Disdain for questioning authority

Alfie Kohn has written many books about problems in education that tie into the effects of extrinsic motivation in. Like myself, he advocates students thinking for themselves, finding their own motivation and questioning authority. Those of us who encourage each student's independence from authoritative sources will hear complaints from learners like "please don't make me think" or "just teach us what will be on the test". In his essay: Challenging Students... And How to Have More of Them, Kohn relays his own experience:
As a brand-new high school teacher some years ago, I resolved to let my students know that this passivity was not what I was looking for. On my very first day, I proudly — and, given the culture of the school, somewhat defiantly — pinned a yellow button to my shirt that said QUESTION AUTHORITY. Alas, this concept was so unfamiliar to the students that some of them assumed the phrase was a descriptive label rather than an exhortation. One girl wanted to know who had appointed me the school’s question authority.
I'm currently reading a new book: The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. Her research reveals a wonderful reason for this inability to question authority. She has found that many cultures are founded upon the premise that everything works out for the better when others make choices for us. These cultures arrange marriages for their offspring. They set up the parental figures as authority figures that dictate the conduct of children and less privileged adults. They instill a sense of duty toward and respect of elders. They cultivate dependence on others choices, rather than independence to make one's own choices. Consensus and conformity are far more important than self fulfillment or self expression in these cultures.

Iynegar's research also discovered that a few cultures do not fit this pattern: notably the Brits Aussies and Yankees. We want to make choices for ourselves. We lose motivation, dedication and creativity when others impose their choices on us. We are predisposed to question authority because we are becoming authorities ourselves. We get raised and socialized to become independent, individualized and intrinsically motivated. We assume everything will work out better when everyone is free to explore and express themselves.

I question whether this disdain for questioning authority fits entire cultures. Just as teachers find the consensus/dependence culture in Anglo classrooms, management consultants find it in executive board rooms. It appears prevalent to me in gangs, cults and religious communities. So the applicability of her findings may not be applied as broadly as she proposes, but it has been eye opening for me to realize that large percentages of the global population want others to choose for them.


  1. In my experiences in high school, I see people don't question authority because:
    1) They don't think they have the ability to question what's already been established (self confidence issue). In some cases, they don't have the ability. In other cases, they do, but they just choose not to exercise it.
    2) They don't care about learning at all, just getting a good grade. In other words, they don't understand the real value of knowledge or how it can be applied to yield real benefits.

  2. Thanks for adding these insights, Niko. It wonderful to get your help with developing a more complex view of this apparent inability to question authority. It occurred to me the teachers can contribute to this also, by coming across with a control freak mindset or appearing rushed to get through too much material.