Authority or Authoritarianism
Last Friday at Forest Hills High School in New York, a student got arrested and suspended for five days for trying to have some fun. No one got hurt when students crowded into the foyer between classes to shoot video to put on YouTube. When the administrators found out that he had posted an announcement for the meeting on his Facebook page, they got the student to try to stop the mob along with the administrators, but to no avail. Later in the day, probably in protest of the suspension, there was a food fight. How much freedom for fun should there be in high school?
When I grew up I learned to question authority and to question authoritarianism. During my fourth and fifth grade years my family lived in Alabama. This was during 1963 -1965 and discipline meant corporal punishment, which was usually accomplished with a large wooden paddle. It seemed as if school was a way to make you regimented. You’d say the pledge of allegiance, sit in your appointed seat, do your work, go to lunch, read aloud from the Bible, and go home. It was strange how the history textbooks that we had to buy had a completely different account of American history than the history I had been taught before. During summer I got to choose my own reading material. Fun was only allowed outside of school.
At the end of fifth grade I moved back to New York. There, in 1968 even parents started challenging the school dress code. How did it hurt education if a boy’s hair touched his ears or shirt collar? Why should girls not be allowed to wear pants to school, even during the coldest days of winter? We weren’t allowed free speech and the school newspaper was censored, so the underground newspaper was passed out on the street in front of the school. We had protests to try to allow our voices to be heard. We went through many changes by questioning the reasons for the stories we were told. What were the administrators so afraid of?
Many years later, I was the one with the larger desk facing down the mob with the smaller desks. One cannot teach without a certain degree of authority. Discipline must be fair and consistent but my style is to be rational, not regimented. I am a science teacher so what I am teaching has been proven over and over again. We do experiments to show some of these concepts. I explain the reasoning behind the experiments whether we do them or someone else did them. I teach the history behind human thoughts about science and how that has changed over time. If I don’t know an answer I say that I don’t know. I am one of the students’ authorities for science. I wear a nice shirt, pants, and a tie every day. No sneakers. I provide a role model for a mature adult. This doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. Jokes and witty comments are useful to break up too serious a mood in the classroom. A relaxed class learns much more easily. I make fun of myself and students have made fun (in fun) of me without consequences. I can remember playing an April Fool’s joke where we convinced a student that another student had hit me in the eye when all I had was a spring pollen allergy. All of us have had dreary authoritarian teachers that made learning dull. I try not to be one of those. It is very difficult and usually counterproductive to try to have total control over students. Still, one has to know when to end the fun and get serious. That is an important part of a teacher’s job.
Why do some teachers and administrators believe in strict regimentation? Freedom of thought is essential for critical thinking. Education should not be a power struggle between authorities and students. Many years back I would collect mistletoe from the woods just before the winter solstice. I would tape some up above the doorway and give some out for students to play with. I would have fun telling some of the historical reasons for its symbolism. Most of all, I would use it for a refresher lesson on symbiosis. Mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism? Even though mistletoe is green, it is still a parasite digging its hastoria into the tree for nutrients. The bromeliad Spanish moss, on the other hand is commensal, just using the tree to stay out of the dirt without hurting the tree. Of these three symbioses we find many more examples of mutualism. Organisms thrive when they work together. We will accomplish the most when we have the freedom to think and work together.