Authority in a World of Uncertainty

“The need for authority is a constant need of man. For it is the need for principles that are both stable enough and flexible enough to give direction to the processes of living in its vicissitudes and uncertainties.” John Dewey, The Problems of Men, p. 169.

It is the end of another year of uncertainty in the world with the only certainty that the new year will start with more of the same.  In response to this problem, John Dewey proposes that authority is what provides the balance between “the processes of living” becoming either chaotic anarchy or inflexible oppression.  While authority is often seen as a cause and not a solution to uncertainty, Dewey proposes that without the balance that authority provides uncertainty will persist and the world would be at the extremes of instability or rigidity.  The present state of our uncertain world can be seen as the struggle to maintain authority without giving in to its constrictive excesses while maintaining a sufficient amount of order without constricting creativity and innovation.  In the western world, cries for “freedom” are often heard pushing back against the over-reach of institutional authority, while in the parts of the world based on eastern traditions “stability” is the watchword to keep the forces of anarchy at bay.  While it is an over-simplification to view every current issue in the world in this way, there is an element of truth in this explanation of the current state of the world.  What is the proper balance of authority especially during times of such uncertainty as we are experiencing due to the ongoing pandemic and other events in the world?  What are the key principles around which we can organize our own lives to meet this need and provide appropriate direction to social life in times like these?

Educational leaders have sought to maintain and establish authority to the current circumstances in a number of ways.  Many have relied on rigid provincial/state authority directives such as “We have protocols that must be followed set by the state and local boards of health,” says one school board member[1] and in doing so have sought to be open about the rationale for decisions made.  “We have done our best during the pandemic to keep our families informed and be transparent about why our team has made the decisions we have made…we have been honest and forthcoming about decisions we know may not be popular.”  Others have recognized that these efforts have often been less than ideal but are determined to get through these difficult times.   “I’m not going to say that everything has been handled perfectly,” said one board member. “I don’t know that there was a way to handle it perfectly, but I do think that we have to step back and look at the bigger picture and see that as hard as it is and as taxing as it has been on all of us, this is one moment in time that we are going to get through.”[2]  One conclusion some have reached is that the world is different and we will never go back to pre-pandemic ways of doing things. Says one superintendent, “I don’t think that this is a tunnel we’re going to come through and  say, ‘Oh, we’re back to daylight.’ We’re just going to continue to navigate this.”[3] 

To respond to this dilemma we will need to examine both our behaviour and our beliefs about what Dewey calls the difference between “fixity and in change” (The Problems of Men, p. 157).  How much are we willing to change our behaviour in order to become more flexible about finding new ways forward?  How much do we stick with our beliefs about what has worked for us in the past in order to maintain stability?  These questions have always created uncertainty and will continue to do so under the current circumstances of the pandemic.  The answer will be not in rejection of authority, but in determining what kind of authority and what principles we will be willing to follow to navigate our way through this time of uncertainty.  What behaviour and beliefs are you and your organization willing to have examined to determine the way forward and address the certainty of uncertainty?


[1] https://www.greenfieldreporter.com/2021/11/04/covid-19-decisions-weigh-on-school-officials/

[2] https://www.kshb.com/news/coronavirus/school-board-leaders-describe-navigating-challenging-year-and-decisions-making-ahead-of-elections

[3] https://crpe.org/lessons-from-remote-learning-in-six-school-systems/ (p. 36). 

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