Author : Marie Bourbonnais – CNC sister

Many years of scouting shaped her – it was there that she discovered her professional vocation, teaching. Internships, including a long spell as a volunteer in Chad working with out-of-school children, strengthened her conviction that education is at the service of dignity. She shares her thoughts with us.

The crisis of authority in education is neither an emotional shock nor a deadly path. We are going to see how the removal of all forms of authority from education is a hindrance to humanisation. To do this, we will study the relationship to authority in contemporary society, explaining the dehumanisation of education without authority. We will then look at the right kind of authority, a path to growth and humanity, particularly in education.

Today’s western society advocates positive, caring education. This educational approach puts the emphasis on listening to the child attentively and first: the child takes pride of place and gradually becomes ‘child king’. This approach has taken over the majority of educational settings (families, schools, youth movements, etc.), with the result that parents and educators are overwhelmed by the education of their subjects, to the point of wondering who has authority over whom.

The prevailing atmosphere is one of over-protecting the child and removing any educational limits or sanctions, with authority being an out-of-favour and unfortunately biased word.

Caroline Goldman, a mother of four who specialises in child and adolescent psychology, analyses the current trend towards positive parenting and warns that there is a risk of confusion between the need for love and the need for limits. In her view, educational limits are necessary because they are also proof of love, and learning to cope with frustration is essential. Limits make children feel secure and allow them to contain themselves, so they learn to cope with frustration. In today’s positive education, the idea of punishment or sanction is also called into question. Yet conflict between parents and children is not necessarily negative: love and limits go hand in hand. In her view, another current pitfall is to associate parental authority with an abuse of authority. There is confusion between recognising rights and asserting that children have the same capacities as adults. There is a need to educate about the law.

Education deprived of authority implies the difficulty of saying no to the subject being educated. To say no to a child is not to castrate that child, but very often to say no to the delirium of the impulse that may run through him. Thus, the pivotal point of education is discipline as the only word of authority capable of warding off the invasion of the drive. Immanuel Kant calls discipline effort: without it, no humanity can emerge.

Hannah Arendt draws a parallel between the crisis of education and the crisis of meaning. So educators must be provocateurs of meaning! There is a discomfort behind this no, a discomfort in setting limits. The very meaning of authority is increase: authority refers to auctoritas, to augere, i.e. to increase. So we are facing a crisis in the meaning of authority and the meaning of transmission in the world. According to Hannah Arendt, there is a risk in legitimising children’s own world by leaving them to organise themselves, while hoping to encourage their autonomy. Instead, she encourages us to accept that children are not capable of governing themselves, in order to avoid impulses or conformism.

Depending on the author, we can lead a child towards adulthood (Dewey) or towards manhood (Plato). The aim is not quite the same. In the second case, we take seriously the humanising vocation of education. In the first case, we fail in this vocation and risk dehumanising the subject. Through discipline, setting limits and exercising authority, an educator places himself at the service of a humanity that must be allowed to emerge.

Discipline is a legitimate part of a sporting or artistic activity, but why can it be perceived as a threat in education? Discipline has become a negative term, whereas it could refer to the discipline of knowledge or asceticism (ascesis = exercise). Learning discipline is about de-sensitising the child and, according to Immanuel Kant, is a pivotal point of freedom. De-sauvinising the subject means freeing him or her from natural control (impulses, natural inclinations, etc.), so discipline makes him or her capable of freedom. Savagery is ultimately independence from all laws. But laws are the means by which man discovers and learns the order of freedom. According to Kant, through the mediation of the law, education leads to freedom. For Plato, laws have an educational function; they are like parental guardianship: the law is parental.

Behind the rules or framework laid down by an educator lies the question of the subject’s freedom: does education promote or alienate freedom? The heritage of antiquity affirms that each subject is invited to choose the right teacher at whose school he or she will learn to be free. There can be no autonomy without obedience. Discipline is a pivotal point of freedom; it is the effort that enables humanity to emerge. This ideal, this aim of education is that of humanity at its best.

In conclusion, since education is a ‘preparatory teaching’ for our humanity, the crisis of authority in this education endangers its profound vocation. If children do not have access to the authority that helps them grow, they are also deprived of their own path to growth and humanisation. The right kind of authority is an augmentation, a way of increasing the individual, a means of enabling him to grow and become a human being. Conversely, removing authority from education is a path to dehumanisation for children and puts them in difficulty in the face of the lack of reference points they need to build themselves.