Authoritarianism in Schools: Well, What Did You Expect?

Authoritarianism has recently come to the fore in many domains and in many conversations in the media and else where for a variety of reasons, most notably because of the trend in many countries such as the US, which boast of democratic forms of government, but which have experienced a strong movement away from democratic traditions and practices in recent decades and toward autocratic leadership and thoroughly compliant citizens who are inclined to follow them mindlessly.As outlined in the article which posted on this blog on January, 2020 entitled “The Authoritarian Approach in Education Isn’t Leadership, It’s Tyranny”,schools already inherently have strong influences toward authoritarian attitudes and habits, and they have a tendency to reflect the growing trends of the larger society, as well.


At first blush, this well-written and researched opinion piece appears to cover all the bases quite well and offers splendid remedies for working towards fixing the problems of “tyranny” in schooling. Is it not just good common sense and good science to find the middle ground and treat students with respect? Surely, taking steps to reverse this reactionary shift in schools in response to a shift in social changes which are anti-democratic and dangerous will help us avoid a more catastrophic outcome.

However, if our fences are not well-maintained, to every garden party there will come a skunk. This, unfortunately, is my essential role. I am obliged to find the faults in this seemingly insightful and uncontroversial analysis.

First, it is extremely disconcerting to see anyone,more or less casually, waving off the ordinary, “normal”, or understandable recourse to arbitrary discipline and control methods which have been a characteristic of certain serious and somewhat less tolerant teachers. This author refers in the first paragraph to teachers who are “…saddled with classroom management issues that would challenge even the hardiest of instructors”. In the second paragraph it is correctly noted that authoritarian methods used under such pressure lead to the “…destruction of critical thinking skills”.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if all teachers were much more inclined to lean toward tolerance, dignity, and autonomy for students? Wouldn’t it be marvelous if there was not this omni-present and ubiquitous orientation toward a moralistic, behavior-modifying, aggressively lesson-teaching, and controlling milieu in schools? The diminution of critical thinking skills is only one of many huge issues which we confront in teaching and training our youth.

Although the fear mongering right-wing media and myriad influences inexorably pushing us away from – dare I use the word “liberal” – and humanistic policies and practices have been ascendant since before Ronnie-Raygun, the reality has been that schools operate on a model which sprang forth from the philosophy of Descartes from three centuries ago (300 years!) and educators still cling to those decrepit ideas as if they were the gospel. Well, actually, they are the gospel.

The unnamed author of that article may be right to point out that authoritarian attitudes in schools have reflected those infiltrating the society. However, the reverse could also be said to be true. Indeed, I would assert that, without schools inculcating a culture of obedience, knowledge drawn undiluted from external sources, inordinate dependence on authority and officials for direction and information, and the acceptance of school mythology (thanks to the “cult of school”) Donald Trump would still be defrauding banks and insurance companies and evading taxes in relative obscurity. Students must invent and create knowledge.

I will cut to the chase. Schools are riddled with authoritarian attitudes and influences primarily because they are commissioned by the state. Every aspect and facet of their operation and maintenance is mandated to ensure compliance with the endless list of laws, regulations, specifications, definitions, and prohibitions enacted as part of compulsory attendance. It is baked into the paternalistic and unconstitutional schooling cake. It has been ever thus, and so it will remain so long as the attendance laws remain on the books.

Brave and dedicated teachers continually struggle to circumvent the “system”. The best teachers make incredible sacrifices and bend over backwards to benefit their students. They are often unsung heroes. They too are victims of this vast authoritarian bureaucratic machine that chews up people and spits them out. There MUST be winners and there MUST be losers. That is how this paradigm is designed.

Placing blame for all the problems and chronic debacles is impossible. There is no one to blame because everyone is locked into a role, and relationships are predetermined according to the caprices of the law and the unqualified officials who have been designated as authorities and decision-makers. It all has absolutely nothing to do with education.

Call me a cynic. Call me a heretic. Negativity is such a downer. Why not try to look at the bright side? We must resolve to reform our schools!

The point I am obliged to reinforce interminably despite the difficulty educators in particular have of accepting it, is that reforms have been tried continually since day one. The educational wheel has been re-invented at least a million times. The truth is that education cannot be forced upon anyone. If there is coercion in instruction, it is not education; it is indoctrination or merely a nuisance for disinterested students. Education was never the motive for compulsory attendance laws to begin with. Mass education is a myth and a pipe dream.

We can and we will eliminate these bad laws. Social media and easy access to this kind of information are the tools which will enable a new generation of young people to take us in a new direction. Otherwise, move over for the second term for Trump and kiss democracy good-bye. This is not hyperbole or merely alarmist projection. January 6th at the US Capitol was just a dress rehearsal.

For more information please contact me at Upon request, I will send copies of my unpublished book manuscripts, “A Well-Concealed Crisis: Students Who Hate School” (about 95 pages), and “The Threshold of Your Own Mind” (about 365 pages).

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