Loving Authority

I am a big fan of the work and thought of Michael Polanyi. His realism is refreshing as it is brilliant. But in this post I want to pick up on one interesting feature of Polanyi's epistemology, and show how it might be helpful in the ongoing discussion around pedagogy.

Michael Polanyi asserts that coming to know is akin to an act of discovery. In learning, some new meaning is achieved through the integration of new and old knowing into a new, perhaps-only-half-anticipated coherence. Sometimes this feels like a 'eureka' moment, sometimes more mundane, but the process and the structure of the integration are the same.

Polanyi also suggested that once a coherence is discovered (not 'constructed'), you know you have done so because you have a sense of 'indeterminate future manifestations' of that new thing. It explodes with meanings and possibilities. You might find yourself saying 'oh, that suddenly makes sense', or 'I can't believe I didn't see that all along, it's so obvious', or 'wow, this changes everything!' Polanyi goes so far as to say that any coherence that is attended by such a sense of manifold prospective impacts, appearances and consequence is real.

Authoritative Guides

I said I wanted to pick up on one particularly interesting feature of Polanyi's epistemology. It is this: since there is objective reality, Polanyi insists that our integrations can be assisted by 'authoritative guides', whose prior experience of that reality can be trusted.

Indeed, authoritative guides can lead and point and coax us to make coherence out of the patchy knowing we already inhabit. We are guided to discover something more real from our existing disintegrated snippets of knowledge. These snippets might of themselves have no particular meaning for us, or we may only have a hunch or an inkling that they are significant in as-yet-unknown ways. But once integrated, they can be seen to be deeply consequential, and - to reiterate - real.

For example, a coach might spend a long time with young players teaching the correct foot and hand position for a sprint start. The kids may not appreciate the yet-to-be-realised impact of such detail, but the coach knows and so continues in her insistence that things are done right. The coach is right to be insistent. The coach is right to leverage her authority that her students might heed her words. The coach must act as an authoritative guide. To fail at this point is to fail the students' future selves.

This is the proper exercise of authority. It is the proper exercise of authority in a school, on the playing field, in a coaching session, in the church; in fact, in all of life. It is authority that is exercised to invite a learner into a fuller awareness of what is true and real and meaningful and purposeful. As such, it is a loving act on the part of the authoritative guide, because the 'guide' has already seen more, has felt more, has been further along this pathway, and knows how his life has been enriched by what he has learned.

The exercise of authority in this way is driven by the desire to see learners enjoy fruit for their labours. It is driven by the desire to guide students towards a coherence that bursts forth in 'indeterminate future manifestations' of a new reality. It is a reality already enjoyed by the guide, and too good not to share.

Authority vs Authoritarianism

Authority gets a bad rap in our day. We have fallen into the trap of collapsing all distinction between authority and authoritarianism. And so we have forgotten that authority is a prerequisite for knowing anything at all. Only as we submit to an authority can we be brought to know something new, something more deeply, or something more securely.

As a teacher I want my learners to come to know more deeply, more fully, more personally. If I want to guide them to discover and enjoy and find delight in the grand realities of my subject, I must exercise my authority to that end. But all must be done for their good, out of love. It must be done for the love of the student. It must be done for the love of the subject.

Loving authority. The title of this post can be read in two ways. How did you read it? Does the phrase begin with the present participle of the verb, or does it begin with an adjective? For your sake and for the sake of whomever you teach (since we are all teachers), I hope it begins with an adjective.

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