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Authority to Defend the Innocent
  • Education
  • Philosophy
Jonathan Mueller

In 2005, at the age of 91, Dr. Louise Cowan delivered a lecture at the Dallas Institute for the Humanities on the “Authority of the Teacher,” a vital characteristic of the classical conception of the teacher that she argues is vanishing from the current culture of education. Cowan observes from her vantage point of over fifty years as a teacher of teachers that the “authority of the teacher is at an all-time low.... The current tendency is to make teachers arbitrators rather than instructors, and standardized testing has further reduced the role to clerk.... New tech and platforms threaten to replace the teacher, appear to render the post meaningless.” People can learn without teachers in a world of major networks and social media, and often do, but their learning will be erratic and misleading and even dangerous without a teacher. Where has the moral authority of teachers gone? When did we come to be associated more with skills than with wisdom? 

Far from maundering in curmudgeonly gloom, Cowan immediately turns her attention to a vision not of what she is against, but of what she is for.  

Our word “teach” comes from the Old English tæcan, meaning to show, to point out, demonstrate or declare. What are teachers showing? 

Cowan defines role of the teacher in ages past as follows: the presentation to a world in the making of a new generation that has been shaped by the wisdom of the past. 

Cowan says:  

Teachers are not and can never be mere educational tools or equipment, nor are they simply in loco parentis… teachers bear a responsibility to the human race not to be found in the bloodline.  

There is a body of knowledge which teachers alone transmit… only teachers represent an entire body of knowledge… they do not possess it, they are emissaries... Only the teacher approaches this wisdom not to possess it, but to channel it, to profess. 

Cowan concludes that, “The authority of teachers comes not from having a large body of information themselves, but from a commitment to the age-old heritage of wisdom in their keeping.” 

This capacity, which comes not from the ego of possession but from the humility of a commitment to the tradition of perennial wisdom, is what gives true teachers their authority. What would it take to recover such authority, to speak with it and use it well? Surely authority has been abused by many teachers, and this knowledge might make us consider whether authority should be downplayed as much as possible in the teacher. There is, however, a great danger in doing so: if teachers profess such commitment to wisdom but abdicate the authority to speak decisively from within that tradition, they will forfeit their ability to adequately protect students from error. For this is a necessary element of the teacher as an authority—a defender of the innocent. 

In considering authority, it would be too much for the present examination to outline a process of full recovery of the waning authority of the teacher. Rather, I’ll merely provide an image of how such authority is used well and in defense of those who do not (yet) have the resources to contend against the more dangerous forms of falsehood and error. This is the teacher as an expert, an authority, stepping forward into difficulties that are beyond students, where the fates not only of individual people, but schools, churches, and cities may hang in the balance. In his magnificent work of biography and cultural criticism, The Life of St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton gives us such an image of the saint who, as theologian and philosopher, contends with insidious heresies of his day, and who, as a teacher, does so on behalf of the students in his care. Describing St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical fusillade against the heresy of Siger of Brabant (and quoting St. Thomas himself), Chesterton writes: 

So, in his last battle and for the first time, [St. Thomas] fought as with a battle axe. There is a ring in the words altogether beyond the almost impersonal patience he maintained in debate with so many enemies. “Behold our refutation of the error. It is not based on the documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves. If then anyone there be who, boastfully taking pride in his supposed wisdom, wishes to challenge what we have written, let him not do it in some corner nor before children who are powerless to decide on such difficult matters. Let him reply openly if he dare. He shall find me there confronting him, and not only my negligible self, but many another whose study is truth. We shall do battle with his errors or bring a cure to his ignorance." (De Unitate intellectus contra Averroestas V.124) 

Chesterton adds, “The Dumb Ox is bellowing now,” and yet, “would that all theologians in deliberation were as reasonable as Aquinas in anger!”  

This is a powerful moment, and one that might tempt us to immediate application to a particular issue of the day. What I am mainly after here is the truth of the teacher that Chesterton so profoundly captures in this moment: there will come a time when teachers must speak with authority, because what confronts you and your students may be so insidious that on the surface it sounds deceptively like the truth. Here is an important point that should not be missed: St. Thomas can only detect this because he has himself remained so active in his pursuit of the truth.  

If we as teachers have not kept up our own practice of seeking the truth, it will be too late to begin when the moment comes. The Devil’s greatest trick is to nearly tell the truth, and thus St. Thomas knows that the stakes are high on what might seem to many a minor issue.  

St. Thomas has such confidence in the truth because he has studied deeply with those who love and study truth. He is willing to stand in the gap against heresy, not because he pridefully trusts himself, but because he humbly trusts those who came before. And he knows that he, negligible though he might be, can contend on ground that is too treacherous for children because he is surrounded by truly formidable allies: all those whose study is the truth. 

And that is one of the beauties of the form and tradition of education of which we are a part as teachers—when we walk into the classroom, it is not just our “negligible selves,” but if we are willing, we may join the mighty host of all those who have loved and sought the truth. The very greatness of the tradition entered lends greatness to the teacher, but demands humility in return, or the words of the poets turn to ash in our mouths, and the proofs of the mathematicians become the destroyers of worlds. 

Such is the danger of authority, yet such is its glory when humbly given in service to those who do not yet possess it.