Autonomy and Authority in Schools and Society

by Greg Kagira-Watson

copyright 1988



As the world becomes increasingly more democratic, the locus of power and authority has been shifting to the people and at the same time our understanding of authority is changing. The word authority comes from the same root as the word author. To author is to create. This paper could have been titled The Redistribution of Authority to the People, because it discusses the concept of authority in generalized principles—not only as they pertain to the case studies reviewed here, but as they apply to humanity as a whole. Although the principles discussed here have equal relevance for the world in general, this analysis does take place largely within the context of education—in my review of two books that describe how young children tacitly come to some understanding of the relationship between autonomy and authority within a classroom or group setting, through an all too frequent insidious and invidious socialization process. The books are analyzed through the conceptual framework of Kenneth Benne’s "anthropogogical" authority as a proposed paradigm shift for our time (Benne, 1970). In a sense, one purpose of this paper is to sum up the meaning of anthropogogical.

“To understand” always means the ability to grasp the general in the particular, and to conversely apply principles to specific instances of their application. This translation, or the ability to move back and forth between the specific and the general, represents the ability to abstract the principles and consolidate them. Hence, the analysis of the principles explicated in this paper moves back and forth between the general and the specific as a means of consolidating understanding. The paper is written like a hologram—that is, with the whole contained in each of its parts—so that the reader does not get lost in the detailed aspects of the case studies (the story).

The distribution of authority throughout human systems of organization—from the grass-roots level of society to the highest levels of national government—has come to rest upon codes of ethics, and on the rule of law and its principles.  This starts in childhood and continues into our adult life. To be a citizen within a community is to respect and honor a particular set of “universal” rights and duties, rules and laws. Hence, I posit the idea that citizenship can be the source of inspiration—that higher ethic beckoning the community to unity—which Benne calls for in his paradigm. The authority resting upon this ethic can be "the power that allows people in different ways of life to turn to one and the same source of inspiration...[and thus] be inspired to unanimity... [for it] secures the cooperation of people who differ..."  (Benne, 1970).

Further discussion (beyond the scope of this paper) of the relationship between authority and autonomy (A&A) within adult organizations or institutions would undoubtedly uncover other dimensions of the interplay between A&A that are not examined deeply here. For example, an analysis of decentralized and participatory decision-making structures—such as group consultation—would be more developed in that discussion, though this paper does touch upon it.

In Vivian Paley's book, Mollie is Three, a classic ethnographic description of a child-care center at the University of Chicago lab school, we can observe the socialization process of a preschooler who does not yet have the social skills to adjust easily to the setting, but begins to understand some of the limits of her autonomy through recognizing her interdependence. The stages she goes through are not unlike those seen in the immature relationships among nations, so the story can serve as a metaphor for what happens to humans at adult levels of social interaction. The story is not merely a metaphor, however, and there is much to be learned about adults directly within the narrative. For example, Ms. Paley is a participant observer within the socialization process of her students. Hence, her own understanding of her own A&A is seen evolving synchronistically with her students. Respecting the life of children being who they are the age they are in their lives, not merely as precursors to future adults, she struggles with her own role of positional authority, as she becomes subject to the rules that children invent for themselves.

The ability of children to intuitively perceive the roles, rituals and rules of group behavior—and even to invent them for themselves—leads one to speculate whether something like a socialization organ is within us, not unlike Chomsky’s notion of a language organ. There may be something innate about social interaction that automatically emerges when human beings are put together, merely because human beings are always social beings. This speculation gives rise to the conclusion that individual human development can never be understood without a systems view of this embeddedness. These two aspects of human development—authority and autonomy—are examined from this systems perspective and help define our inherent embeddedness and interrelationship with others. Although some principles are specific to particular domains, systems science argues that generalized principles are independent from any one specific domain we might be examining. Elegance comes from the tremendous reach of a few simple principles. Hence, as we examine autonomy and authority within the world of children we must not get lost in the world of children—we must reach beyond it to see ourselves.

Authority and autonomy are obvious areas in which we humans have great difficulty and much to work on. Everyone resists dominance, yet everyone has a tendency to dominate. This can be as subtle as wanting to be right, by making others wrong or by discounting the opinions of others. As adults, we would do well to learn higher principles of consultation (all participants seeking truth, justice and agreement) and be guided by them. Indeed, Benne ultimately concludes that competence in the art of dialogue is the key to gaining the balance between autonomy and authority.



1.        The bearers of authority—those in authority positions—we shall refer to as bearers, rulers, or benefactors.

  • "The ultimate bearer of …authority is community life." (Benne, 1970)

2.        Those who are subject to authority over them we shall refer to as subjects, dependents, or recipients—an amalgamation of these three terms.

  • The term subjects is preferred to dependents, (or at least a necessary addition to the concept of dependents) since dependents can be thought of as objects. Objects (Freire, 1970) are considered to have been deprived of autonomy through a process of dehumanization and must thus be excluded from any possibility of accidental inclusion in our thinking. Subjects become objects when they are on the receiving end of false generosity—a coercive form of subordination (Freire, 1970).

Autonomy and Authority in Schools and Society

Table of Contents


A few words about Freedom.. 3

What we can learn about adults from three-year-olds. 4

Bad news— what can happen when parents farm out their children. 4

Observing authority and autonomy begin to develop. 4

From the specific to the general—abstracting the prinicples. 5

From “Constraint to Connection”—through recognition of interdependence. 5

Two kinds of freedom for individuals—one alone, the other in groups. 6

The difficulty of seeing and accepting our interdependence. 7

Autonomy increases with the transfer of authority. 7

Hierarchy does not preclude the distribution of power within the wider community. 7

Abuse of power disappears within a new culture of learning. 8

Responsibilities from the Bottom must be balanced with those from the Top. 8

Inherent freedoms are derived from our loyalty to those we give power 9

When the locus of power is not distributed its use can still be legitimate. 9

Self-renewing systems. 10

Legitimate power is laudable and praiseworthy. 10

Moving from constraint to connection. 11

Subversion of authority when subjects usurp power 11

A good model of authority and autonomy in a preschool 12





A few words about Freedom

Autonomy is classically thought to mean the "ability" to act independently, without intervention or interference from others—be they rulers or subjects.  For our purposes here we will define it as anyone’s freedom to act and to exercise power—be they rulers or subjects. Common use of the term autonomy implies the "freedom" of subjects to act outside (without) or out-from-under the control of some other agency, entity or authority.  Frankly, however, in a world of interdependent relationships among people this is impossible. Likewise, those in authority who wield power over their subjects often equate freedom with their own power—considering it their “freedom” or right to exercise power without due consideration of subjects. This too is a distortion, and the reason behind resentment for institutional authority. The relationship between autonomy and authority is inherent within social systems, and we must learn to think differently about them because our understanding is mostly unconscious and immature.


Just as the evolution of our thinking (the development of our understanding) has brought us through paradigmatic shifts in our world-views (Aristotelian/Ptolemaic, Copernican, Newtonian, Einsteinian, Heisenbergian, Whiteheadian, etc.), the time has come, as humankind approaches its "coming-of-age"[1] (as a species and a society), to re-think the terms "freedom," "independence," "interdependence," "autonomy," "authority," "responsibility," and the relationship of these concepts to each other.  This is just as true for teachers and students in the classrooms as it is for nations in the world. 


In the examples that follow, we see that the idea of autonomy outside authority is about as meaningless to educators as the ideology of unlimited and inviolable national sovereignty is senseless in a world of interdependent nations and peoples—especially in a world where dictatorial governments can become the worst enemy of their own people. Some higher authority must needs be, while guarding against the pitfalls of excessive centralization and bureaucracy. Both autonomy and authority are best understood through a web of relationships, in the context of interdependence. True freedom does not exist apart from responsibility.[see endnote #18] Excessive freedom is actually license and lowers itself to the domain of the animal. Collectively, the present stage of humanity’s development is quite parallel to the turbulent stage of adolescence in individuals, and it is up to educational and political leadership to help bring about the developments leading to greater maturity.  A better understanding about the relationship between authority and autonomy should assist us educators in helping bring about such a change.


Autonomy and authority have traditionally been thought to be at variance with one another, for autonomy is associated with freedom, while authority has been associated with power and control in a way that limits the freedom of those who are in some way dependent upon, or subject to, it.  Freedom and authority have been dichotomized.  Just as the dichotomy is inaccurate, the definition of freedom may change within a new understanding of autonomy, one in which freedom is not the antithesis of authority's control, but exists within the context of the authority relationship. It may be that freedom can only exist in obedience to the codes of civilized conduct, not through exemption from them.


What we can learn about adults from three-year-olds

In Vivian Paley's book, Mollie is Three, a classic ethnographic description of a child-care center at the University of Chicago lab school, we may have the opportunity to observe ontogeny (in individual beings) recapitulate the process humanity is going through as it "comes of age."  Each individual (being) goes through an evolution in the understanding of his/her own autonomy by recognizing his/her interdependence, and in the book we can see some of these stages reflected.  Ms. Paley portrays her own understanding, and consequently her role, as evolving synchronistically with her students.


Historically, one of the earliest concepts (really a "distortion" [2] ) of authority is more accurately called authoritarianism — favoring complete obedience to an almost dictatorial authority.  It may work well in the training of animals, but not too well with human beings.  This is represented in Paley's book by the development of the "authoritarian" behavior of children — expressed in the power-grabbing technique's of Frederick [3], and in Eric's control (and freedom limiting) of John.[4]  John has, in large measure, lost his autonomy through Eric's abuse of power in the relationship.  This is a dominant/submissive relationship, sometimes encouraged merely by putting children into social groups where children have to fend for themselves before they (and their peers) have social skills (such as confidence, courtesy and diplomacy) that enable them to interact healthily.


Bad news— what can happen when parents farm out their children

These social skills are of the type that can be more healthily developed inside families, where children can be taught about these values by adults and not their immature peers. Paradoxically, families often put their children into these social situations much too early, thinking that the preschool is the place where their children can best develop social skills. Ironically, this can be like throwing the seals to the sharks.  The unnecessary tragedy this sometimes poses for children is clearly demonstrated through Mollie’s story in Mollie is Three— where this one child experienced about a year of sustained harassment and humiliation from the other children before she "learned" the hierarchy and the rules within the learning environment (rules established by the other children). Her innocent desire (“Will you be my friend?”) to belong is in stark contrast to the punishments and ostracisation the other children were able to mete out to get her to conform (“We’re not going to play with you unless…”) —and conform she did. Children are unkind until they learn not to be. Mollie was put with children who had not yet learned to be kind and loving—and became one of them.


Observing authority and autonomy begin to develop

Subsequent examples of the social patterns revealed in the book Mollie is Three show this developmental evolution of the balance between authority and autonomy, corresponding to an increasing understanding among the children of what it means to live in a world of interdependent beings:

(1)     Frederick, in his subsequent confrontation with the "positional authority" [5] of Ms. Paley

(2)     All of the children, as they develop roles (positions of authority)

(3)     The children’s invention (or acceptance) of an "authority of rules" [6] (which even Ms. Paley submits to occasionally by entering the children's group fantasy [7] )

(4)     The culture of the classroom eventually developing a kind of "anthropogogical" authority which Benne (1970) [8] describes as residing in a community of learners by means of agreement (either tacit, or through consultation or dialogue). [9]

Benne’s attempt to define anthropogogical authority emphasizes this culture of learning (inside or outside of schools) and the goal of unity or agreement:

"The ultimate bearer of educational authority is community life..."  "The function of educational authority is to focus processes of joint learning upon the very issues which are involved in conflicts... The method of learning from conflict must be broadly dialogic...."  (Benne, p. 406 and 401.) [emphasis mine]


From the specific to the general—abstracting the prinicples

With these references to specific cases—in order to show the parallels in the evolution of concepts—we may have gotten ahead of the very definition and understanding of these terms authority and autonomy.  So let us first abstract a few more principles from these major concepts, explore them more generally, and then come back to the specific context of Paley [11] and Carew. [12] 


From a macro perspective it is now possible to see that true autonomy (i.e., our highest concept of autonomy) cannot exist outside the context of dependence, or interdependence, and that such interdependence implies the aegis or auspices of authority—for everyone lives within a matrix of relationships.   As Benne says:


 "We are all born excommunicated... [we all] develop through processes of interaccommodation with various environmental energies ['significant others']... develop inescapably into identification and affiliation with those human powers which support and sustain [us] during the period of [our] extreme dependence.  And men and women never escape...from the web of interdependence thus woven into the very structure of their minds and persons." [13]


From “Constraint to Connection”—through recognition of interdependence

This quote from Benne above is one about autonomy—a redefinition that excludes independence as an intellectual fiction. Autonomy exists only within interdependence—what used to be termed relative autonomy. However, interdependence does not necessarily constrain us in a pejorative sense. This new definition requires us to re-think our definition of authority as well, if we are to understand how they are interwoven.


Benne’s new characterization of authority (1970) asks us to consider ways in which the kind of "constraint" of authority experienced by Mrs. Allen in Carew's interview [14] moves toward "connection" (between bearers of authority and those who depend upon it) in order to support the dependent's autonomy. [15]


Two kinds of freedom for individuals—one alone, the other in groups

It seems to me that there are two kinds of freedom in action (autonomy). One is defined within the realm of personal choice and free-will, where the consequences of one’s actions do not directly affect anyone significantly. The other can only result from a kind of authorized joint-decision making process—not necessarily without the conflict of ideas, but arriving at consensus (if not by unanimity, then by vote) about what action should be taken within a relationship or a group.  This is still free-will, but a joint decision or group choice that can leave participants with a sense of freedom inside their willingness to abide by the decision they helped to make. “Inside their willingness”—meaning that freedom is preserved when compliance is voluntary rather than compulsory.


  • To alienate people from their own decision-making is to change them into objects. Any situation where some prevent others from engaging in inquiry is a form of violence. (Freire, 1970)


By contrast, author Jean Carew shows how Mrs. Allen's case illustrates the constraint of autonomy under the insensitive authority of bureaucracy — a constraint which undermines the bureaucracy’s own power because those subject to it will often subvert it (i.e., Mrs. Allen intentionally spills the coffee on the test papers so she doesn't have to submit them.[10] ). Had consultation taken place as the rules and regulations were established within this bureaucracy Mrs. Allen would have felt included. In a more mature consultation process she would have already been in agreement with the decision of authority when it came time to handing in those papers—perhaps having directly affected the outcome of the consultation (the decision whether or not she would have to submit papers). Granted, not all bureaucracies can be this democratic, but the need for individual autonomy cannot simply be ignored because of this. Mutiny can result. Thus, institutions should be just as interested in securing autonomy and freedom for individuals, as are the individuals themselves.


In families, the line between the realm of personal choice and the need for consultation about what behaviors might have consequences for other members of the family is often obscured. Marriage counselors have come to realize that this confusion creates tension within marriages—when one partner does not realize how his or her decisions impact the life of the other. Our unconscious patterns of behavior—and what we take for granted—all stem from our childhood, where we either begin to become of aware of the importance of consideration for others or we do not.


Unfortunately, institutions and organizations reflect the same immaturity found in individuals and marriages, and exhibit lack of consideration for their members—the same lack of awareness of the consequences that decisions have on others (members of the organization). Human beings have yet to learn that they have no legitimate freedom to make decisions that take away another’s freedom. I believe that Benne is attempting to suggest that a more highly evolved expression of authority recognizes this principle. Those in positional-authority roles mature as they consider the rights and needs of those impacted by their decisions.


The difficulty of seeing and accepting our interdependence

Benne has accurately observed, I think, that "the difficulties of modern men in giving clear meaning to authority stem from larger difficulties in seeing and accepting interdependence as a necessary and important part of human existence." [16]  Once the human condition is undeniably [17] understood to exist within a web of dependence and interdependence, however, then this new definition is possible.  Early definitions or concepts of authority tend to more closely reflect the meaning of authoritarianism, and hence can now be seen as a distortion of the term — a distortion from an unnecessary oversimplification.  For example, Illich's (1970) objection to authority is clearly a rejection of the abuse of power and the notion that authority is coercive and controlling—again confusing "authority" with "authoritarian" and imposing the above mentioned dichotomy.


But freedom does not exist without responsibility (for both rulers and subjects), [18] and thus the relationship between the locus [19] of authority and its subjects (dependents) becomes more complex than the mere obedience to rules [20] or demands, and the behavioral consequences of rewards and punishments. [21] Authority, in this context, is not invidious.


Autonomy increases with the transfer of authority

We see that authority is transferred with the transfer of responsibility (else the recipient does not have the freedom to carry out that responsibility), and that through the transfer greater autonomy is gained.  The relationship [22] in which both the bearers of authority and subjects have responsibilities to each other is what makes the definition more complex — but at the same time more understandable.  (By analogy, the modern conceptions of aerodynamics, though complex, reflect a much greater understanding of flight than the first conceptions of flight.)

As societies become more democratic [23], centers of authority and power can be seen to exist more for the purpose of providing, or administering service(s).  "Positional authority" [24] — the authority derived from the bearer's role in society (or institution) or from the degree of expertise [25] the bearer has in a field — remains as common as it was under the most autocratic circumstances.  But it is precisely because recipients of the services require (inherently need) the "guidance or direction from [a] source outside himself or itself" [26] that the more modern [27] relationships exist.  As Benne says,

 "In each claim [to obedience, or power, or authority] there is an implicit or explicit offer of service to the dependent in fulfilling some more-or-less defined human need or function as well as an explicit or implicit threat of power over him." [28]

Hierarchy does not preclude the distribution of power within the wider community

Benne declares that these relationships can be highly imperfect and limited if the authority in those relationships is not "the power that allows people in different ways of life to turn to one and the same source of inspiration...[and thus] be inspired to unanimity...[for it] secures the cooperation of people who differ..." [29], and thus he posits the notion of the necessary emergence of "anthropogogical" authority which essentially means that both sides (bearer and recipient) in collaboration are dynamically able to construct and reconstruct, define and re-define what the rules and relationships of authority are.  In spite of the fact that both "rule authority" and "expert authority" will continue to operate [30], there will need to be a "redistribution of power" [31] such that the locus of authority (or "ultimate bearer" [32]) resides in the "common life of the wider community" [33].


Abuse of power disappears within a new culture of learning

In this context, with respect to education, Benne believes that teachers and learners have the potential become collegial [34] while they collaborate "as equals" [35] and each learns from the other [36].  Self-reeducation [37] of all ages [38] is a goal.  Guided by the teleology of unanimity, conflict over what is desirable [39] is not only seen as unavoidable, but to be welcomed [40] as the dialectic [41] of synthesis which continually "renews, revises and revolutionizes" [42] the society and culture through dialogue [43] and consultation.  Lightfoot states, "Conflict is potentially constructive as a way of clarifying and resolving differences in culture and ideology between families and schools. . ." [44]  The spark of truth comes forth from the clash of varying opinions.  Conflict is converted to learning [45]. Indeed, today, in the field of conflict resolution many negotiators regard conflict as not only inevitable (and irresolvable) but in some ways desirable—as a way of managing relationships. Conflicts are not resolved, they are managed. (This stance may be somewhat suspect and self-serving, however, since there is inherent job security in taking this position; i.e., unresolved conflicts will always demand the skills of the negotiator.) This view begs the question whether conflicts can disappear simply as perceptions mature.


Responsibilities from the Bottom must be balanced with those from the Top

As part of the dialogic, one of the responsibilities of the dependent (the recipient of these services provided by the authority) is to scrutinize [47] the authority’s use of power in providing that service or exercising that guidance [48].  If the dependent’s autonomy is guaranteed, and his needs are met (in keeping with his expectations), then there is synchrony and voluntary compliance. Otherwise, subversion of authority is a likely path of struggle for him to obtain his autonomy and needs.


“What’s fair” must be clearly understood and agreed upon by both sides or there is always risk of subversion, disobedience and apathy. Without the explicit definition of the limits of power which Sennett (see endnote #17) suggests, the act of subversion can consist in the illegitimate use of power by subjects (dependents) as well as by institutions (rulers, or those in authority).

The power inherent [49] within authority in democratic government, for example, is theoretically derived from the consent of the governed, just as the authority itself is so derived.  Thus, both power and authority must not always be seen at the "other end of the scale from 'democratic'" [50].  In sum, those in authority would have no power over their dependents without the primary responsibility to render service(s).  Service is a prima facie duty.  Those in power exist precisely because of those they need to serve (whether this service is delivered or not).

Conversely, subjects have the duty of obedience to the decisions of authority (justly derived) in order that some semblance of order in society can be preserved.  Civil disobedience is only legitimate when subjects have no access to due process, for obedience is the only way to determine whether a decision, a rule, or law is correct.  Bad policies become evident over time, unless anarchy obscures them.  Through obedience it becomes obvious that bad policies are bad because they fail to work.  Otherwise (without obedience), the inefficacy of some decision may be as easily attributed to the anarchy and disobedience as to its incorrectness. Dependents do themselves a disservice when they mask bad policies through disobedience. The policies may never be changed if they are not determined to be the source of the problem.


Inherent freedoms are derived from our loyalty to those we give power

In democratic societies the meaning of autonomy within the context of authority is clearly one of interdependence, for governors do not exist without those who are to be governed and freedom cannot exist without government to protect it. Therefore, freedom might not only result from the act of obedience, but be implicit in the act itself — the ultimate expression of freedom.  Once a decision (an election or other decision) through the democratic process has been made (i.e., once the authority has been given to a government, a person, a committee or an idea), then true liberty consists in submission or obedience to that authority. Were it not so, submission would cease to be a voluntary act. Perhaps the highest expression of individual will is its surrender to the greater will—the greater good—freely.  In society, sanctions exist for those who will not submit to the rule of law.  As stated in the beginning of this paper, it is impossible to define freedom outside interdependence and hierarchy, since interdependence and hierarchy are always circumscribing anyone who is "free" to act.  What then does this mean with respect to teachers, who live for the most part, within non-democratic institutions?  (As a rule, no public bureaucracies or private corporations are purely democratic.)


When the locus of power is not distributed its use can still be legitimate

When the locus of power is not distributed down towards the grassroots, power remains in the hands of hierarchical authority. In other words, because power is a function of authority, power is not distributed when authority is not distributed. However, power can still be legitimate even when it is not distributed. Max Weber's view of authority states that voluntary compliance to authority follows [succeeds] the crucial granting of legitimacy to the person or group who commands authority (Benne, 1970). Thus, the power is legitimate along side legitimate authority.


However, since autonomy is associated with freedom, and authority has been associated with power and control in a way that limits the freedom of those who are in some way subject to it Weber contrasts authority with power by defining power as a “capacity to unilaterally force others to comply to one's own will."  (Power thus becomes illegitimate.) This dichotomous contrast presents us with a contradiction because Weber’s “unilateral” capacity within this contrast is inherently pejorative. We must consider that one’s will has, in a sense, already been given to legitimate authority and consequently unviolated (not forced), even when it causes a restriction of freedom. That is to say if the power is [A] exercised by legitimate (and ultimately benevolent) authority; and [B] subjects (dependents) have already voluntarily submitted to the relationship, either directly or indirectly [51] then the exercise of this power has the same legitimacy as its author—its wielder—whether the subject likes it or not. Moreover, in the ultimate sense, the exercise of such power is not unilateral. Power is an attribute of authority, not something separate or dichotomous to be contrasted with it. Subjects who have entered the relationship voluntarily have no reason to complain, though dialogue for change may be acceptable if there is venue and time.


It is legitimate to force someone to do something against one’s immediate will without this automatically being defined as an abuse of power since the first will already provided the right. First will is like the “final cause” in science (Aristotle), whereas immediate will can be compared to “efficient cause.” The latter creates the immediate effect, but the former set the design in motion. This “final” exercise of power is not only legitimate but hopefully for the greater good of the community.


Self-renewing systems

With the requirement of self-renewal built into the legitimate design of authoritative institutions/offices—i.e., " be criticized and adjudicated rationally" (Benne, p. 386), any pernicious effects resulting from the exercise of authority would be self-corrected by the system, ultimately.  Thus, such a system need not be considered inherently invidious.  This recursive process of self-examination and reconstruction is the answer to Hendel's (Benne, p. 390) request that we examine authority's relationship to reason, power, and coercion because here we see reason become the judge of authority.  Although power is an attribute of authority, it is always subject to review (and potential correction) through proper design.  With power as an attribute (or quality) of authority rather than its definition, authority is not "reduced an inequality of power" (Benne, p. 394).  Moreover, in Benne’s new model, Carl Friedrich's concern (Benne, p. 393) for the potential irrationality of power is eliminated, since "rationality is always an ingredient of [legitimate] authority"—by definition (Benne, p. 393). Power will necessarily be rational since it will be a derivative of rational authority. Legitimate power is always granted, never usurped.


Legitimate power is laudable and praiseworthy

Legitimate power becomes laudable and praiseworthy inside the new definition of authority—that definition requiring service as an attribute of authority.  Indeed, it seems impossible to conceive of real authority without power, and thus power becomes a mere attribute of authority, no longer the concept to which it is assimilated [52].  Should injustice pass uncorrected in the exercise of authority, however, then authority has not merely been assimilated by power in concept, but in fact. The progenitor has become the servant of its offspring.


It could be argued that voluntary compliance with (or submission to) the school system is the legitimization of its authority "over" the teacher, but without anthropogogical authority (as defined above) the teacher may play no direct role in the definition of the relationship, and may, in fact, feel compelled (for economic reasons) to take the job [53].  Even if the creation of the system reflects the teacher's participation within the broader democratic society, the granting of authority and the decision making processes may be too remote to be considered directly democratic.  Moreover, neither ensure the teacher's autonomy.  We must therefore turn to the nature of the relationship itself to define the nature and degree of autonomy — i.e., the freedom to act and to exercise power.


Moving from constraint to connection

The limits of power must be pre-defined and transparent in relationships, so that expectations are the same and agreement can be reached. The restructuring of authority comes through explication and  "demystification."  This is just as true in families—between children and their parents—as it is in schools, albeit a child will only grasp this as he or she gets old enough to enter the dialogue with parents or teachers. The limits of power must be "visible" and "legible." 


In the ruler/subject relationship, the subject is responsible to scrutinize (in Lightfoot's words, "read the text") the institutional structure, and thus move from "constraint" to "connection."  The relationship between teachers and institutions for which they work, if explicit [54], becomes like a covenant which outlines the responsibilities of both parties.  An outline of responsibilities ideally defines the fields within which each has the autonomy to act.  Those in authority provide facilities, structure, opportunities, support and guidance.  In return the recipient (teacher) agrees to follow the guidance, take advantage of the structure and the facilities and accepts the field of autonomy.  If not explicit (and if "contrary"), then what the teacher feels s/he may need to do to act autonomously may actually subvert the authority of the bureaucracy within which s/he works. 


Subversion of authority when subjects usurp power

In Mrs. Allen's case, this is exactly what happened when she intentionally spilt coffee over the test scores because she was pressured to do something (test students) she could not do in good conscience [55].  Moreover, she pays no attention to readiness scores in forming initial reading groups because she knows her own personal ability is a better judge.  She may be right, but this is anarchy and she is outside the system.


It is the "personal qualities" (skills and creativity) which are evident in more effective teachers who, thus, need to depend less on supporting institutions for guidance.  Moreover, because of their abilities, they need to depend less on institutions to grant them legitimacy. Nonetheless, this reality begs the question: “Whose decision is it, to give this teacher the power?” She has taken it for herself. Personal qualities is one of the two major categories for granting legitimacy to an authority relation according to Weber and is differentiated from positional authority by Spady. In this sense, her disobedience is legitimized, but this is a recipe for disaster when entire systems are seeking rules for order. Such continued violations, based on arbitrary opinion can destroy the system.

If he had the chance, I feel that Carew would concur with Mrs. Allen in assessing her own skills as outstanding enough to give her authority [56] and the power she has taken unilaterally.  But the autonomy and independence she might have with a "redistribution of power" [57] is reduced to loneliness [58] because she is made so powerless and dependent.  Her loneliness presents her with ethical dilemmas [59].  She would welcome [60] "community-based authority" [61] if the community expressed values of commitment to equality of opportunity at home [62] and school [63], which it does not.  Thus, presently, her faith in an anthropogogical approach to the hierarchy above her might be pessimistically reduced to the fear of a "grab for power and resources by middle-class whites" [64].  In her own relationship to children "beneath" her, she would accept Benne's move toward collegiality because she tries to "evaluate policy through eyes of little children" [65] and to "meet the child's personality" [66].


A good model of authority and autonomy in a preschool

Likewise, we see Vivian Paley, through what she describes as a gradually-increasing awareness, begin to meet the child on the level of a learner and thereby "connect" and "transfer" both autonomy and authority [67] to the child (children).  Apparently she is not restricted by the hierarchy above her, and feels its support [68].  Above all she knows she is in an interdependent relationship. She seeks to study and understand children at the same time she is teaching them (both she and children are learners), while children seek to guarantee their own autonomy by establishing rules [69] among each other, and adopting those of the teacher [70].  The rules and procedures become (for the children over time [71]) the locus of authority as Paley attempts to reduce her own positional authority role [72].  "Rule authority" is the dominant model of authority for Ms. Paley. The reader senses that Paley believes her positional authority should be only temporary in the socialization process of children, and that rules and duties, as they become internalized, become part of conscience, capable of mitigating anti-social behavior when no external guidance or authority is present. This is akin to an alter ego. When it is time, adults should step aside, realizing of course that children need to know adults are still available when needed. At every level of development there are times to step aside, so children can begin to feel their own autonomy and effectance.

Paley "makes connection" [73] with the children more intimately by giving-in to a new sets of rules [74] (thus giving up authority) established by the child. Authority is thus distributed downwards, or transferred to the new rules invented by the child, thus granting a new level of autonomy [75] to the child — not only in fantasy but in real-life.  The children gained autonomy in this real world by avoiding Ms. Paley's positional authority altogether [76]; i.e., by creating fantasy worlds with their own rules that Paley is careful not to violate when she enters the play with them [77]. Paley is not divorced from this creative process of inventing the rules, and indeed has input to the children’s thinking process as they establish their rules—though giving as much freedom as possible. In the fantasy world of play children are free to experiment with rules that do not violate the real world.

Sometimes these two sets of rules (fantasy and real [78]) get confused, or conflict, as Benne would predict, [79] and she always attempts to solve the dichotomy as he would [80].  Benne says:

 "If the legitimacy of the two sets of rule authorities can be acknowledged both by adults and adolescents, the situation can be defined by both as one in which inventing a new set of more commonly acceptable and authoritative rules.... [becomes] the goal of joint effort." (Benne, p. 398.)

Vivian Paley’s total philosophy, in sum, that "...we do need to find the logic by which private fantasies are turned into social play, and the social play into a rule-governed society of children and teachers," [81] I think, expresses the epitome of her concept of autonomy in relationship or interdependence — the fruit of a more reasonable and mature educational authority.


1. The consummation of human evolution is planetary unity—an evolution that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations. I do not equate this evolution with what I consider Benne’s unrealistic optimism that "the world is moving forward in a progressive emancipation from the necessity of any obedience to authority. [i.e.] ... freedom without authority." (see Benne, p. 389.)

2. Lightfoot's Nov. 22nd lecture, Sociology in Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1988.

3. Paley, p. 1 3. Fredrick 11 ... has his ways of getting immediate responses...", knocking over, grabbing, stomping, throwing, challenging positional authority.

4. e.g., Mollie is Three, p. 43.

5. William Sprady and Max Weber from Lightfoot's Nov. 22nd lecture. Classic example is Christopher's recognition of it: "No. Only the teacher says it." Paley, p. 22. The concept is defined in succeeding pages of the paper (page 5).

6. Benne, p. 396.  Classic example in Paley: [Mollie says,] "Yes, if you follow the rules. I know the rules, Dana, so I'll tell you what they are if you want to be a star fairy." "Okay," Dana responds softly. "I'll follow the rules." p. 144.

7. e.g., "We started with his thinking instead of my rule." Paley, p. 10. Also: "My games consistently miss the point of their games ... I cannot convince the threes [three year olds] to observe two important rules ... Suddenly I see the game through younger eyes ... " Paley, p. 69.

8. See bibliography: Benne, Kenneth, "Authority in Education," Harvard Educational Review.

9. "The two three year olds know intuitively that once they begin to pretend they become accountable to a community of pretenders." Paley, p. 4. and 11 . . . find out how children grow in connectedness. . .” (p. 32). As an aspect of anthropogogical authority, we see the dialogic of consultation change the norm or the rule: “‘You're not next on the list, Erik,’ I say. ‘I have to! I can't wait!’ ‘Okay. Go ahead if no one minds’” (p. 52).

Update: Nakkula and Selman (1991) have posited a definition of hermeneutics (derived from Heidegger’s “Being and Time”) as “the understanding of human being through ‘one’s connectedness to the world over time.’” It concerns the matters of interpreting one’s self within the web of interconnection to other communicating beings in the world. “Over time” implies a certain evolutionary perspective, similar to the concept of a maturing worldview. Whereas Gadamer emphasized the “literal impossibility of fully understanding another’s truth because of idiosyncratic differences in life history and personal experience,” Habermas holds that we each have an “ethical responsibility to create communicative contexts that allow us to explore personal and political differences

10. Carew, p. 110 and 112. She is quite willing to "spill coffee all over the test scores" to preserve her own autonomy although this is a clear undermining and subversion of authority.

11. See bibliography.

12. See bibliography.

13. Benne, P. 391

14. Carew, Beyond Bias,  p. 110. . . . she cited several examples of bureaucratic insensitivity to children's needs."

15. Sennett, Richard, Authority, New York: Knopf, 1980, as reflected in Lightfoot's Nov. 22nd lecture.

16. Ibid

17. Ibid

18. Dietrich Bonnhoffer (1965) in Freedom and Responsibility illustrates this principle.

19. Benne, p. 397.

20. See "The Authority of Rules," Benne, p. 396.

21. Lightfoot, Nov. 22nd lecture

22. Lightfoot, Nov. 22nd lecture

23. Benne points out the possibility this way:   ". . .new bases of authority that were consonate with a person centered and democratic way of life and a self renewing society [see Benne's quote of Whitehead, p. 387] and culture." p. 390.

24. See endnotes #5 and #72. Also see bottom of page 7.

25. See the "Authority of Expertise" relation described by Benne, p. 394.

26. Benne, p. 392.

27. Not that a benevolent king could not exercise the same kind of authority.

28. Benne, p. 392.

29. Benne, p. 399, quoting Eugene Rosenstock Huessy in "Youth and Authority" in American Youth, ed. by Winslow and Davidson (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1940).

30. "There is nothing wrong with rules or specialized expertise."  Benne, p. 410.

31. Benne, p. 406.

32. Benne, p. 401.

33. Benne, p. 402.

34. "If the authority relation is successful, there is a movement toward collegiality between teacher and student." Benne, p. 400.

35. Benne, p. 409.

36. Ibid

37. Benne, p. 408.

38. Benne, p. 400.

39. Benne, p. 405.

40. Benne, p. 405, 406. Also, Lightfoot, "Conflict is potentially constructive as a way of clarifying and resolving differences in culture and ideology between families and schools . . .”  Worlds Apart, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot.

41. I present this in the Hegel tradition which, although a form of idealism, Benne makes clear is not associated with "'idealistic' attempts to bless and justify all established power relations by elevating them to the status of authority relations."  p. 394.

42. Benne, p. 401.

43. "The method of learning from conflict must be broadly dialogic." Benne, p. 406. 11 ... reorientation to education as inherently dialogic and not monologically transmissive." p. 407

44. Worlds Apart, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot.

45. Benne, p. 406.

46. Implying the opportunity as well.

47. From Lightfoot's Nov. 22nd lecture. See Richard Sennett's Authority, New York: Knoft, 1980, wherein he suggests that the subject is responsible to scrutinize ("read the text") the institutional structure ... that subjects must (have the authority to) take responsibility for judging the authority figure's actions.

48. Without the explicit definition of the limits of power which Sennett (see endnote #17) suggests, both the rulers and the subjects are likely to employ the illegitimate use of power.


the subversion can consist in the illegitimate use of power by subjects as well as by the institutions or those in authority. 

49. Unless one can conceive of authority without power.

50. Lightfoot's, Nov. 22nd lecture describes the damaging aspects of authoritarianism at the "opposite end of the scale from 'democratic."'

51. Paley follows up her judgment with action (see endnote #10 and text which refers to it).

52. Lightfoot's lecture pointed out the distortion of the concept of authority when it is assimilated to the meaning of power.

53. Neither is there any guarantee that the teacher will participate, except indirectly as a voter, in the scrutinization of the use, or abuse, of power.

54. From Lightfoot's Nov. 22nd lecture. Also see Richard Sennett's Authority, New York: Knoft, 1980.

55. See endnote #10.

56. “...extraordinary skill at interpersonal relationships and interest in the individual needs of children." Carew, p. 123.

57. Benne, p.406. See text which refers to endnote #31.

58. Lightfoot's Nov. 22nd lecture. Aloneness is reduced to loneliness.

59. She is a fervent advocate of children's rights and a strong supporter of parents.... In child abuse situations, there is no supporting institution to which she can turn. Carew, p. 115.

60. She believes the Inner School should be "first and foremost a community school." p. 109.

61.See endnote #s 32 and 33.

62. She has to worry about socially disadvantaged kids having enough food, clothing and general peace of mind  freedom from abuse.

63. The facilities are in need of repair and the heating is inadequate.

64. Carew, p. 109. Because of her pessimism she might prefer a benevolent king.

65. Carew, p. 110

66. Carew, p. 134

67.See my introduction, (second paragraph, page 2).

68.She is supported by the lab school at the University of Chicago about which she makes no remarks.

69. (See endnote #7 also.)
“my words ... carry little meaning." p. 6.
"She sees the rules and regulations ... not through my words but the action of other children. "My lesson is a set of rules without tangible evidence... p. 7.
“... inevitably conform to her rules." p. 8.

70. Seeking autonomy through the "authority of rules" in which Benne says rules become the "bearer of authority" (Benne, p. 397). "We tell the rules over and over until people remember." (Paley, p. 11)
“... I hear myself scolding, lecturing, continually sitting in judgment, but this is exactly what the children want. Every complaint must be taken seriously and dealt with instantly. The verdict is to be pronounced unequivocally so the play can continue. The children do not seek that punishment be inflicted, but they want their moments of indignation recognized and upheld." (Paley, p. 83.)

71.See endnote #6.

72. We know she tries to avoid positional authority as much as possible by such statements as 11 ... but I yield to the teacher's role." (Paley, p. 12.)
      She never discards it entirely as evidenced by a child's recognition of her position in, "No. Only the teacher says it." (Paley, p. 22.) It is ready for emergencies as well as teaching. (See last quote of previous endnote.)

73. Lightfoot's Nov. 22nd lecture.

74. “... conform to her rules." p. 8.

75. "It is clear to me that when I comment less on disruption and spend more time helping children talk about the characters and the plot, the quality of the play advances." (Paley, p. 17.)
      "Children like me most when I am forgiving misdeeds, theirs or someone else's... not too strangely I like myself best in the same role." (Paley, p. 23.)
       "Often I must disconnect myself from the tableau." p. 77.

76."Children are passionately devoted to self determined goals. (Paley, p. 13.)

77. "...continually reorganize the classroom into fantasy worlds that lie outside my jurisdiction." Paley, p. 14.

78. Paley depicts the rules of the fantasy giving way to the rules of the real as the children grow older. See bottom of page 40. Sometimes roles help resolve the confusion when roles cannot  see bottom of p. 11.
(For problems her children have in making the bridge between the two worlds, see bottom of page 38 & 42, middle of page 58, top of page 64, middle of 65, top of 67, bottom of 87, and middle of page 134 for examples.)

79. “.. adults grant authority to one set of rules while adolescents grant authority to another set..." p. 398.

80. "Learning is a reciprocal process. Molly is as much  teacher as student." (Paley, p. 32.) See endnote #9.
"The difference obviously lies in the questioner not the question." p. 102.
"I must have misread the question... Do I understand the nature of the fantasy, and, if I don't to what extent does the fantasy exist?" p. 103.

81. Paley, p. 17.


Benne, Kenneth, "Authority in Education," Harvard Educational Review, August 1970, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 385-410   Benne was highly influenced by Dewy. 

See, a review of Robert B. Westbrook's, John Dewey and American Democracy.

From the review:   "Westbrook does a good job in advancing our understanding of Dewey as both a political philosopher and a political agent. The book does not, however, advance the project that motivated Dewey's political ideas--to develop a conception of democracy that is appropriate to the modern era."  Benne was working on this. Dewy supported decentralized decision making structures and participatory decision.

Carew, Jean and Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, Beyond Bias: Perspectives on Classrooms, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.


Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Continuum Publishing, 1970.

Illich, Ivan, Deschooling Society, New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1970.

Lightfoot, Sara Lawrence, Worlds Apart, New York: Balantine, 1988.

Paley, Vivian, Mollie is Three, Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Sennett, Richard, Authority, New York: Knopf, 1980