Libertarians vs. Authoritarians

Who knew how polarizing the issue of classroom management could be? I certainly didn’t, until I read the comments on my December Two-Year Track column, “The Rules about Classroom Rules.”

Clearly, there are two distinct schools of thought regarding how best to manage one’s teaching environment: the “libertarian” approach, which basically allows students to behave more or less as they like as long as they’re not disturbing others, and what I’ll call (at the risk of much additional abuse) the “authoritarian” approach, which calls for strict rules and swift punishments.

Consider the very first response to my column, a long and (I thought) rather nasty comment in which the writer basically accused me of being single-handedly responsible for the decay of America’s youth because I don’t snatch up students’ cell phones whenever I see them texting in class. My reply, I admit, was hardly kinder (OK, it was pretty snide): “Do you also require your students to sit up straight, raise their hands before they speak, and form a perfect line when they go to lunch?” Obviously, the person who wrote that comment and I are diametrically opposed on this issue, and we’re both fairly snippy about it.

But here’s the interesting thing: the comment received 54 “likes,” while my reply got 30. If you’re a regular reader of The Chronicle online, you know that very few comments earn more than a handful of “likes.” Double digits are fairly uncommon. So 54 is a lot of “likes,” and for that matter so is 30.

In other words, it’s clear that readers felt very strongly about this topic, one way or another. Judging from the ratio of “likes,” I’d say that we classroom libertarians appear to be outnumbered by the authoritarians about two to one. You’ll see the same thing if you read all 79 comments: about two-thirds of them are against me, while the other third agree.

After 26 years in higher education, 16 of those as a chair, dean, or program director, that doesn’t exactly surprise me–although I was a bit taken aback by the vitriol apparent in some of the comments. It’s not that I don’t expect academics to become a bit heated, at times, in defense of their viewpoints on various issues. It’s just that I never anticipated that this might be one of those issues.

Please understand that I’m not taking sides. Well, maybe a little. Obviously, I think my more libertarian approach is better suited to the college classroom or I wouldn’t have written about it the way I did. But I’ve also known many good teachers who took a more authoritarian stance. Heck, I studied under several of them, in both undergraduate and graduate courses.

The thing that does disturb me, though–if I may open another can of worms–is that I’m afraid the majority of academic administrators come from the authoritarian two-thirds of the faculty. That might explain the absence of true shared governance at most institutions, the rise of “insubordination” rhetoric that I’ve brought up in previous posts, and perhaps some of the recent internal attacks on tenure that have made national headlines.

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