Modes of Authority and the Crisis of Higher Education

Daniel Burston

Graduate students pondering a career in the Liberal Arts are often anxious to learn about the latest trends in the teaching profession, and seek advice from older, more experienced faculty about how to address or manage their first undergraduate courses. But if they are candid with the newer cohort, older faculty are often baffled or dismayed by the changes they have observed over the course of their careers, including an unmistakable loss of rigor and lowering of standards, a subtle but deep erosion of their authority in the classroom, a pervasive tendency to devalue their expertise, and a frequent blurring of boundaries and roles that renders it difficult for them to be effective pedagogically.

For example, at the beginning of the semester, a student inquires whether he has to read the textbook to get a “decent grade.” I ask what he means by a “decent grade”, and he says a “B+”. I reply that some students could achieve a “B” without reading the text, but only if they attend class regularly and take excellent notes. Even so, I added, this approach is risky, and students are simply expected to read the book I assign regardless of the grade they hope to achieve. The student groans audibly and slouches in his chair, and many students roll their eyes or moan softly in sympathy.

Another example: a colleague with decades of experience tells a student who is dominating class discussion that his opinions were ill-informed and somewhat irrelevant to the issues at hand. He does this as tactfully as possible, to keep the class discussion on course, but the student takes exception, and reproaches the professor for posing “as some kind of authority.” There are murmurs of sympathy in the classroom, and my colleague feels obliged to remind students that he really is an authority on this particular subject, which is why he was hired to teach it in the first place.

Finally, most academics are approached, sometimes repeatedly, by students who inform their professor that they will lose their academic standing, or their chance at entering a graduate program, etc., if they do not manage to achieve the requisite “A.” The better ones offer to do extra work, but many just plead aggressively for a higher grade as if their “best effort”, semi-regular attendance, and a (more or less) polite demeanor automatically entitles them to an A grade. And though they seldom say so in so many these students seldom fail to convey that they are cruelly disappointed, or deserved better, implying eloquently by their anguished expressions that the professor who refuses to comply with their wishes is a sadist, or utterly indifferent to their fate.

While many professors have “war stories” that are much more disturbing, these vignettes are fairly representative. Experience suggests that most students nowadays are deeply averse to reading, and derive little benefit or understanding from the reading they do. They loathe candid or critical evaluations of their work, and feel that they are not really responsible for their own performance. Attitudes like these are commonplace now, but were almost unheard of  half a century ago. We hear a lot of rhetoric about “progress”  and “excellence” in teaching, yet the fact remains that today’s students have diminished attention spans, diminished expectations of themselves, and increasing expectations of professors to function as sources of solace, self-esteem or entertainment, rather than simple and effective instruction. What accounts for these dramatic changes?

Grade inflation is a part of the problem. In 1940, C-minus was the most common GPA at Harvard University, and in 1955, only 15 percent of undergraduates had a GPA of B-plus or higher. But by 2000, fully half of all grades given in the Liberal Arts at Harvard were As or A-minuses; only six percent was C plusses or lower (Douthat, 2005, 95.) While some efforts were made to stem the tide, the mean grade at Harvard today is still a B+, which means that most students are, by definition, “above average.” Sadder still, the shocking absurdity of this situation didn’t ruffle many feathers, until it became fodder for the popular press (Douthat, 2005.)

These data require no interpretation. When the largest and most prestigious university in the land hands out As like candy, only unusually conscientious undergrads will really try to earn their grades with serious effort, while Professors who still require some diligence from their students will become increasingly unpopular, and potential targets for punishment or censure from administrators who are anxious to keep enrollments high.

Closely allied to grade inflation is the widespread belief, shared by most students, administrators, and indeed, by many teachers, that the primary purpose of post-secondary education is to enhance the student’s self-esteem, rather than to impart knowledge, skills and self-discipline, or embark on a deep but disinterested pursuit of truth, regardless of the financial rewards or difficulties that this personal commitment entails. This seemingly innocuous misconception makes post-secondary education more “user friendly” by eliminating the possibility of failure, or reducing it to an absolute minimum. But this pseudo-therapeutic approach also invites and encourages mediocrity, intellectual dishonesty and self-indulgence at all levels. Indeed, it is the necessary and inevitable flip side of the predominantly consumeristic spirit in which most students now approach higher education

How did we get into this mess? To answer this question, I follow Erich Fromm in distinguishing carefully between rational, irrational and anonymous modes of authority. These modes of authority are described in three of his books; Escape from Freeedom (1941), The Sane Society (1955) and The Art of Loving (1956). As I sketch the outlines of these heuristic schemata, I remind readers that the descriptions of rational, irrational and anonymous authority offered here are not carved in stone. Like all heuristic categories, these concepts are what Max Weber called “ideal types”, or ways of organizing and interpreting data, not actual entities whose properties or development are governed by natural law. Like all such schemata, they have their limitations. But used judiciously, they are splendid tools to interpret the vicissitudes of “being-in-the classroom” - from both a teacher’s and a student’s point of view.

 Let us start with rational authority. According to Erich Fromm, rational authority is a relationship between two (or more) people of unequal  age, experience or status, where the person in authority seeks to abolish their differences in status eventually by bringing the student up to his (or her) own level (Fromm,1941, p. 186.) The person in authority here is recognized as someone who possesses knowledge rooted in their training and experience, or “expertise,” and is therefore authorized to set goals and standards that students must strive to emulate. While equality is the ultimate goal of rational instruction, the achievement of such equality presupposes respect and discipline on the student's part. In order to master a skill or a body of knowledge, the pupil must follow the master's instructions, and practice diligently. The teacher, in turn, must teach by example, providing a model for the student of how to practice, and derives satisfaction from the student's progress, because it confirms his knowledge and ability. In the event that the student matches or exceeds the master's level of knowledge and proficiency, the friction of competing egos is presumably contained and diffused by a disinterested love of the craft that they both share.

To summarize, then, rational authority is based on competence, experience and mutual respect, and entails the possibility of equality, and indeed, perhaps, of deep and sustaining friendships, depending on circumstances. By contrast with rational authority, irrational authority is designed to perpetuate or intensify conditions of inequality through the use of force, or the threat of force, and/or the use of deception, secretiveness and/or the manipulation of interpersonal relationships. Though often disguised as benevolent paternalism, such authority is really motivated by greed, fear and/or the desire to dominate and humiliate others. Instead of teaching by example, it is blatantly hypocritical, saying: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Those who embody and exercise irrational authority feel threatened by the prospect of genuine equality, and  habitually distort the truth,  though they may enjoy a kind of sordid intimacy with others – which Fromm variously called “sadomasochism” or  “symbiosis” -- to alleviate their loneliness and to consolidate their hold on power. So while rational authority promotes the growth of reason, or critical thinking, and of ethical autonomy, irrational authority tends to stifle intellectual independence and sound ethical judgment, though it may promote the acquisition of certain adaptive skills, and a kind of cunning or facile intelligence. 

Now consider the disparate meanings which words like “mastery”, “obedience” and “disobedience” have, depending on whether they are invoked with reference to rational or irrational authority. For rational authority, “mastery” signifies a degree of knowledge, skill or self-command achieved through disciplined and dedicated effort, usually with the help of a “master” who consents to share his accumulated wisdom. Indeed, that is his primary function and raison d’etre . In this context, obedience to authority entails a commitment, not to the teacher qua teacher, but to the craft or discipline, and the goal of becoming a skilled practitioner in one's own right. Disobedience, by contrast, denotes an act or state of immaturity, because when voluntarily embraced, rational authority promotes gradual progress towards equality and autonomy.

When applied to the exercise of irrational authority, however, the word “mastery” means dominance, plain and simple. Dominance of this kind is sustained through force, intimidation or deception, rather than moral authority. Here obedience to authority means abject servility, which erodes the person’s self-respect - although this fact need not be conscious, particularly when this servility is disavowed or covered up by neurotic pride and/or compensatory tendencies to idealize “the master.” Conversely, disobedience in this context signifies a healthy attempt to sunder the bonds of oppression that masquerade as disinterested care and guidance. 

Before we discuss anonymous authority, note that the concepts of rational and irrational authority Fromm outlined do not hinge on the content or domain of knowledge that is sought. On the contrary, it hinges on how that knowledge, skill or experience is imparted. In other words, it denotes what Fromm called a mode of relatedness between teacher and pupil. This is extremely important, because during the Enlightenment era, and much of the 19th and 20th century, spiritual or religious authority was construed by “progressive” thinkers as the very embodiment of irrationality, while science was thought of as inherently “rational.”

Fromm did not think that way at all. Before training as an analyst, Fromm considered a career in the Rabbinate, and was not naïve or narrow minded enough to embrace this positivistic way of framing these issues. Even if he had been, fascism shattered that misconception, at least for Fromm and his contemporaries. After all, Hitler and his followers espoused a virulent irrationalism combined with an unbridled enthusiasm for science and technology. The two are quite compatible, as Theodor Adorno, and Zygmunt Baumann never failed to point out. (1)

Anyway, to repeat, rational and irrational authority are not domain or content-specific. Whether the subject being taught is botany or the Bible, cosmology or cooking, dentistry or Divinity, a teacher may address his or her pupil in a manner that embodies rational or irrational authority – or both, in some measure. Whether, or to what extent, rational or irrational authority are ascendant depends cultural norms and on the style and personality of the teacher. And despite their manifest differences, rational and irrational authority share one important similarity. Unlike anonymous authority, rational and irrational authority engage those affected by them in a highly personal  manner. As Fromm noted in Escape From Freedom:

In external authority is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage develop. But . . . in anonymous authority both command and commander have become invisible. It is like being fired at by an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against (Fromm, 1941, p.190).

So unlike rational and irrational authority, where differences in power, knowledge or status are freely acknowledged, or even rigidly insisted upon, anonymous  authority is an attitude that fosters conformity or compliance that is diffusely present  in groups of nominal equals. It is not backed by overt demands, or by threats and coercion. It manifests itself as bureaucratic anonymity or slack conformity in groups whose members share a collective identity, or a common project, but lack a deeper communion with each other, resulting in a perpetual sense of insecurity; a fear of being isolated, or merely “different.” The consequent reliance on convention and public opinion, rather than on genuine principle, tends to erode the growth of humanistic conscience, rendering those subject to it prone to apathy or opportunism (Fromm, 1941, chapter 7). And unlike rational authority, which tries to raise the inexperienced or untutored mind to new levels of competence, anonymous authority tends to drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

Another crucial difference between anonymous authority and other varieties is that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. In Escape From Freedom, Fromm traced rational and irrational authority back to feudalism and the early capitalist milieu, when the modern university first took shape. Many of the customs, conventions and norms of academic life that emerged then  persist, in attenuated form, today – more so in older universities that are conscious of their history and traditions. But increasingly the attitudes and expectations of those bygone eras are morphing into different rituals or attitudes, or merely crumbling in the tide of anonymous authority.

Fromm discussed anonymous authority in Escape From Freedom, noting that that this, and not the fascist mentality, is the mentality that is characteristic of industrial democracies. But Fromm’s focus in that book was the eclipse of rational authority under fascism, so it was not until Man For Himself (1947) and The Sane Society (1955) that Fromm addressed anonymous authority with the seriousness it deserves. In Man For Himself, Fromm attributed the diffusion of anonymous authority to the growing impact of the market place on human values and behavior. Why? Because unlike a country fair or a medieval market, the modern market is not a place of meeting - a place where consumers know the producers of goods, appraise their wares carefully, and negotiate directly. In modern (or “mass”) markets, producers and consumers are utterly disconnected from each other, encircled on either side by armies of “middle men” whose market machinations out the price and destination of commodities entirely beyond the control of producers and consumers alike. Moreover, in mass markets the packaging, presentation and advertising of goods assumed unprecedented importance. Since they cannot trust individual producers, whose work and products they know intimately anymore, people tend to rely on brand names and labels, and in due course, image and perception overshadow reality in the judgment of most consumers.

While preferable to fascism, obviously, anonymous authority poses formidable threats to democratic norms and institutions. Why? Because it erodes our capacity to think critically, and then to act on our thoughts and convictions. And by critical thinking, Fromm meant the capacity for “rational doubt” - or healthy skepticism - not intelligence as measured by I.Q. tests. According to Fromm, a person can be highly intelligent, highly successful and still lack the ability to think deeply, freed from conventional prejudices and beliefs. The primary prerequisite of critical thinking is an emotional  ability to question prevailing beliefs and practices, which requires moral courage,  and a willingness to court disapproval or punishment (Fromm,1955, pp.64-66, pp.152-155). And this sort of clarity and courage are discouraged by prevailing cultural trends and expectations. In effect, Fromm said that by eroding our powers of judgment and action, anonymous authority was transforming active, responsible citizens into mere consumers.

The slow but steady transformation of mature, responsible citizens into mere consumers has proceeded apace since 1955. Fifty years later, it is all too apparent in the state of our news media, and its coverage of political trends and issues. Moreover, we can see its impact on university life in numerous ways. Prior to World War II, post secondary education was invariably seen as a privilege, or a preparation for a higher calling, and was associated with a certain voluntary austerity of life-style – for most students, anyway. Nowadays, it is seldom considered a privilege, but viewed as a right or an obligation, and above all else, as a commodity . Many universities pay lip service to the idea that an education in the arts, humanities or social sciences ought to pursued for its own sake, rather than instrumentally, as a means to a career. But this rhetoric is so deeply disjunctive with the spirit of the postmodern university that it rings hollow, contributing to a nagging sense of unreality at commencement speeches and other university functions that is difficult to dispel. Having turned education into a commodity for sale, rather than something to be mastered through strenuous effort, universities have become retailers that must compete for student enrollments by improving the “packaging”, i.e. the amenities of university life, rendering the life of the average student quite luxurious by comparison with fifty years ago, and ruinously expensive for middle class families. Cable television,  Starbucks’ Coffee Shops, state, climbing walls, cheaper textbooks, wireless internet – the list of campus amenities is almost endless.

What happens to the professoriate, in such circumstances? As education is viewed increasingly as a commodity, rather than a challenge or a commitment, professors are experienced by students, administrators and the public at large less as producers of knowledge, whose experience and expertise is shared voluntarily with others, and more as salaried sales persons or service providers whose job it is “sell” the student on a certain course of study, and then to transfer this agreed upon bundle of goods from the central warehouse to the student as quickly and painlessly as possible. At the end of each semester, students evaluate their service providers through Teaching Evaluation Questionnaires, an “instrument” which can make or break a teacher’s career. The effect is to render untenured professors wary of and subservient to the anonymous authority of an increasingly illiterate cohorts of students who are often ill-equipped to judge their real abilities. The result? They lower their standards, hand out too many As and Bs; a proverbial “race to the bottom.”

Tenured faculty are increasingly affected as well. Now that merit pay has been abolished or severely attenuated in many places, and raises are based on standardized performance evaluations, many tenured faculty play to the gallery to insure that they don’t have too many dissatisfied customers, and acquire a reputation which will render their classes unpopular and under-enrolled. The sad but inevitable upshot of all this is that the more we accommodate to prevailing trends, the more students feel “comfortable” in our classes, the  less we are respected by students and administrators – and the less we respect ourselves, if we are not taken in by our surface popularity and the prevailing hype.

What is to be done? There is no simple solution for our present predicament. Academics who embrace and espouse rational authority as the optimal approach to teaching invariably face a deluge of complaints - from students, colleagues and administrators alike. If the prevailing culture does not support it, the decision to live and work in this spirit requires courage and considerable risk. But the crisis of higher education in America may allow for some degree of correction, precisely because of cultural trends. After all, the waning Bush-Cheney administration was based entirely on irrational authority, and the cultural backlash to it, which is now underway, may promote the restoration of democractic norms and practices in our universities as well. And the movement to halt global warming, which is now gaining ground among students, completely undercuts our thoughtless, consumeristic orientation, prompting reasoned reflection on our past and future. The more we bring these issues into the classroom, and link them to the prevalence of different modes of authority, the greater the likelihood that one, perhaps, things will change.



Burston, D. 1991, The Legacy of Erich Fromm, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Burston, D. 1997, “Authority, Charisma and Analytic Education” in Dufresne, T., ed.,
Freud Under Analysis: Essays in Honor of Paul Roazen,
Douthat, R. 2005, “The Truth About Harvard”, The Atlantic Monthly, March, 95-99.
Postman, N. 199?, Amusing Ourselves to Death, New York: Penguin, 1985.