Crises of authority are crises of resilience

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15 November 2021

The consequence of resorting too often to potestas is that auctoritas is lost

By Xavier Ureta

Through the media and social networks, we have recently witnessed a kind of chaos in the behaviour of the youngest members of the public: street drinking (called botellones, in Spain), clashes with the police, gratuitous aggression, and a long etcetera that everyone is well aware of. Let it be clear that I have no desire to generalise, as I know quite a few very healthy young people. However, there is a worrying and growing trend of such behaviour.

Facing this, the question I hear among my friends is along the lines of “are we going crazy, or what?” The issue is not easily solved because its causes are multiple and complex. Evidence allows us to affirm that we live in a world in which the measure of things is based on the parameters of hedonism, false idols, aggression (sexual, xenophobic, homophobic, etc.): gratuitous violence.

We live in a world in which the measure of things is based on the parameters of hedonism, false idols, aggression and violence.

The out-of-control capitalism is added to such an environment. It leads young people to want everything and at any moment, despite the context of job insecurity and the growing vulnerability of the basic needs of many families. In the face of these truisms, one can begin to understand the contemptuous response against the world of many young people. This “quite a few young people” is not globalising: it is of proximity, the youth that touches us closely.

Another manifestation of this “being against the world” we observe is intolerance to frustration when they are denied something that does not benefit them in the opinion of those responsible for their education. This attitude involves questioning authority, both in the family and in their interaction with society (school, sport, law enforcement, etc.). It is in this area of authority that I will focus on this contribution.

Is our society suffering from a crisis of authority?

Before I continue, I pause in my discourse to return to what I have already written on authority on several occasions. In ancient Rome, two words were used to refer to authority: auctoritas and potestas. The first, auctoritas, is of moral order, i.e., which someone earns to recognise his personal and ethical prestige. Potestas, on the other hand, is that obtained by position (kinship, political, police, school, etc.) and, therefore, we would speak of a formal authority, which is based on rules, laws, regulations, etc.

Auctoritas, is of moral order, which someone earns to recognise his personal and ethical prestige. Potestas, is that obtained by position it is a formal authority, which is based on rules or laws.

Avoiding reductionism, I am aware that the causes of the problems raised at the beginning of this paper are, as I said, very complicated. However, I wonder: what is it that causes young people to detest authority, in general? It is probably the consequence of resorting too often to potestas because of the loss of auctoritas. In many cases, rulers do not set the example expected of a public servant and hide it under the hardening of laws in the social and political sphere. That is just power, formal authority. In the family and school scopes, which are the areas of interest in this opinion space, moral authority is not lost by neglecting: in many cases, because of ignorance or the disorientation with which we are daily bombarded by the media (websites, networks, opinion leaders, etc.), with “good” approaches to pedagogy and psychology.

Regarding what depends on the institutions and the administration, those responsible for educating cannot do much. But can always stress -educate- the importance of being informed and responsibly participating in political life. Also, make young people aware of the need to achieve a healthy democracy, be less and less concerned with rules but more and more with the common good, service to others, respect for the plurality of ideas, etc., which is no small thing.

The authority we need in the family and at school

But it should be emphasised that this point, that of authority, is vital in the context of the family and the school. As an educator, I will focus on this because, as far as education is concerned, education within the family is essential to create an environment based on moral authority. How can this be achieved? I will give some clues for reflection, believing that the reader will find many more, depending on their own family or school situation.

In these environments, there can be a false conception of moral authority. It is said that the family – and also the school – must be democratic in the most profound sense, and I agree. But this does not mean that it should work with the exact mechanisms as politics, for example. A family is not an assembly or a club of friends. The famous juvenile judge of Granada, the magistrate Emilio Calatayud, said it very clearly: if a father befriends his son, the son gains a friend but loses a father.

Parents must base their authority on their example and the great fulfilment of their obligations – even as defined in the Civil Code. That is to say, within the material possibilities of each family, firstly to attend to the most basic needs. Secondly, to promote an environment that favours a balanced development of their personality and responsibility. Parents have custody of their children until they come of age: it is an obligation and an inalienable right.

But this is where that difficult balance comes into play: children must obey their parents because it is one of their obligations. But this obedience must be far from submission (the fruit of potestas, of formal power): it must be the consequence of respect and recognition of the figure and the ethical and moral example of the parents (auctoritas). Parental authority and filial obedience must arise from the recognition by both parties of their rights and obligations, from a solid base that can only be understood from love.

Children must obey their parents, but this obedience must be far from submission (potestas): it must be the consequence of respect and recognition of the figure and the ethical and moral example of the parents (auctoritas).

As I wrote a few years ago on this same subject, the words of the educator Maria Montessori come to my mind: If the child manifests a defence, it will hardly be a direct and intentional response to the adult’s action. Instead, it will be a vigorous defence of his psychic integrity or an unconscious reaction of his oppressed spirit. I am personally convinced that those parents (or those teachers) who have always used their moral authority have not had, do not have, and will not have authority “problems”.

Two rules for gaining moral authority

As a summary of everything I have already written, I would like to acknowledge that moral authority is neither acquired nor learned by the family (or the school): it is earned. And how? By applying two basic rules of pedagogy: the first, as I have said, by loving. If there is no love, no real authority is possible. The second – to continue with Montessori – is with the cleanliness of heart, which, to put it in modern terms, is the rectitude of intention. She said that a child is his own teacher: they are also teachers in what we understand by “discipline” and what I call ethical and moral sense, which must have been worked out in the child or young person. Parents, and teachers too, must be their role models. There is no other way.

Moral authority is neither acquired nor learned by the family (or the school): it is earned. And how? By applying two basic rules of pedagogy: loving and with right intention.

So the authority that parents must have is moral authority. Parents who have moral authority do not usually need formal one.

From families whose education is based on an environment of authority, based on affection and ethics, I have the experience that they have cherished some young people convinced that people must be respected, things must be appreciated, and ideas must be respected.

An education based on this moral sense of authority has given children the tools of thought and clear criteria to confront hedonism. Also, avoid and denounce violence or gratuitous aggression, not be fooled by false idols; move away from unhealthy consumerism, and be aware of the value of effort in studies or work, among other values. Or virtues, which I personally like better.

Finally, recently and due to the latest assaults on young girls, someone posted an image on social networks in which the phrase “PROTECT YOUR DAUGHTERS” was painted on a wall. Conveniently crossed out, it was then amended with “EDUCATE THEIR CHILDREN”. Quite right.

Xavier Ureta i Buxeda has a degree in Pedagogy and a PhD in Educational Sciences. He is currently an Emeritus Professor at the International University of Catalonia (UIC). He still participates and is a collaborating member with the NGO APDIF, dedicated to teacher training in developing countries. In his blog, Amb Ulls de Pedagog, he deals with current educational issues.

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2022-05-20T08:23:45+00:00November 15th, 2021|Tags: |
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