When I was in graduate school in the early 2010s, I worked in a campus writing center as a peer tutor for undergraduates. By then, it had become trendy to instruct tutors not to write on the papers of those seeking tutelage. Correcting poor structure, unsubstantiated ideas, incorrect grammar and confusing sentences was replaced with talking through the student’s experience of writing in a way that might or might not address these basic tenets of written expression.
The effect was to defer to students’ ostensible self-actualization, and to teach them absolutely nothing.
I was a competent writer precisely because the people who taught me to write — first my dad, then my high school teachers and writing center peer tutors, and finally some of my college professors — had torn my papers apart without worrying about my sense of “ownership” over my writing.
Often, they used the red pens that are now verboten (they’re seen as too harsh). They forced me to revise, rewrite, re-conceive and revise again. I knew that I could give my students the same gift that I had been given by doing the same with their papers. I was comfortable wielding that authority — and did wield it as a writing instructor in the classroom, where, in the early 2010s, authority was still permissible. I was comfortable doing so because I had been given the tools by those who had competently and confidently wielded similar authority over me.
Unfortunately, many educators at every level today appear both personally and ideologically opposed to authority.
As a result, rampant disorder, violence toward students and teachers, abysmal test scores and a truancy problem are just some of the issues facing schools across the nation. Even if we had both the resolve and the resources to fix these issues that have become ever more prevalent since the ill-advised school shutdowns that teachers unions demanded in 2020, doing so would prove both costly and difficult. But it could be done.
However, without an accurate understanding of the real issue undergirding this descent into chaos, even resolve and resources would get us nowhere. It is the abdication of parental, institutional and societal authority that has wrought this exponential growth in violence, mediocrity and insubordination.
The devolution begins innocently enough.
“Gentle parents” excise the time-honored answer “Because I said so” in deference to their children’s sense of self-determination. Instead of relying upon their natural authority, they offer children softer reasons for their every directive. But the truth is, there is value and truth in “Because I said so” and other ways that this imperative can be expressed. It means: “I am the adult, and you are the child; I am vested with intrinsic authority borne of my experience, and you are not.”
Schools, for their part, enact so-called “restorative justice” and cease to punish or even note instances of mild antisocial behavior. Because children will do what they can get away with, mild negative behavior grows into manifestations that are not so mild. But, having committed to the ideals of “restorative justice,” those teachers and administrators who are ideologically motivated are loath to admit their mistake. So, they tolerate chaos — which, of course, disserves their neediest students most of all — in the name of equity.
Meanwhile, those teachers and administrators who ignore the activists and teachers unions pushing restorative justice policies, and are instead guided by common sense, are willing to reintroduce the basic premise of punishment for misbehavior — which worked just fine until we stopped using it, with the entirely predictable result of more and more significant misbehavior. But they are fighting an uphill battle. They must contend with both homes and educational institutions populated in ever-greater numbers with adults — parents and teachers alike — who shy away from wielding any authority over children.
The disposition to authority is often derided as authoritarian or uninterested in children’s development. But nothing could be further from the truth. People formed under just authority, both parental and educational, grow up capable of wearing the mantle of adult authority with justice and humility themselves. Meanwhile, those not accustomed to being told what to do are reluctant to tell others what to do. They haven’t learned how. And, if they try, they may be, by turns, weak, capricious or unjust, thereby fulfilling their own negative notions of what it means to be in charge.
Given this misunderstanding about what authority is and why it’s needed, it is no surprise that growing numbers of younger millennials and Gen Z-ers are fragile, anxious and unprepared for adult life. Their limitations attest to the results of our experiment in the abdication of ever more sources of authority.
The way to fix things is to bring that authority back. Then maybe we will have a prayer of once again producing greater numbers of people with the ability to do the same. I hope we can restore authority before it’s too late. Civilization depends on it.
Elizabeth Grace Matthew is a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum, a Young Voices contributor and a regular opinion contributor at The Hill.