The seductive illusion of power’s efficacy

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.)

To understand the dynamics at play when governments take on guerilla groups and insurgencies, it requires a look at the role that perceptions of power play.

People often quote the Bible passage that “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) but I think Paul, the author of that document, was mistaken about this (as he was about so many things), and that it really should be the love of power to which we should assign blame. After all, beyond a certain point, money does not meet any actual physical needs and I suspect that it merely serves as a concrete and measurable index, a proxy measure for the more elusive and abstract concept of power. Except in highly circumscribed hierarchical organizations, it is hard to tell who has more power and who has less. But money provides a way. People with more money are usually perceived as more important, more powerful, and have more status, than those with less.

Power has the ability to seduce a person into thinking that acquiring more of it will enable them to more easily solve their problems and achieve their dreams. In seeking it, people lose all sense of proportion and reason, tempting them to overreach, and in the end, destroying them. Shakespeare’s explored these themes in two great tragedies, Macbeth and Richard III, showing how acquiring great power ultimately caused those two ambitious but flawed people to stumble and fall.

Power is so seductive that few can avoid succumbing to its allure. Is there any one of us who has not daydreamed of what we could do if we had total power over our circumstances and could make people do what we wanted them to? Even those people who want to do good easily fall into thinking that what they need is more power to achieve their worthwhile ends.

Fortunately, few of us actually possess much power over others but in those few situations where we mistakenly think we do, a little reflection would show us that depending on power to achieve our ends is actually harmful.

The first situation is that of parents and children. Parents think they have power over their children and in a limited sense they do, especially when their children are very young. They can make them eat their spinach, go to bed at designated times, sit in a corner when punished for doing something wrong, practice the piano, and so forth. But children can rebel, especially after they reach adolescence, and parents who try to over-reach and think that they can force their children to think in a certain way or to have certain values are deluding themselves. As soon as their children grow up and are no longer under their control, they will do what they want, often deliberately going counter to their parents’ wishes just to assert their independence.

Teachers are another group that sometimes think they have a lot of power. Because teachers are put ‘in charge’ of classes and can take disciplinary action and assign grades, they too tend to think that they have more power and influence over their students than they actually do. Yes, teachers can make students do certain things such as work problems, read papers, write essays, and so on. Teachers can even force students to parrot certain opinions and express a particular point of view. But teachers cannot force their students to change their minds about anything, and any teacher who tried to do so is, like a parent with adolescent children, acting delusionally.

I have taught for a long time and have realized that I have very little real control or power over students. The only influence that I have over them is what they are willing to voluntarily grant me and I believe that this is true of any relationship. We may be able to force people to take specific actions and to do certain things, but we cannot change the way people think or make them learn or like what we make them do.

This is why I am always amused by the efforts of those self-appointed protectors of students (like David Horowitz) who seem to see students as delicate hot-house flowers, and are fearful that ‘liberal’ college instructors are brainwashing these intellectually fragile and highly impressionable students away from ‘conservative’ values, whatever those may be. Such ideas about student naivete and impressionability could only be held by someone who has never really taught students or, more importantly, listened to them. It is quite possible that a few college instructors do try to do what he alleges, although Horowitz has a history of making such allegations without evidence to back them up, leaving him with no credibility. But has there been any evidence that even if these rare instructors do exist, that they are effective?

Let me be perfectly clear about this important distinction concerning power. We can, if we wish and had sufficient power over others, make them jump through hoops and we can demand external conformity (though speech and action) to whatever we want. But we have no control over people’s internal processes. We cannot force changes in their thinking and we cannot make them like doing whatever we force them to do.

Any experienced and reflective teacher knows that the more you try to force students to change their minds, especially over things they care about, the more likely you are to actually strengthen their existing beliefs. This is why the goal of my own teaching is not to change students’ minds about anything. My goals are instead (1) to make them understand and be able to articulate and use whatever knowledge serious scholars in the field have learned about the topic at hand, and (2) to help students better understand why they believe whatever they believe. In the process of achieving that deeper understanding of the subject and of themselves, students may change their minds (just as I may change mine due to my interactions with them), but that is an incidental outcome of the learning process.

In their book Power in the Classroom (1992) Virginia Richmond and James McCroskey emphasize that students have more power than we realize, and that the more we try to exercise direct authority, the more likely it is that they will devise ways to thwart us, leading to reduced learning. As they say “[P]ower can be used effectively to get people to do what we want, so long as (a) we are willing to watch them do it, and (b) we do not care what they think of us [or the task] afterward. Both of the above conditions are seldom present outside of prisons.” (p. 102)

This does not mean that teachers have no power at all. It means that they should realize that the power they have is not over students’ minds, but over the conditions under which students learn. Teachers can use their administrative power to create environments that are conducive to learning by, for example, giving students more choices and control over what they learn and how they learn. Teachers can also adjust their teaching styles to make the classroom more interactive and engaging and the material more interesting, while maintaining course requirements and standards. This is the only kind of power that teachers can use and should use. And used wisely, it can result in the only worthwhile goal of education, which is to make students more curious about the world around them, more able to pose meaningful questions about that world, and more adept at seeking answers.

We all have actually very limited power over other people. The more we realize this inherent limitation, the more effective we become in using that limited power to achieve worthwhile ends. Conversely, those who have an inflated sense of the power they have and what raw power can achieve, and seek to achieve results using power alone, are doomed to disastrous results.

Nowhere are the destructive consequences of following the siren song of power more visible than in the political arena.

Next: The consequences of power hubris in the Middle East.

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