Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Proper and Moral Use of Power

Anthropologists tell us that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not big fans of show-offs, nor did they take well to being bossed around. For 99 percent of our time on the planet, individuals who attempted to place themselves above others, who behaved arrogantly, who hoarded resources, or who attempted to exert control over others, were ridiculed, shamed, and if that didn't humble them, they were ousted from the band, left to fend for themselves in the big bad world. You see, these early humans knew about the dangers of placing undue power or resources into the hands of any one individual.

Today, of course, the opposite is true. In almost every area of life, we elevate the show-offs, believe that their claim to greater wealth than the rest of us is earned, and permit petty dictatorships to flourish from governments and board rooms to the ranks of shopping mall cops and, yes, even classrooms. When we cringe at the excesses of the powerful, we're revealing our hunter-gatherer heritage. When we protest, rebel, and even riot, we are following an urge as old as humanity. When we rail at the unfairness, the cruelty, and the crime of it all, we are "remembering" what we were meant to be and, whether we know it or not, we are mourning the fact that we've lost the thread and have handed the worst of us, the shameless and heartless, power over the best of us.

When I make these assertions, there are always those who will object. Certainly, the powerful aren't all bad. Some of them have their hearts in the right place. And maybe that's true. There are always exceptions that prove rules, but the scientific research is all on the side of the 19th-century British historian Lord Acton who wrote, "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Despite the apologists who insist that power merely gives opportunity for the already corrupt to reveal themselves, studies and experiments consistently show that even those given temporary or arbitrary power over others behave in ways that would have not been tolerated throughout the majority of history. It's not your imagination, people who drive BMW brand automobiles are ruder. Even in small workgroups where a single individual is randomly designated the leader, that person, despite having only seconds before been one of the gang, will take more cookies, eat more sloppily, and even be more likely to chew with their mouths open. In fact, those with power appear to develop what doctors call "acquired sociopathy," a condition that typically emerges after a blow to the head that damages the brain. In other words, people in power act like someone with brain damage: they are more likely to be impulsive, to cheat, to be shameless, and to dismiss those over whom they have power. And most concerning is that they tend to demonstrate a decreased ability to empathize with others.

As educators, we are in positions in which we are vested with a great deal of power. We might not feel like powerful people in the big picture, but while we are in the classroom, there is little to stop us from commanding and controlling the children. Indeed, administrators, parents, and society at large expect us  to run mini-dictatorships, albeit relatively benign ones, in which the children behave and order is kept.  And too many teachers take this on without question, assuming their power and wielding it under the flag of "classroom management." 

As a play-based educator, I've never been interested in possessing power. I am not "in charge" of these humans for whom I'm responsible, but am rather an equal. As an adult, I have experiences and, perhaps, even wisdom, that mean that I must, under certain circumstances, take the lead, but I must reject power if I'm to do my job properly. Play-based education assumes a community of equals much more in keeping with the hunter-gatherer societies in which our brains evolved to thrive. This requires equality, humbleness, and empathy, traits that are nearly impossible for a person in power. I take this seriously. I think about it every day. I am not the boss of these children, nor am I their servant. I am a member of their community.

When power falls to me or, as is sometimes the case due to my misunderstood role as educator, it is foisted upon me, it is my responsibility to give it away to the children as quickly and completely as I can. The only proper and moral use of power is to use it to empower others. This is the wisdom our forebears had. It strikes me that losing this wisdom was humanity's true fall from grace and that remembering it is the key to redemption. 


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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