Authority and Docility

Authority and Docility

Exploring Charlotte Mason’s Third Principle of Education

In this blog series, writer, teacher, and mother Tessa Carman explores the Twenty Principles of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy and their relevance in classical education.

“The principles of Authority on the one hand and Docility on the other are natural, necessary and fundamental.” –Charlotte Mason

In a liberal democratic age, the question of authority and obedience is fraught. At first glance, it seems clear that such principles are necessary for any functioning society or institution, but also that there must be limits to both authority and obedience. In our time, authority is often confused for power, and obedience is confused for servility. How do we distinguish true authority and obedience, in society in general, and in educational settings in particular?

If your children are playing in the backyard and a stranger appears and starts ordering them about, you would be right to say, “You have no authority to do that!” But if your child is about to cross the street and a policeman is directing traffic, we would understand and submit to the authority of the policeman. And this would not be because the policeman is a better human being than we are, or than our children, but simply that he is in a position of authority—that is, he has an office to carry out, and so he does his duty, just as we do ours in obeying his go-ahead and stop signals. He would go beyond his authority were he to go beyond his duty: he is not your child’s teacher nor your child’s parent, so if he directed your children beyond matters pertaining to traffic lights and basic public safety, he would be misusing his authority, and your child would have no obligation to obey.

In a similar way, if Miss Smith comes to your house to give your children lessons in croquet, she would indeed have authority as a teacher to fulfill her obligations to her students; the students in turn have an obligation to follow her instructions.

But if Miss Smith should tell the children, “Now, go down to the river and jump in, swim across, and then hop on one foot!” this would be a trespass on your parental authority as well as an abuse of her own authority.

Her case is the same for all human authority, as well as human obedience: it has limits. There are always limits that an earthly authority ought not cross. There can be no legitimate human autocrat, no wielder of absolute power, whether parent, teacher, or politician. Similarly, there are limits to obedience; to obey Miss Smith even if she is abusing her authority would be to become servile, or in Charlotte Mason’s term, subservient.

Charlotte Mason notes that we first need to understand the nature of authority and where it ultimately comes from. For Mason, a Christian, absolute authority is located in God alone. We can speak more broadly here and locate authority in the Good (or, if you like, the Tao). Human authority, then, is always deputed authority. No person has a right to arbitrary rule.

Charlotte Mason observes that authority and docility—that is, teachability—are not only important principles for running an institution, but they are also natural—you don’t have to teach authority and teachability, for they are principles already inherent in human persons and society. If your children don’t follow your authority, they will surely follow some other authority—whether good or bad.

Second, obedience and authority are necessary—we can’t flourish without them. The habit of obedience to authority is part of the fundamental discipline a child needs. And obedience and authority are fundamental—a proper relationship between the two comes prior to many other principles of human life.

Simone Weil notes similar principles in her essay The Need for Roots: Some of the highest needs of the human soul, she says, are order and liberty, obedience and responsibility. The highest form of obedience—that is, its proper form—Weil notes, is based in “consent,” whereas to obey out of “fear of punishment or hope of reward” is mere servility. The reason to obey authorities is because it is the right thing: If a person, such as a teacher, is placed in authority, then that teacher has a responsibility to carry out her office well; her students in turn have a duty, an obligation, to obey.

We rely on authority to order our lives. Mason cites Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man: “Order is Heaven’s first law,” and adds that “order is the outcome of authority.” (We may note here that Weil calls order “the first of the soul’s needs.”) To have (deputed) authority means to have an obligation—an office—to see things are done as they ought.

Every legitimate human authority must be under authority himself. As Weil says further on: “those who command, obey in their turn.”

To learn to obey means to learn to heed the voice of Right. If we can only listen to the voice of Desire or Pleasure, we’d hardly know how to get up in the mornings. But if our children—and we—know how to obey properly, when there is no external voice telling them what to do, they will be trained in how to obey Right over their own passions, and over the fashions of the day.

Next time, we’ll look at some of the specific responsibilities and limits of parental and teacherly authority.


Tessa Carman writes from Mount Rainier, Maryland.

Image: Jan Steen, School Teacher, oil on canvas, c. 1668,  www.wikiart.org

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