Authority, when you don’t hold us any more

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« The most significant symptom of the crisis, and one that indicates its depth and seriousness, is that it has spread to the pre-political spheres, such as the upbringing and instruction of children, where authority, in the broadest sense, has always been accepted as a natural necessity, obviously required as much by natural needs, the dependence of the child, as by a political necessity: the continuity of a constituted civilization, which can be assured only if newcomers by birth are introduced into a pre-established world where they are born as strangers. » (1)

soCio-pedagogical prologue

Melissa(2) arrives late, perhaps for the tenth time. She nonchalantly hands over her excuse slip, exchanges a few words with her girlfriends, then, at my insistence, sits down at her bench. In the process of giving a presentation to his classmates, Lucien spontaneously sits in my chair, while I stand at the back of the class. I explain to her that, symbolically, she is not allowed to do this because it is my place, not a student’s. But it doesn’t seem to « hit ». At the end of the class, Amine approaches my open cabinet, scans the interior, and then reaches forward to grab an object. Here again he doesn’t seem to understand the reasons for my indignation. Explaining to him that his behavior is not respectful, he answers me « no, I did not disrespect you, sir, since I did not insult you ». Negative and minimalist definition of respect to say the least! Many young people have taken to turning a deaf ear when I call them, or to systematically repeat my words. To avoid having to touch them, I have to come and stand in their field of vision. Bad faith is commonplace, even when caught in the act. We cut each other off all the time (including me), like on talk shows. Young people are very fussy about their rights, much less about their duties, including the duty to respect a teacher, and first of all an adult. While they demand « total respect » for them, I must continually remind them that this total respect is not one-sided but reciprocal. 


This is what many teachers, among others, can learn from clinical observation of their students. We must now interpret and contextualize these observations. First of all, one cannot help but compare eras. In the second half of the 1970s, when I was a teenager, the questioning of adult authority was in its infancy. Even when we ventured into transgression, we stayed within « reasonable » limits. We recognized the difference of places: one is a teacher, the other is a student (social differentiation); one is an adult, the other is a minor (generational differentiation). If we sometimes heckled in certain classes, we kept the taste for knowledge in mind and were able to quickly change the register from laughter to seriousness; then, in our heart of hearts, we generally felt respect and sometimes even admiration for our elders. We knew that their life experience would be useful for us to grow morally and intellectually. In short, we needed them. 

That was yesterday. 

Since the 1980s, there has been a break and « something new under the sun », even if the Greeks (like Socrates and Hesiod), the Egyptians and the Babylonians were already complaining about the decadence of their respective youths. The prize for antiquity goes to this 3000 year old Babylonian vase with the following inscription: « This youth is rotten from the bottom of its heart. Young people are evil and lazy. They will never be like the youth of old. Those of today will be unable to maintain our culture. So what? Often used as counter-arguments, these « precursor’s sophisms » are irrelevant today, because we have crossed a decisive threshold, which Hartmut Rosa makes explicit: « The social acceleration present in a constitutive way in modernity crosses, in the « late modernity », a critical point beyond which it is impossible to maintain the ambition to preserve social synchronization and integration(3). » Indeed, were the young Athenians of the Age of Pericles already tapping away on smartphones? It is mainly the technological surge that has made the difference. It is to be feared that the cultural arrangement of modernity suffers considerably from this acceleration, and even collapses. Having grown up in relativism, the cult of the self and of merchandise, teenagers have lost the taste for learning and cultivating themselves, and have closed themselves off in their generational references from the media sphere (television, video games, cell phones, Internet). « What interest will the student have in obeying the teacher and recognizing the slightest authority over him or her, if the teacher is nothing more than a pawn drowned out in a technological ocean of information and communications (which is what the Web is becoming) that no longer need him or her? « wonders Cédric Biagini(4).

diet change

According to the pessimists (of which I am one), teacher authority has collapsed; others, more optimistic, think it has simply « transformed »-but what is that to say? Between those who wish its restoration in the name of tradition, those who wish its disappearance in the name of progress and those who wish nothing at all and wait to see (or give up), let’s take a closer look. In a society that claims to be democratic, and therefore drawn into the irreversible movement of equalization, authority is weakened because it no longer knows what to base its legitimacy on. In order to unify the social, there is no longer any exogenous fixed point or grand narrative — formerly religion, tradition, the fatherland, the proletarian revolution, etc. — that can be used to unify the social. -,  » [la vie collective] is no longer supported by a pre-established order that transmits rules, but by an order that must emerge from the partners themselves […] »(5). In human relationships, horizontality has replaced verticality, the rhizome has replaced hierarchy, and information and communication technologies have further amplified the phenomenon. Deinstitutionalization and detraditionalization (i.e., forgetting the long term) have done their destabilizing work. The time is long past when a Bertrand Russell could claim, in 1928, that « authority, if it is to govern education, must rely on one or other of the powers we have been examining: the state, the church, the schoolmaster and the parents(6)The first three having fallen from grace, we cannot unfortunately count on the majority of parents, who no longer represent a source of moral authority for their children, for various reasons which can eventually add up. First, there is an educational reason: negotiation has replaced obedience, parents no longer set limits and are increasingly resorting to educational coaches; second, there is a social reason: the precariousness of parents’ professional lives is not likely to enhance their prestige in the eyes of their children, nor is it likely to enhance the generally useless or even harmful jobs they do; third, there is a psychoanalytical reason that the philosopher Dany-Robert Dufour, following in the footsteps of Lacan, has clearly identified(7). The erosion of the Name-of-the-Father as a symbol of the Law and that of the Other as a mediation between oneself and the others(8) has given birth to a « schizoid egoistic herd »: a mass of infantile, egoistic and conformist individuals, whose failing superego leads to a truncated perception of reality. This generation of arrogant, uneducated and proud « procedural morons » has swindled the Kantian neurotic subject of early modernity, which was certainly dominated by a tyrannical superego, but was otherwise advantageously endowed with moral sense. It is from him that the School had conceived its disciplinary modalities. Having to deal today with a schizoid egomaniacal herd, she finds herself distraught…


It is common to hear that authority was dealt a blow in May ’68, when it was decreed that it was henceforth forbidden to prohibit. Some forty years later, teachers have to deal with adolescents who no longer recognize their right or capacity to instruct them, to guide them, to make sense of the thousands of pieces of information they are bombarded with. Yesterday the masters were (only) challenged, today they are challenged. The inequality of the teacher/teacher position is experienced as an injustice and gives rise to frequent incivilities, even violence. The perversion of democracy — democratism — and equality — egalitarianism — leads students to address teachers disrespectfully, in colloquial, impertinent, sometimes insulting language. But « how can we conceive and above all practice the educational relationship in a culture crossed to such an extent by a dynamic of equalization which makes the other, any kind of other, appear as another myself, therefore as an equal? », questions Alain Renaut(9). The definition of values is also swept up in the turmoil. The acceleration of life rhythms and social transformations makes knowledge with shorter and shorter deadlines obsolete(10). For the crisis of authority is also a crisis of temporality, as Myriam Revault d’Allones remarks: « Time has ceased to promise anything. In other words, the « precedence » that increases authority (which it authorizes) is not only due to the anteriority of what pre-exists us in the past but to the expectation of a possible future: the « not yet » or the projective beyond that gathers and organizes our actions(11)The teacher’s task is exhausting: to try to temporarily rebuild a failing authority, he or she must constantly come up with new tricks: wearing fashionable clothes, using communication technologies, modelling his or her language on that of young people, demonstrating the « qualities » preferred by them, such as a taste for performance, audacity, nerve, and even inspiring a certain fear. In short, the recipes of youthism consisting in going with the wind in order to make allies and, in doing so, hope to « pass on » some knowledge to them, often under the lowest common denominator. On the other hand, the teacher who wants to keep his or her culture on track risks preaching in a vacuum(12). Has teaching become a mission impossible?(13) ?

CoNserve rather than sweep 

In a decent society, the school would once again become a tool of emancipation for all, would oppose individualism, and would abandon the fury of performance and rankings. She would redefine her relationship to time by considering those words « that begin with ‘pre’ but look forward: premeditation, foresight, anticipation. »(14) It would deliver a new paideia, this education of all citizens to common values, anchored in the symbolic precedence of the collective. It would help students to « acquire an arduous existential lucidity » (Christian Arnsperger, 2009) and even to « develop a passionate awareness of human finitude » (Peter Sloterdijk, 2000). Authority is not confused with power, it emanates from what makes common sense in society, in other words from imaginary institutions. I would like it to be emancipating, able to provide reference points for thought and action. It also guarantees the possibility of transmission: « The authority of teachers is based on their knowledge and their function. They have above all to transmit knowledge », an obvious fact recalled by Alain Seksig, inspector of the French national education system(15). We are therefore far from the dogma of « the child at the center of the educational system » and from the so-called « co-construction » of knowledge by teachers and learners, with relativistic and demagogic overtones, promoted by this socioconstructivism in fashion among « progressive » pedagogues. If a new world is to be invented, it is not by reversing the generational order of the educational act nor by making a cultural clean slate, but by re-exploring in the past, and particularly in the modernity of the Enlightenment, what can open up new futuribles and compossibles. Isn’t this an exciting task for education? Understand how we got here so that we have a chance to understand how to get out, without hiding what is going to happen(16). To conclude, there is no good reason to change the basis of education. They will remain anteriority, otherness and authority. 

Bernard Legros

Notes et références
  1.  Hannah Arendt, La crise de la culture, éd. Folio, 1954/2011, p. 122.
  2. Les prénoms d’élèves sont fictifs.
  3. Hartmut rosa, Accélération. Une critique sociale du temps, éd. La découverte, 2010, p. 35.
  4. cédric Biagini, L’emprise numérique. comment Internet et les nouvelles technologies ont colonisé nos vies, éd. L’echappée, 2012, p. 154.
  5. Jean-Pierre Lebrun, La perversion ordinaire. Vivre ensemble sans autrui, éd. denoël, 2007, p. 151. Voir aussi, du même auteur, Un monde sans limite, éd. erès, 2011.
  6. Bertrand russell, essais sceptiques, éd. Les Belles Lettres, 2011, p. 199.
  7. cf. dany-robert dufour, on achève bien les hommes. de quelques conséquences actuelles et futures de la mort de dieu, éd. denoël, 2005 et Le divin marché. La révolution culturelle libérale, éd. denoël, 2007.
  8. Selon Lacan, l’Autre se confond avec le langage qui nous structure et nous lie, il soutient toute expérience humaine.
  9. Alain renaut, La fin de l’autorité, éd. Flammarion, 2004, p. 141.
  10. cf. Hartmut rosa, op. cit.
  11. myriam revault d’Allonnes, Le pouvoir des commencements. essai sur l’autorité, éd. du Seuil, 2006, p. 138.
  12. on retrouve l’opposition entre les « pédagogues » et les « républicains » entre autres chez Jean-Paul Brighelli, La fabrique du crétin, éd. Gallimard, 2005.
  13. La physicienne Bodil Jönsson constate que « la génération plus âgée possédait entre autres, des connaissances dont la suivante avait manifestement besoin. […] Aujourd’hui, la situation est tout autre. Les offres d’emploi dans les journaux demandent parfois des qualités qui font totalement défaut à une personne de trente-cinq ans, mais que l’adolescent de quinze ans a apprises en jouant avec son ordinateur. difficile dans ce cas d’affirmer que l’expérience vient avec les ans et que les jeunes doivent utiliser leur temps comme temps d’arrêt. Pour ce qui relève de notre époque, nous, les vieux, nous ne possédons pas plus d’expérience et de compétences que les jeunes. moins même, puisque nous sommes figés dans des modèles de pensée anciens et de fait limités dans ce que nous pouvons saisir. » In dix considérations sur le temps, éd. Gallimard, 2000, pp. 54 & 55.
  14. Bodil Jönsson, op. cit, p. 146.
  15. Patrice Huerre et danièle Guilbert (dir.), questions d’autorité, éd. érès, 2005, p. 94.
  16. cf. clive Hamilton, requiem pour l’espèce humaine, Les presses de sciences-po, 2013.

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