Not long ago a fellow teacher at my college complained that a student was challenging the grades she assigned to papers. The student dismissed her grades as “merely her opinions”. The teacher showed me the rubric she used to evaluate the essays; it was fairly standard.
However, the whole situation was bathed in irony because my colleague was very much the product and proponent of the counter-cultural values of the sixties and seventies. This generation, my own, has held and still teaches that authority should be challenged and that rebellion against authority is intrinsically good. In the eighties and nineties this same generation embraced post-modernism with its emphasis that objective truth cannot be known and that all truths are simply social constructions of those in power.
In education these counter-cultural values have been institutionalized in a call for student-centered education and a real contempt for “the sage on the stage” approach to education. Those who argue for student-centered education point out that “authority-based” education is often patriarchal and Euro-centric. The very root of the word education, they argue, is educe, which means to draw out. Education should be the drawing out of the knowledge and understanding within the child—not putting in what we have decided the child should know.
In What’s Wrong with World G. K. Chesterton considers this authority-free doctrine of education:
I think it would be about as sane to say that the baby’s milk comes from the baby as to say that the baby’s educational merits do. . . . You may indeed “draw out” squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him and pulling him about, a pleasant but cruel pastime to which many psychologists are addicted. But you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.
Despite these commonsense arguments against education without authority, such an approach is the prevailing orthodoxy in academia today. For decades baby-boomers have been telling students to distrust authority and that we all have our own truth. Yet when they actually take us at our word by challenging our curriculum and our grading, we respond with righteous indignation. For years this generation has taught that all truths are merely opinions, yet we are dismayed when students dismiss our ideas as opinions.
Building a an educational system without authority, without deciding what is true and false, what is worthy or unworthy of transmission, is like building a house without nails. Nails are sharp and hammers hard; it may be better to just let things rest on each other and not force nails into the wood. After all, who has the authority to say a nail should go here rather than there? Let those living in the house build as they go! Away with architects! Away with the supposed expertise of carpenters and framers! We are all equal. Empower people! Away with inspectors and building codes! And by the way, we will be forming another national commission to study the crisis we are facing in our housing industry.