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March 06, 2003
What is authority?

This piece in telegraph.co.uk by Jonty Driver is interesting. What does authority consist of? Why do some have it and others not?

While some have that personal authority almost as a birthright, others need to learn it. Most inexperienced teachers seem fair game to even well-behaved pupils. It takes confidence to trust the authority of one's position, even in a disciplined institution with clear boundaries.

A defining moment in my career came when I was a young housemaster. In my house was a clever and popular boy, captain of rugby and very much a hero in the school. He was doing no academic work at all, and every effort I made to cajole and - in due course - to force him to work foundered on his charming insouciance. His lazy influence was beginning to affect others in the house, so I asked the headmaster for help. "Tell him to see me," said the head.

Eventually, I took the boy to the headmaster - who happened to be weeding his garden at the time. The boy walked over to the head, who didn't stop weeding. The headmaster spoke - no more than a sentence. The boy stood for a moment, then turned away.

That evening, I found him at his desk, working. By the end of the year, he had a place at Oxford.

"What on earth did you say to him?" I asked the head when the reformation had taken effect. "Oh," said the head, cheerfully, "I told him to stop being such a bloody fool, and to get down to some work. That's all.''

And I do think that was all: it was the head's sheer natural authority - or call it personality, if you will - that did the trick. It made me realise that I had been trying too hard: what was required wasn't reason, or logic, or the apparatus of discipline (detentions, extra lessons, gatings), but just some straightforward authority.

One answer, of the sort you might expect here, is that this kind of "authority" is something that one should not attempt to exercise. And indeed, having been to one of these places myself, I can tell you that this is not the kind of school I would ever want to teach at. Very few of the pupils have much say either in whether they are there in the first place, or, once there, what they do from one hour to the next. The system ordains, and they obey, until they are old enough to be allowed to decide things for themselves, at which point many of them have had this trick beaten out of them so thoroughly that they have to spend the next five years learning it.

I know what I'm talking about with this syndrome. I used to be one of these posh but dim school leavers, and I'm now an occasional, amateur (but quite effective) career counsellor. Time and again this is the central agenda that I and my customer now find ourselves addressing. Well brought up English people are all too liable simply never to have mastered the trick of running their own lives and making their own big life decisions. Instead of truly deciding for themselves, they just do the obvious next thing supplied by the world around them. Which is okay, until it goes wrong and they find that they have to really think about what they would really like to do (because suddenly it is a struggle and only certain struggles are worth the struggle), and they realise they don't know how to think for themselves. Years of being subjected to the sort of "authority" described by the likes of Jonty Driver and his Headmaster can do that to you. Still, they mostly know how to think for other people, that is to say they know how to think, so the situation is usually quite easily corrected.

So far so libertarian. But, my libertarian duty done, I still find that the idea of "authority" means something. After all, even if everyone present at an event has chosen to be present and is not being coerced to remain, there are still some events which are bossed authoritatively, and which are thus pleasing and relaxing to be at and thus attract repeat business, and other events which are bossed badly, and hence which are stressful to attend, and those events fail or fizzle out. So, what is "authority"? How do you do "authority"?

Although the aptly named Mr Driver tells us that authority can be learned, he has no space in his short newspaper piece to tell us how, or to go into very much detail about what exactly authority consists of, other than noting that his headmaster just, you know, had it.

The mysteriously all powerful headmaster whose lightest word is immutable law is a stock figure of school fiction, and that's because this isn't only fiction. Headmasters are often just like that for real.

Why? How do they do it? Can authority be learned? Can authority, that is to say, be broken down into a decent number of understandable procedures that go beyond repeating the question by rephrasing it as "common sense" or some such vacuity?

I'm certain that authority can be learned. I write as one of those people very common in the political world who was not born with any natural authority to speak of, and who was when young mostly bossed about by his bigger and bossier contemporaries, but who nevertheless wanted to have authority, and who has gradually learned how to do authority as the years have gone by and as the experiences have piled up.

And oh dear I'm starting to run out of time. I just had a date, which sounds a lot more exciting than it was, but it took up most of the evening. So I'll call it a day for today, and start in on actually answering the question I started with Real Soon Now, and hopefully tomorrow. I don't want to rush it. Apologies if I got your hopes up for an instant answer. Please be patient.

But, I do have time to tell you this, although it's a change of subject. Education Minister Charles Clarke is on Question Time just now, and it seems he went to a posh school, not the ghastly lower class educational sewer I was hinting at in my previous posting. His grizzly grey beard, his sticking out ears and his bulky figure make him look like a night club bouncer. But now I've heard him talking, and heard one of the others talking about the fact that Charles Clarke went to a posh school, which pretty much settles it. Think eccentric barrister. That's more the kind of person he is. Apologies for that also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:48 PM
Category: Brian's educationThis and that
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