Authority and the Teacher
reviewed by Carol Rinke - July 12, 2015
In Authority and the Teacher, William H. Kitchen sets out to establish the essential role of authority in the process of teaching and learning. He argues that authority, while unattractive at first glance (p. xii), actually can serve as a stepping stone toward intellectual freedom and emancipation (p. 3). Kitchen begins by detailing the sociological, philosophical, and theoretical background for this topic. He then defines authority, argues for its importance, and lays out an extensive and well-reasoned argument for the necessity of authority in teaching, learning, knowledge development, and education overall. Kitchen contributes to the field of educational philosophy by situating authority in the hands of the teacher. However, at times, he stretches his argument beyond philosophical considerations, and into a critique of what he alternatively terms child-centered or progressive approaches to education.
Authority and the Teacher begins in Part One by introducing Frank Furedis (2009) book Wasted: Why Education Isnt Educating as a sociological companion text. In Wasted, Furedi proposes a paradox of education (p. 16) in which todays societies demand more of educational institutions but achieve less, due to the erosion of teachers authority and a fetishization of change (p. 17). Subsequent introductory chapters draw upon philosophers G.H. Bantock, Lawrence Stenhouse, and R. S. Peters in critiquing progressive, anti-authority, and anti-knowledge movements. Kitchen then defines authority as the justification for acting in a certain way, on the basis of a mandate issued by the community (p. 55), and argues that, through authority, the teacher equips the learner to act in a way that is considered correct by the standards of the community.
In Part Two, Kitchen gets to the heart of his argument for the essential role of authority in education by drawing upon the contributions of philosophers Michael Polanyi, Michael Oakeshott, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, each in turn. Chapter Five is devoted to the ideas of Polanyi, particularly his notion that knowledge operates within a fiduciary framework (p. 79), or a cultural, intellectual, and like-minded community. Therefore, a learner must first submit to the authority of experts within this fiduciary framework before gaining independence as a member of the community. In this chapter, Kitchen also highlights a paradigmatic example of learning how to speak, which uses a universal experience to illustrate how learning occurs within a fiduciary framework.
Chapter Six draws upon Oakeshotts contributions to teaching and learning by focusing on his conceptualizations of several terms: (a) learning is seen as the conduct of active engagement with society and social practices; (b) teaching is a directed activity between a learned person and his or her pupils; (c) information is viewed as inert knowledge; (d) judgment is dynamic knowledge. Oakeshott argues that knowledge must contain a combination of information and judgment, which can only be imparted by the learned teacher. Oakeshott also contributes the notion that each person is entitled through learning to the knowledge inheritance of a multitude of human achievements (p. 115).
In Chapter Seven, Kitchen connects Polanyis and Oakeshotts ideas by arguing that authority is essential to knowledge development because a learner must accept a teachers authority in order to acquire knowledge within the fiduciary framework. Further, Kitchen reasons that authority is essential to teaching and learning because only a teacher commands the authority to initiate the transmission of our human knowledge inheritance.
Chapter Eight solidifies the argument by introducing Wittgenstein, who differentiates between knowledge and certainty, and claims that learning can only occur when a pupil trusts his or her teacher . . . and the training that the pupil receives in the process (p. 163). For Kitchen, trust serves as the final blow (p. 180) in establishing authority as a cornerstone of education.
While Kitchens philosophical treatise on the role of authority in education serves as an intriguing thought experiment into the purposes and processes of teaching, learning, and knowledge development, Kitchen then goes beyond the academic discourse surrounding authority and applies these ideas to the everyday experience of schooling. While the books argument for the role of authority in education is carefully reasoned, his application of those ideas to practice are generally unfounded and, at times, ideological.
For instance, Kitchen claims, When we get down to the bare bones of the discussion, we come to realize that what is sold to us as child-centered is, in fact, a smokescreen for an educational free for all, in which the child takes precedence over the bedrock customs, practices, traditions, and institutions (p. 181). At times, Kitchen makes alarmist statements about what will occur, if students reject the authority of the teacher, such as:
If we continue to undermine the authority of the teacher in his or her classroom and to undermine his or her position as a master in his or her subject, we will arrive at an entire generation of children who lack humility and guidance, and who will be misinformed and lost. (p. 7)
What is most concerning about Kitchens application of his philosophical treatise to classroom practice is his lack of support for these claims. While his analysis of Polanyis, Oakeshotts, and Wittgensteins thinking is quite thorough, his critique of child-centered education does not contain the same empirical, philosophical, or theoretical grounding. In fact, he criticizes the progressive ideologies of Dewey and Piaget without direct reference to their work. It also appears that Kitchen misunderstands the foundations of constructivist education. He describes constructivist practice, as one in which, the child creates his or her own meaning of the world, based on his or her own experiences and interactions with the environment. There is no place for any form of authority and no belief in what authority represents (p. 42). In contrast, a multitude of educational research demonstrates that children best construct deep, meaningful knowledge, when guided by skillful and effective teachers (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).
Rather than critiquing the constant drivel emanating from within education (p. xiii), Kitchen would be well-served to develop a more nuanced application of how his philosophical treatise enhances current educational thinking. For instance, Kitchen rejects child-centered education as chaotic (p. 42), but could instead offer suggestions for how to improve constructivist pedagogy through the effective execution of authority. Moreover, Kitchen argues that teachers are deserving of authority based on their status as the adult generation (p. 22), but could instead provide guidelines for preparing and credentialing teachers, so their authority is earned rather than granted, and their status founded upon relevant knowledge and skills. This approach would strengthen Kitchens contribution to the conversation.
Altogether, Authority and the Teacher offers a thoughtful philosophical analysis of the role of authority in education, but at times over-stretches its point. This book would benefit from more careful connections to teaching and learning in todays schools.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.
Fuerdi, F. (2009). Wasted: Why education isnt educating. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.