Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom by Mano Singham

I feel that whatever subject we are assigned to teach, an underlying goal should be to also prepare students to be active participants in a democratic society. And yet, it is undoubtedly the case that during the most formative period in their lives, K-16 education, young people are immersed in an authoritarian system that gives them little control or decision making powers. In short, we seem to be training them to think of authoritarian systems as the norm. I was very much guilty of being part of that system until I started reading about the nature of education and after that I proceeded to change my teaching practices to make them as democratic as I could.

I tried to understand how and why our classrooms have become so authoritarian and felt that it was symptomatic of the breakdown of trust in the student-teacher relationship. I wrote about that and the changes I made and my experiences in an article that I published in Change Magazine, vol. 37, no.3, May/June 2005, p. 50-57.

Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I went to a quite small colllege and majored in Electronics Technology, which was a small department in my college. There were only three instructors, and I think even the largest class had less than 30 students, so syllabi were either minimal, or replaced by verbal instructions.
    But as to authoritarianism in the classroom, I got quite an amazing education in that. As per usual, everyone entering ET had to take Intro to Electronics 101. I had grown up in my dad’s TV repair shop, so I breezed through this class, but for others this was all new and occasionally somebody struggled with a concept. When this happened, the instructor was a jerk. He sneered at them for not immediately grasping the idea and accused them of insufficient dilligence in their homework. If you are familiar with Harry Potter, this guy was Professor Snape to a T.
    Naturally, when the second semester began, about half our classmates had dropped out, including the only woman. But then something amazing happened: Professor Snape morphed into Professor Dumbledore! Smiling, warm, alway patient with questions, it was Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyl. Finally, I realized what was going on. He had a philosophy that half the people interested in his subject were weaklings who couldn’t handle it and he wanted them gone ASAP. The idea that some, or even most, of these dropouts might have been genuinely interested in electronics and could have become good at it if they had patient help with these unfamiliar concepts, either never occurred to him or he rejected it out of hand.

  2. Erk1/2 says

    I just started formally lecturing this January, though I’ve been teaching lab techniques to high school students through to MDs for most of my time in research. If one of my current students doesn’t get a concept, I try to figure out if I could have explained it better. Trying to explain it in terms a less-experienced person will understand is what I’m constantly thinking about while making lecture slides. I’m also not big on being called “Dr. Erk”

  3. Mano Singham says


    I think the best thing any teacher can do is to try and remember what it was like to learn the material when you first encountered it, to ask yourself, “What would someone seeing this for the first time have difficulty with?” That is not easy. It takes practice. Once we have learned something all the rough edges that we encountered when we were learning disappear and it all seems so easy.

  4. Mano Singham says


    Yes, I too have encountered colleagues who seemed to feel that their job was to weed out those whom they felt could not cut it, without taking into account that some may just be unfamiliar with it at the beginning.

  5. Bruce says

    I would imagine that, decades ago, a student with a complaint might speak with the department chair or the Dean, and be told that this is a community and that things should be settled informally. I would then imagine that this kindness would intimidate the student into dropping their complaint. But at some point, some student somewhere effectively said: your lawyers will be hearing from my family’s lawyers. After that, the school administration and most faculty adopted the legalistic formulations you describe, perhaps over more decades. Students got used to seeing this in all courses, to the point they wouldn’t even notice if one prof didn’t say the rules legalistically.
    In your breakthrough seminar course, with no syllabus, if you had surveyed the students the week before grading came up, I’d bet a majority would say that your syllabus was just as legalistic as everyone else’s, even though you had no syllabus. They would have assumed they had forgotten to read it but that it surely was like all the others.
    If all courses ran like that one, I think it would go fine in 99.9% of cases. But eventually, a student from a legalistic family would have a complaint, sue, and win.
    A prof in such a case has a choice, or their Dean does. Either adopt legalistic syllabi or let lawyered students win. If word gets out that a student can get an A by taking a course from the nice prof, suing, and winning, then some students will do that.
    So I think the question is if the prof and their Deans are willing to accept a few losses to remain non-authoritarian, or if the admin will force each nice prof to obey legal guidance.
    I think the Mano community approach is the better path, but I can’t tell a prof without tenure to risk becoming unemployable for it. I see no easy answer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *