms where there is a lack of proper order and discipline.

The teacher has a grave responsibility to ensure that the classroom is a safe and ordered place. In order to fulfil that grave responsibility, he must have authority. Pupils must obey the teacher’s instructions for the sake of maintaining an ordered community, which will be of benefit to everybody.

Are there any exceptions to this? Are there any times when pupils have a right to disobey a teacher’s instructions? Yes, but they would be exceptional. They would be occasions where it would actually be immoral to obey the teacher.

This is analogous to the rule of law in society. We are obliged to obey the law, unless there are grave reasons for not doing so. Martin Luther King Jr articulated these reasons in his letter from Birmingham Jail in 1964, in which he said:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King could only make such statements because he was judging the law based on objective standards. He measured the laws of the USA against objective standards of justice, and found them wanting. Thus he deliberately broke the law in order to draw attention to its injustice. He had no wish to express an ‘personal opinion’ or exert his ‘individual voice’. He considered that both he and the law must submit to higher principles which were not matters of opinion, but of truth.

It would be a grave and extreme case indeed if a pupil found similar reasons for disobeying their teacher’s authority. And the pupil would not even be capable of acting this way unless he had sufficient knowledge to measure his situation against objective standards. He will be enabled to acquire this knowledge if his classroom is ordered and his teacher takes his responsibility for forming minds seriously.

The Teacher’s Intellectual Authority

Intellectual authority is related to moral authority, but distinct. In most cases, the teacher knows more than the pupil, and if the pupil is going to learn, he needs to recognise this, so that he can move towards the expertise which the teacher has.

There will be times, however, when the pupil genuinely knows more than the teacher. An older pupil may have a special interest in a topic and have done considerable extra reading and study, and have acquired greater knowledge than the teacher in that particular area. This is conceivable, but it is a special case. In these cases, the pupil may realise that the teacher has made a factual error. For example, he may have given an incorrect date for an historical event.

What should the pupil do in this circumstance? He may raise his hand and, after having obtained permission to speak, point out the error to the teacher. The teacher may be convinced that he is right nevertheless. In this case, the pupil should drop his objection until such a time as it can be pursued without publicly undermining the authority of his teacher.

Promoting Critical Thinking

To think critically about any topic, a large store of knowledge is required, so that relevant examples can be compared and reasoned judgements made. The main task of the school teacher is to transmit this knowledge to pupils, so that eventually, once they have attained sufficient expertise, they will be able to think critically. The more knowledge pupils have, the better they will be able to judge the accuracy of the information which they encounter, not only in school, but in the media and in politics.

Therefore, the goal of being able to ask reasonable questions and make rational judgements is best served by the recognition of the teacher’s moral and intellectual authority. Pupils will learn much more in a safe and ordered classroom where they can listen and learn from those who know more than they do. Not that they will be silent in such a classroom, but when they do speak, they will do so in a respectful and rational way, and their comments will be based on knowledge, not ignorance, and on the humble quest for truth, not the arrogant assertion of opinion.

It is liberating to realise that education is not about the glorification of subjective self-expression, but about the acquisition of objective knowledge. Once pupils have realised this, they are on the road to developing genuine critical thinking.


3 thoughts on “The Teacher’s Authority

  1. Bravo!

    I think many people will dislike this (because many do not like the idea of being obedient, respectful or submitting to any authority).

    But it has given me much to think about.

    I was at an Institute of Ideas event where Frank Furedi spoke about his latest book. He said something (unfortunately I was slightly distracted making notes and didn’t hear it until he was almost finished). He said something like, ‘today, it’s not even about people having informed opinions and debating them but many are satisfied with simply expressing their opinion. Once you have been able to give voice to your thoughts – that’s it! Self-expression is the summit.’

    I wish I actually had what FF said.


  2. And for teachers who struggle with this idea, who find it difficult to imagine why pupils should be ‘docile’ maybe it’s helpful to try this thought experiment.

    Imagine if Beyonce came to talk to your children about dancing or Barenboim to talk about the orchestra [or even just think back to an assembly or trip where a guest, that you thought was interesting and giving important advice/information etc to your pupils, spoke].

    Did your children fidget and whisper? Did your children keep raising their hands during the talk to ask rude (‘How old are you’) or ridiculous (‘What’s your favourite colour’) questions? Even worse, did children interrupt to tell the speaker a story – not realising that they would benefit from listening rather than sharing?

    This behaviour is commonplace amongst children but should not be amongst pupils. If pupils should sit attentively and try to learn all they can from Beyonce and Barenboim (because we rate them as leaders in their fields etc) then why shouldn’t pupils behave in the same way with their everyday teachers? Why wouldn’t we take our subjects and time with pupils just as seriously as we would take an assembly with a world leader?

    Liked by 1 person

Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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