Here’s one of my favorite passages from Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness:
The authority such a leader needs is not power. Power comes to anyone who controls the tools of coercion, which range from grades to guns. But authority comes only to those who are granted it by others. And what leads us to grant someone authority? The word itself contains a clue: we grant authority to people who we perceive as “authoring” their own words and actions, people who do not speak from a script or behave in preprogrammed ways.
In other words, we grant authority to people we perceive as living undivided lives.
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I received an email recently from a former student, who wrote:
“I am currently a senior [in college], and have been focusing a lot on political economic theory recently . . . and I keep on thinking about your lit and philosophy class. It was really really smart, and I am really grateful to have taken it. I was wondering if you still had the reading list for the class?”
This is not the first time I had been asked this. (It’s a great honor, and these messages always fill me with gratitude and joy.) It was a popular class, one that I completely made up from scratch. When writing the syllabus, I never once considered the state’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements or what a traditional “philosophy” class might include. Instead, I focused on creating a curriculum that inspired me, selecting ideas that had a profound impact on the way I think.
Because I was inspired every day, I was able to facilitate class discussions with energy and enthusiasm. Every class period really mattered to me because every class period was focused on an idea that had changed my life.
Reading Palmer’s book last night gave me another interpretation of what happened in that class. I relied so little on “the tools of coercion”—students had to write three essays over the course of five months, and anyone who took the assignment seriously earned full credit—that the presence of any “power” in our relationship was almost imperceptible.
I didn’t exercise much power over students in that class, but by presenting a curriculum that I had authored myself, I gained a very real authority among them.
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I know it seems efficient to have curriculum writers just send out unit plans to the mass of teachers in a school district. That way, students in different schools are all on the same page, and if one of them transfers to a different school, he can pick right up where he left off in his old school. It can save time and money, and acts as a buffer to soften the impact that bad teachers can have. It all seems logical.
But I think we lose more than we gain. By telling teachers what and how to teach, we take from them their authority in the classroom. Without authority from the students, they have to rely increasingly on exercising power.
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