Some musings about authority

I’ve been following a lot of dialogue about the “Authority is Constructed & Contextual” frame, and I’ve found it very interesting and, frankly, sometimes over my head. Much of the discussion seems to revolve around two issues: the idea that the traditional authorities that we may have unquestioningly accepted in the past are often built on hetero-normative, hegemonic foundations (i.e. academic perspectives of old white straight guys), and the idea that students need help learning that they are also authorities in their own way, or at least they they are on their way to becoming the authorities which they study in their field.

This has been a really radical new way of thinking about authority for me, one that really started a couple of years ago when I started my education degree. There is so much I took for granted in the rhetoric of academia that I’ve started to question, and it has been a refreshing, exhilarating experience.

However, I think it’s important to note that this critical theory perspective is not the only one that it’s really important for us to accomplish through the “Authority is Constructed & Contextual” frame–in fact, there is more to learn about authority that may not even fit into this frame.

In my experience, students often do consider themselves experts. In fact, there is a phenomenon whereby the less someone knows about something, the more he or she believes him/herself to be an expert. When I introduce my first year students to something like the paleo diet, they already have strong opinions about it, and confirmation bias leads them to often put their trust in sources that support what they already believe. I start the class with these students asking them to compare some sources and decide which to trust most. I am always shocked to find that some students have ignored all traditional signs of authority to choose the source that supports their own beliefs.

I feel that it’s less important for me to ask students to “question everything” and more important to ask them to contemplate *carefully* what authority they *should* consider more trustworthy. Which people and organizations *do* have authority? Can a single person have authority? Can a group? Can a group’s expert opinion about something change? What does that mean for authority? If we focus on telling our students to question authority without helping them understand why academics are traditionally considered authorities, then we risk confusing them and alienating them from the beginning.

This frame is an opportunity for us to build students’ critical thinking skills. Critical thinking involves more than just being critical of information–it also involves building a tool box for recognizing information that deserves trust and supports an argument or claim more strongly. When we often only have 50 minutes with students, I want to teach them how to question the patriarchy, but I need to teach them how to recognize good sources and the authorities that produce them. The transformative learning experience happens when the students recognize their own limitations as authorities and become critical of their own thinking.


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