The OF Blog: A question of authority

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A question of authority

Yesterday, I attended new teacher orientation for the school district where I'll be teaching starting next month. One of the things that was brought up in passing was how times had changed (some, like myself, have more than 5 years experience, and can remember seeing changes from the late 1990s to the present) and how the authority of the teacher had changed. I remember thinking how easily this could be applied to so much else.

Recently, there have been a few posts here and there (too lazy to look up the exact links, but I believe Matt Staggs had a few of them in the past couple of weeks included in his daily links posts) about how people have come to view critics (namely, those who discuss books) differently over the past decade or so. I'm not concerned with discussing the in's and out's of how critics can appeal to a changing audience or even with the dynamics of such changes, but rather I am interested in the notion of what "authority" means.

Used to be "authority" was more than someone imposing his (and occasionally her, but usually "his" in the more patriarchal past) viewpoints upon others. For literary/artistic matters, "authority" was not so much a fiat from above, but rather the result of a complicit agreement among the readership that the person discussing X, Y, or Z had something of value to say. In many cases, it was due to a somewhat homogenized form of education, one in which erudition was highly valued. Not always, of course, lest those reading this start reaching for their knives to sharpen, but it was part of the arrangement.

But to a large degree, those days have passed. There is much more heterogeneity in people's educations, standards of life, etc. Not as many things are held in common. Factionalization and the increased division of elements of culture into "defined" groups has only hastened in the past few generations. There is no longer any pretense of there being a "general audience." We are all specialized audiences.

In such a situation, "authority" is going to be viewed quite differently. Since there wouldn't be such a complicit agreement, observers might be more inclined to "challenge" or even "disavow" any sort of "authority" that runs counter to their own tastes. This certainly can be seen in the classroom, as teachers who expect to impose their "authority" tend to learn quite quickly (or else burn out in a couple of years) that the classroom environment has changed and the teacher as authority figure model has to change with it, or else risk losing legitimacy in the eyes of students.

I suspect a similar case applies with book reviewing and "authority." Nowadays, with the proliferation of various media, there are no real "authorities" remaining; only influential members of various consistuencies. There are no more Olympian proclamations, only commentaries that may be tailored to whatever audience the erstwhile critic is addressing. In a way, I kind of miss the notion of "authority," of the idea that someone could be educated and thoughtful enough to say things that a good number of people would find worthwhile enough to consider, if not something with which to agree. While I don't miss the baggage that came with it (racism, chauvinism, etc.) on occasion, there is something to be said for a model in which the audience could take the critic's comments into account.

I just don't know if I'm comfortable with the notion of just anyone writing reviews or commentaries and having them being considered co-equal. I'm one of those who like to seek out those who excel at communicating their ideas and their understandings of texts and right now, it can be a real hassle. I'm also distrustful of unqualified praise and sometimes I miss the snarkiness that a Mencken could bring to the table. Perhaps it's just a nostalgic feeling, perhaps not. Just something I pondered briefly yesterday, while my mind started its shift back to thinking about lesson plans, projects, and how to communicate a love of world history to my incoming students. Three weeks to go.


Liviu said...

On occasion there is something to said for autocracy too. Or for oligarchy. Especially if you are part of the privileged.

Of course there are downsides to the democratization of public discourse, whether in books, politics, or anything else, but the good outweighs the bad by quite a lot at least in my opinion.

I have always been deeply mistrustful of the philosopher king model in anything; what I like is a free market, a combat if you want of ideas, memes; the more the merrier and natural selection will do its work

Lsrry said...

I mostly favor that as well, but a well-educated public can be an asset. Sometimes, I get quite frustrated with someone not making a coherent point. Sometimes, I'll call that person or people out on it, and then instead of trying to elaborate or admit that what was said was not cogently argued, the usual ad hominems such as "arrogant" or "condescending" are tossed about.

Might as well be a corollary to the so-called Godwin's Law about internet arguments and Nazis :P

Ben said...

In your last paragraph you express concern about having the reviews and commentaries of "just anyone" be considered co-equal. My question is where is this happening? I can't speak for others, but when I'm reading reviews/commentaries, some are better than others and I don't really concern myself with the person's status as an authority initially. Usually, however, it turns out that those whose reviews/commentaries were the best happen to be the authorities within whatever community is at issue.

Interesting thread!

Anonymous said...

Larry, I share your feelings wholeheartedly. Being also a teacher, I have to face the changes the world is going on, and that´s okay with me - I´m with Bruce Sterling´s "Information wants to be free" creed.

But I also miss the notion of the teacher of a role model. I will always cherish the memory of my History teacher on my junior high, or my Philosophy teacher on my Journalism classes in university.

They were very educated, but also funny, and the were people who you could relate to, who you could feel a strong identification. They helped me to be (or to try to be, anyway) a better person. And I try to do the same with my current students.

And I beg to disagree with Liviu: educated teachers aren´t necessarily philosopher kings. They can engage in a very hearty combat of ideas - but they can also serve as beacons, guidelines to a student who´s just beginning his walk of life.

Otherwise, I very much fear something I have already witnessed in my university: youngsters who were born in 1990 defending the Brazilian right-wing military regime that tortured and killed thousands of people in the 1960s and 1970s just because they think the military would take care of things better than civilians do today. I´m old enough to know by my own experience this is not true, but they are so common-sense-oriented that sometimes it scares me shitless.

And I almost recurred to Godwin´s Law of sorts now, didn´t I, Larry? ;-D

Lsrry said...


I think thinking of those on certain forums and certain students in classrooms who answer questions about the validity of another's opinion with "So? Why should their opinion be valued more than mine?" While I don't reject relativism out of hand, I do find that many present that as a facile response to questions regarding how they've come to arrive at an answer. I myself have been forced to defend my opinions quite a bit over the years, enough to learn that instead of automatically viewing things as being personal affronts, that it'd be best for me to see what can be learned from the process, as I very often may be the one with the deficient reasoning.

I've found that the more "authoritative" people have been put through the wringer, forced to think about how they arrived at such answers. But many view this process as being uncomfortable, which is why I noted that oftentimes, there are negative connotations to it and to those who are skeptics about others' rationales.


I too had teachers and professors who were like that. My graduate adviser in German History was set to retire the semester that I finished my MA studies. He had a reputation for being a "hard" professor, yet I learned more from him (despite disagreeing occasionally on methodologies) than I did from anyone else. I was thinking of him earlier this week, since his 83rd birthday was this past Sunday. I haven't seen him in 8 years now, but I understand he's still alive and enjoying his retirement.

But as for those students you is scary at times how generational differences lead to the blunting of awareness about nations' atrocities (and sometimes, their good traits). I'm finding myself hoping for someone like FDR to emerge as President sometime, as I fear the economic/social climate here is growing rather tense, just as what you're describing seems to be happening in a different fashion in Brazil.

But I think the key to all of this is experience and how one chooses to learn from experience. I know at 34, I am very different in outlook than I was when I finished grad school at 23, or when I began university studies at 18.

Mihai A. said...

An "authority" is a sum of different aspects in my opinion. I know I had some teachers that even though they were good in their field they couldn't impose their authority. So it became difficult to teach us anything because of that fact. And I think that this aspect can be true for different domains too.

I agree with Liviu on the fact that the natural selection does its work.

Ben said...


Now I understand. I agree wholeheartedly with your hesitation regarding students' statements that their opinions should mean as much as others' opinions.

I think in these times a lot of people mistake the correct notion that "everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion" for the incorrect IMHO notion that "all opinions are equal and accordingly deserve equal deference."

The best example of this that I've seen (but I'm not a teacher) is in the area of science, especially when people start trying to insert non-scientific ideas into the discussion (I won't mention any in particular). There is this totally damaging idea floating around that the things that are susceptible to scientific examination are also subject to the idea that everyone's opinion deserves a place at the table. The truth is that the scientific method provides its own way of determining the relative merits of a given idea or theory and so it is in fact anti-scientific to suggest that someone's opinion is meritorious even if it is not when the scientific method is applied to it. It follows that the opinions of authorities in the scientific community (or any field requiring lots of training, experience, etc.) are worthy of more deference than those of a person who does not possess these assets.

I am less sure about how this applies to less tangible disciplines like critiquing writing, etc.

Ken said...

So, who will the authorian leader of the SFF World Hegemony?

I must bow before my new leader.

Lsrry said...


Nick Mamatas is your new leader. You must genuflect and give him obeisance.


Science is a discipline where too many people who don't know much (if anything) about it presume they can claim it for their own. The closest thing I come to science is having a skeptical attitude about a lot of things in life, not believing the surface level impressions.


I know teachers like that as well. At times, I've had problems in certain areas that had nothing to do with my knowledge or even transmission of my knowledge of world history and English literature. Students are ruthless, but rarely unfair.

Gabe said...

Hey Larry, sounds like you read that piece at The Smart Set I posted a while ago, about "Nobody's A Critic".

I don't know how I feel about "authority". In fact, I waffle back and forth almost daily on whether it's important or not. But in general, I think I find myself leaning more and more toward James Sallis' view of aspiring to be a "man of letters". That, to me, strikes a handy balance between authority and freedom, if that makes sense.

Lsrry said...

I think that was one of the posts I did read, Gabe, but there were others, so it's all conflated in my mind right now. As for my own aspirations, I wouldn't mind taking Goethe's approach and if curious, learn something and then apply it.

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