On Authority in Popular Education

A follow-up to my earlier post on the riots has just been published over at Bullets and Ballots. In it I advocate popular education as one way in which the energies unleashed in the riots might find a more utopian manner of expression.

Yet despite my belief that popular education must play a key role in social change, there are some difficult issues around hierarchy, domination, power and authority that need to be thought through. These, I think, apply regardless of the situation in which popular education takes place, but are particularly pressing if it is to be successful in Britain’s most deprived areas, where mistrust of authority is likely to be at its highest.

Given that most of those who advocate popular education are of an open/heterodox/humanist Marxist or anarchist persuasion (and I’m speaking from the latter), ‘power’, ‘hierarchy’ and ‘authority’ are generally regarded with suspicion, and ‘domination’ is rejected outright. Popular education appeals precisely because it reverses the vanguardism of Marxist-Leninism: encouraging people to be active in the making of their own futures rather than following pre-determined paths to emancipation. ‘We make the road by walking’- as the title of a book-length exchange between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire has it.

Yet despite the active role that everyone plays in creating their futures in popular education, a number of teacher/theorists argue that it does not completely dispense with the authority of the educator. Here is Freire on this issue in the aformentioned discussion with Horton:

‘I also discovered another thing that was very important to me afterward, that I had authority but I was not authoritarian. I remember that not even one of the students ever left the classroom without telling me or asking me in a very respectful, polite way every time. I began to understand at a very young age that on one hand the teacher as a teacher is not the student. The student as the student is not the teacher. I began to perceive that they are different but not necessarily antagonistic.
The difference is precisely that the teacher has to teach, to experience, to demonstrate authority and the student has to experience freedom in relation to the teacher’s authority. I began to see that the authority of the teacher is absolutely necessary for the development of the freedom of the students , but if the authority of the teacher goes beyond the limits authority has to have in relation to the students’ freedom, then we no longer have authority. We no longer have a freedom. We have authoritarianism’.

From an anarchist perspective this is troubling: ‘authority’ is usually considered something to be avoided, even by those (and I’d include myself here) who draw inspiration from Foucault and argue that anarchism is not about overcoming power, but about overcoming domination and hierarchy (more on this in a minute).

To me, it seems nonsense to expect a student to ask permission from the educator to leave a popular education class. Depending on the circumstances, it might be polite to ask permission of the whole class, or whoever’s speaking- but there could be perfectly legitimate reasons for leaving the class without asking permission from anyone- even without saying anything at all. Expecting a student to defer to the authority of the educator seems a pointless nod to what Max Weber would call ‘rational-legal authority’: the authority that comes with the position of being an educator: an authority, in other words, which comes from a formalised hierarchy. It could also be seen as deferential to what Weber would call ‘traditional authority’- it’s always been the case that you ask permisison of the teacher to leave the room, that’s just ‘how things are done’ (what I would call an ‘ossified hierarchy’). Anarchism is also opposed to such hierarchies; deferring to tradition is almost always a counter-revolutionary action.

The claim that the student has to ‘experience freedom in relation to the teacher’s authority’ is also an odd one. I may be mis-reading Freire here, but this seems to be playing to the liberal myth that freedom is necessarily relational (the freedom of a impinges on the freedom of b) and furthermore, that this is a hierarchical relationship (the freedom of those further down the hierarchy limits the freedom of those at the top). Here, I would argue that these only hold up when there is a hierarchical relationship: as you move towards nonhierarchicy, freedom becomes a social concept: a‘s freedom is no longer in opposition with b‘s; they co-exist and mutually reinforce each other: freedom becomes bound up with power-with, which I discuss below.

In both instances, ‘authority’ presents itself as a legitimate exercise of power-over, or domination. For anarchists, no form of power-over is legitimate (I’m speaking broadly here, of course) and so such authority is unacceptable.

Yet I think that we need to think carefully about the role that ‘charismatic authority’ (Weber’s third kind of authority) can- must– play in popular education. There is no doubt that charisma can be dangerous: when mixed with other forms of authority or power it can facilitate hierarchy and domination of the most destructive kind. But without it, popular education will not get off the ground.

I cannot stress how important this is. Most disaffeted youths would laugh in the face of a popular educator and see the ‘lack of hierarchy in the classroom’ as an excuse to dick about. They would not be able to distinguish between the popular educator and the well-meaning social worker, schoolteacher or police officer who- however polite they might be- will always be ‘on the other side’; will always be ‘the enemy’. The popular educator does not come in the name of hierarchical authority, but that won’t be immediately apparent (and if the popular education is taking place within a coercive setting- a school or young offenders institution, for example, there will be an inescapable element of power-over involved).

I cannot emphasise the above point enough: I’ve been the teacher (in a mainstream setting) who thinks that by being nice they’ll automatically get students on their side, and I had a rude awakening; classes were way out of my control and routinely took advantage of my kindness. Now I ethically object to trying to impose either traditional or legal-rational authority to work my way out of this situation (and it would have proved useless: I looked about 16 and a ‘cover supervisor’ doesn’t have much ‘legal-rational’ authority), so the only way out was to try and assert some ‘charismatic authority’.

So I threw caution to the wind and decided to be myself. And it worked, for the most part. Students warmed to me and it got to the point where serious bad behaviour in my classes was rare. “Don’t dick about, Mr. Bell’s sound”.

The point here is that I’d earned the respect of the students. It’s a sad world where this has to be the case, but we shouldn’t necessarily blame the students for this: they are routinely subject to domination and automatically distrust anyone in a position of authority which- as I’ve noted- is exactly where they’d see the popular educator. So- if I can use an analogy which runs the risk of alienating all right-thinking people- the popular educator almost has to act like a salesman. Quite rightly, everyone’s default position is to despise the salesman, so they’ve got to use charisma to overcome the initial prejudice they encounter, and then convert this personal goodwill into a belief in the product that’s being sold.

There is no single way to have be charismatic: some people do it through the sheer force of their niceness; others are funny; some are just odd. You have to be yourself, believe in yourself and hope that you have something the students can buy into. And once they’ve bought into you, they might buy into the project. If done self-consciously this is a troubling move, which comes extremely close to exercising power-over without the subjects of that power even realising it (the most worrying kind of power, as Steven Lukes has argued). But it strikes me that it’s legitimate for four reasons:

  1. Charisma is inescapable. Even in an anarchist utopia in which all formal hierarchies had been done away with, some people would be charismatic and others would not (though there would be structures to allow those who were less charismatic to influence political organisation).
  2. We do not yet live in an anarchist utopia. Whilst anarchism is a prefigurative political philosophy- one which seeks to enact itself through its praxis rather than wait until a radical break- anarchists must also be prepared to be pragmatic and engage tactically with the norms of the contemporary society in order to challenge them. Writing an article for The Guardian on anarchism might be an example of this. Popular education helps make power (of all forms) visible, so the one-time exercising of a power which may go unrecognised is an acceptable trade-off in the long run.
  3. Whilst the salesman or the dictator seeks to use their charisma to achieve power-over; the popular educator is using it to achieve power-with (more on this below).
  4. Anarchism’s prefiguration is inwardly focussed. That is to say that anarchists deal with each other in the manner that they would in an anarchist society: it is in the social relations between anarchists that the ‘new world in the shell of the old’ is to be found. When engaging outside the anarchist community, however, this does not apply to such an extent. The attitudes of resenting authority in the manner I’ve discussed above would not exist in an anarchist society, because formalised hierarchies would have been done away with.

I think three is the strongest of these points. The educator’s charisma should properly be seen as a form of power-with, as defined by Starhawk. It is ‘the power of a strong individual in a group of equals, the power not to command, but to suggest and be listened to, and see it happen’ (I take this Sparhawk quote from Uri Gordon‘s Anarchy Alive, which I can’t recommend enough for its discussion of power in anarchism).  It is a power that- like Spinoza’s conatus– self-maximises but never dominates, spreading throughout the group so that each individual feels empowered within the collective, and feels that they can change the world for the better.  It might even enable each individual to maximise their own charisma.

2 thoughts on “On Authority in Popular Education

    • Hello!

      My apologies! How idiotic of me (not least because I have the correct link in the blogroll). I suspect I mis-remembered that the URL was the name of your book as it being your name.

      BTW, I have reviewed Anarchy Alive for Capital and Class (!); it will be in the next issue, I think (due out in February). In short, it’s a very positive review.


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