Resist authoritarianism with education

Our founding fathers signed a Declaration of Independence that supposedly shed the yoke of the monarchy and substituted a participative democracy with three interactive branches of management. This management framework rests on a constitution and by-laws designed to ensure that participative governance for all citizens would be sustained.

It should not be a surprise that a significant percentage of our population has maintained an authoritarian allegiance since they have grown up in a society that “professes” to be democratic and participative, but offers limited opportunities for experiencing one.

Anyone who lives in the present, rather than in the past or the imagined future, accepting diversity, sustaining curiosity and acting with flexibility in the application of values with tolerance for ambiguity, threatens one whose orientation is rigidly authoritarian. These differences lead to conflicts and aggressive behaviors like those we witness today.

There are three changes in education that would in the long run make a difference in the development of personality types that exhibit improved mental health, maximized personal competency and minimized need for aggressiveness.

Change will not occur unless there is awareness that the present system needs changing. That requires an education about education, seldom available for the lay public or educators who depend upon the system for their livelihood and certainly not for the business community or the political establishment. There seems to be a common view that things will come unhinged if we do not conduct schooling essentially the way we have always done it.

It will take time for change to occur. In the meantime our way of life is being challenged by authoritarianism, and the ideals of our democracy are at risk.

We first need to consider a redesign of the structures and practices of the public school that would feature three branches of governance: an instructional branch, a management branch and a quality assurance branch, each with defined roles and responsibilities. All branches would be guided by updated and validated assumptions about: 1) individual human development and behavior, including learning, 2) communication and group processes, including group development, and 3) the nature of knowledge in six “realms of meaning,” each featuring processes for creating knowledge and communicating insights that would be engaged by learners. These assumptions would embrace the far-reaching significance of general systems theory with particular emphasis on systems design as learning and systems analysis for outcomes evaluation.

The second change involves the implementation of what is known about group development. Groups, like individuals, develop through an invariant sequence. The first stage of group development is called dependency. This is a natural stage when individuals are first brought together as a group with little understanding of what to expect from those in charge.

Within authoritarian structures, groups are maintained at a dependency level through controls and arbitrary standards imposed on the group’s activities. Only if allowed will a group move to the next level called independence.

The stage of independence emerges when individual members are encouraged to honestly share their independent views or opinions. One rule for conflict resolution needed at this stage is the proposition that each person has a legitimate personal position that is to be understood and shared, not ridiculed or quashed. Learning to accept this rule provides the basis for living together peacefully, even when different views and experiences prevail.

Differences in individual positions must be worked through to an acceptance of their legitimacy by constructively challenging/confronting behavior when found to be rigid, prejudiced or illogical. When this occurs in early years of schooling, orientations are put in place that result in improved mental health and personal competence.

The third level of group development is called consensual validation. This level is achieved and sustained when each member of a group feels appreciated and is willing to exchange views until consensus is reached. This level of communication is most rewarding and it results in maximizing individual and group problem solving and productivity. Seldom has the public experienced this level of group development, but when they have, it leaves memories of sheer exhilaration and personal satisfaction.

Given the tradition of departmentalization in schools, even within the so-called self-contained classroom, instruction is designed to convey to students predetermined information offered during short time frames, making mature group development a limited prospect. Unless the basic organization were to change to allow the time required for sustained group activity, groups in our schools will remain at the dependency stage and participants will remain dependent on authorities, potentially for the rest of their lives.

The third change involves the creation of an electronic diary that documents the essence of each individual’s experiences over time, maintained throughout schooling and beyond, that shows what was actually done with those experiences in a systems format. Such a diary, managed by the individual learner under the watchful eye of an adult facilitator, would travel with the learner to be used in sharing oneself with others, in facilitating continued self-education and in contributing data for research in improving the quality of education. This diary addresses performance objectives that relate to self-understanding, to the development of wisdom and to maintaining a personal orientation that reflects sound principles of mental health.

The rigid authoritarian personality poses a serious threat to this country and its citizens. It has the potential to move us back to a monarchy much like the one we separated from as a result of the Revolutionary War. Prevention of this movement will require a level of courage like that of the founding fathers to bring about the changes needed in society that are linked to the public school.

The public school is a social institution that is at the heart of every community. When it becomes a business proposition or an authoritarian structure that serves the needs of those with authoritarian tendencies, we risk the loss of an institution that is assigned to develop the unique abilities of every member of the community. If we do not act soon to make significant changes, it will be too late.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.