Authority does not always sit well with us, especially egalitarian type folks like teachers, but it is a necessary part of life. Not being able to escape its necessity, it is best that authority reside in the hands of the good.
You might recognize Love, Power, and Justice as as book by Paul Tillich, but as a work conversation today turned on the word “authority” it seemed an appropriate way to speak of the nature of authority. It would seem the word has quite a bad connotation, only I do not see why. As I was speaking to a group today about the role of teachers, I said authority was a necessary part of the job. The egalitarian members of the team took exception to this choosing to say we all play on the same team and such a word should not be part of that vocabulary. This really shows just how little we know of the word and how poorly we see to its use. It is a reminder that language is a tricky business.
Now words can be very tricky. It is very true that what I see as authoritative can be seen by others as authoritarian, but the root word should still stand on its own. The root here is “author” and it tells us there is a role for us to play when it comes to design. Teachers know this very well. They spend their lives as designers and authority is really noting other than having the power to design. As such it should be something we strive for rather than deny. And having been granted such power, it also implies that if we are creatures of justice and love, we should share our power, that is we should empower others. No one understands this better than a teacher. With this understanding no one would argue that authority is other than a good thing, but the world has been so misused that I do understand the push back with its’ use.
This really points to a shame on society moment. How often we think of authority and the power to which it is attached as being a license to “lord over others.” That can be true, but it says more about authority being in the wrong hands rather than being the wrong in and of itself. This is where we have to temper power with justice and love.
We have fewer problems with justice than power and fewer still with the love. What we fail to think of is the interplay between the words. (On that point you can pick up the work of Tillich.) I will keep it simple. Power in and of itself should never be an end. To do so would go against the grain of what authority is. As teachers, or any one else in the helping professions, authority is the means to create a design. It should be a design for knowledge and a better world. As such its designers should have a strong understanding of love and justice and as such they are indeed the ones that should be granted the power of authority.
The world is certainly filled with mean people. They banter the word authority around all the time. I can hardly blame anyone for disliking the term, but if the good do not claim it, then our world is in a sorry place. And I am in a profession filled with the good. Educators are the very people who should be most entitled to this thing. If those who are good do not claim authority, others will for we cannot live in a world without it. To do so is anarchy and the world does need civil society and the peace that accompanies it. Left in the wrong hands authority does become authoritative and as such it denies the liberties of egalitarian society, but placed in the hands of the good then it is our assurance of a better world that looks to power not as an end onto itself but as that instrument to accomplish a just and loving society.