The other day I was innocently scrolling through my Facebook news feed when I came upon this photo from Humans of New York. It raises one of the most pressing and argued questions of our day: what should the status of teachers be in the US? I phrase the question this way purposely. The question is not “how much should they make” or “should they unionize.” Those questions are of importance, but they are secondary. You can’t decide on payment and unionization if society sees teachers as lazy, saddened 40-somethings.
In this vein, the question of the teacher is really one of authority. The student-teacher relationship has long been important to traditions in both the East and West. Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism all accord it a place of particular respect. The authority to tell another person what to do is fundamental to teaching. If human beings crave both equality and hierarchy, the teacher has long filled that need. He is better learned and so can tell the student what to do. Yet, he does so in such a way as to be encouraging; the teacher is tough without alienating his charge.
Our society, however, is fundamentally anti-authoritary. I mean quite literally that we cannot stomach anything besides radical equality. The interrogation of authority is one of the primary goals of contemporary theory and discourse, at least within “English” as a subject. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; real discoveries are made in the field. But the question is whether or not we’ve taken it to the point where all authority is not just suspect, but ultimately illegitimate unless contractually consented to. The issue is, of course, that children can’t consent to school; they’re children.
Ironically, then, professors may be undermining the authority of both themselves and their high-school counterparts. Theories filter down into popular consciousness and begin to impact more practical elements of life and that’s very possibly what we’re seeing today. Thai children and their families respect teachers because they respect community and the authority that community points toward. We as post-Christian Westerners aren’t quite so lucky; we’re modern Laputans: devoted to science and sex, but with little regard for the more fundamental building blocks of society.