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You are HERE >>  Miscellaneous : Educational Policy
Target Audience : Parents, Educators and all Students

 
 Authority and Education
by Marissa K. Lingen
October 1, 2000

What qualifies us to talk about any given issue? When are people justified in forming an opinion, and when should they admit they know nothing, and shut up? In short, should we ignore a well formed, logical opinion, which may be a useful way of looking at something from a unique perspective, because its proponent does not have traditional qualifications?

The way I ask that question makes it fairly clear what my answer will be: no way. If someone has a good idea, it doesn't matter who the person is or what pieces of paper hang on his or her wall. On the other hand, there are times when the pieces of paper signify meaningful learning and achievement, and radically increase the chances that the person will have a good idea on the topic at hand.

Education is a tricky field to deal with in this way. There are education professionals of varying types-- administrators, classroom teachers, specialists of all kinds-- who work for the educational establishment. It seems clear that teachers can and should give each other and the rest of us their insights on education. But the best teachers aren't making arguments from authority when they do so. The best teachers will site practice as well as theory when they give their opinions.

Are teachers and administrators the only people who are qualified to speak on education? Some of them would say yes. In fact, some teachers will brush aside parents and other concerned parties in any discussion, saying things like, "Do *you* have a degree in education?" and "When did you become an educational professional?"

No one should ever accept this. If the supposed educational professional has a good reason for his or her position, he or she should be willing to share it, rather than standing upon his or her diploma.

Parents sometimes have this problem-- but they also sometimes create it. Five minutes after bemoaning the fact that nobody takes interest in the schools any more, they are coldly inquiring of the rest of us when we had the children who would (presumably) induct us into the secret club of Those Who Know Anything about education.

I'll tell you a secret: everyone was a kid, or else they still are. What? you may say. Is this supposed to be profound? Evidently. We have all been through some portion of our education. Teachers get to be viewed as hardened combat veterans-- and in many ways they are. But the students are, too. We have all been through the trenches on this one, and we need to discuss what did and didn't work from as many personality types and interest areas as we can find. For any adult with experience in his or her own education and how it affected professional life, there's a kid who could benefit. One of the problems with our society is that education is too rarely discussed as a matter of great importance to everybody, not too frequently.

I'm not surprised that childless adults are told that they don't know anything about education, because children are told that they don't know anything about it, either. It's heresy to suggest that a child should have input on his or her own education, that a child should get to study what is interesting rather than what is on the list. The fact that it is the child's life gets trumped by the existence of an authority figure. Of course, adults have had the chance to become better informed than children. (Many adults haven't used that opportunity, but that's another story.) But their wisdom does not stem from being adults, or parents, or educational professionals. It comes from considering the issues at hand, with experience of the systems of interest and the specific child in question.

Whenever people resort to the idea of the argument from authority, they have gotten in an argument that can't be won. For example, say that someone tells me that I, a mere non-parent, cannot possibly know what I am talking about, since this person has a two-year-old and I do not. Fine. If I quote my friend who has three kids, or my mother who has twenty-some-odd years of parenting experience, do I trump the authority of raising a two-year-old? Does the other parent's experience become invalid? Of course not-- but neither does mine. Similarly, we can follow the chain of school authorities up to the people who head the departments of education at the most prestigious universities in the country. But if they can only back up their arguments with their diplomas and not with logic, their advice won't be worth anything more than mine is.

Nearly everyone agrees that education of children is vital to any society. If we allow fewer, rather than more, interested parties into the discourse on the topic, we will lose good ideas that might give the next batch of children a better experience than we had ourselves. If we wait until we have children who have been through the school system, we have lost precious time and possibly damaged the creativity and joy in learning of thousands of children-- who are no less important for not being ours.

Submitted by: Copyright © Marissa K. Lingen  I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science fiction and technical writing. I recently stopped being a nuclear physics graduate student with Lawrence Livermore National Labs. Last spring I won the Isaac Asimov Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction Writing.  Send a note to Marissa

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