Is obedience dangerous? Part 2

May 7, 2017

In part 1, I considered whether obedience endangered children. In this post, I will consider the down sides of disobedience.

I believe children are in more danger of being abused by each other than by their teachers. Teachers are subject to CRB checks and could be prosecuted and fired if they act inappropriately. Kids have far fewer constraints on abusive behaviour. This blogpost describes what is the daily reality for some girls in some schools:

…in the school I now teach at, sexual assault has almost become part of the furniture. The Head has talked about how much of a problem it is. He sent some staff on a training day about it. He’s kept boys back after assembly and given them a bollocking. He’s kept girls back after assembly and told them he’s given the boys a bollocking. It hasn’t really helped. It’s a culture. A culture takes a lot more than an assembly to change.

It’s as if this whole issue is a pesky mosquito buzzing round his head, that he limply swats at occasionally when it bothers him too much.

When SLT talk about how good a school we are, how we’re aiming for an Outstanding Ofsted next year, how great our progress stats are, I want to shake them and say “how can you apply positive adjectives to a school where girls are just resigned to being felt up now and again? Where pupils with police reprimands and warnings for assaulting girls walk the corridors alongside the victims? Where your own pupil voice survey says that the majority of pupils do not feel safe?”

If we want to protect kids from abuse, then the first priority has to be to protect them from each other. Teacher authority is a help, not a hindrance here. Reducing the authority of adults, does not protect children, it leaves them at the mercy of the mob. Arendt described this situation decades ago:

… there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government. The authority that tells the individual child what to do and what not to do rests with the child group itself–and this produces, among other consequences, a situation in which the adult stands helpless before the individual child and out of contact with him. He can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening. The real and normal relations between children and adults, arising from the fact that people of all ages are always simultaneously together in the world, are thus broken off. And so it is of the essence of this first basic assumption that it takes into account only the group and not the individual child.

As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. For the authority of a group, even a child group, is always considerably stronger and more tyrannical than the severest authority of an individual person can ever be. If one looks at it from the standpoint of the individual child, his chances to rebel or to do anything on his own hook are practically nil; he no longer finds himself in a very unequal contest with a person who has, to be sure, absolute superiority over him but in contest with whom he can nevertheless count on the solidarity of other children, that is, of his own kind; rather he is in the position, hopeless by definition, of a minority of one confronted by the absolute majority of all the others. There are very few grown people who can endure such a situation, even when it is not supported by external means of compulsion; children are simply and utterly incapable of it.

Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority. In any case the result is that the children have been so to speak banished from the world of grown-ups. They are either thrown back upon themselves or handed over to the tyranny of their own group, against which, because of its numerical superiority, they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee to any other world because the world of adults is barred to them. The reaction of the children to this pressure tends to be either conformism or juvenile delinquency, and is frequently a mixture of both.

From The Crisis Of Education, in Between Past and Future” by Hannah Arendt

As well as the harm disobedient children can do to each other, how often do we give instructions in order to keep students safe? It is very easy to focus on adults who harm children and forget that adult authority protects children from themselves. It is easy to find examples where disobedience has harmed children. The following news stories that I found for a blogpost a few years ago all involve students being killed or maimed in circumstances where students disobeyed teachers:




So, it is not simply the case that obedience endangers kids, it also protects them, from each other and from their own reckless behaviour. Which risk is greater? The risk that children will be harmed by their teachers because of their obedience, or the risk that children will come to harm where their teachers cannot control them? I guess it comes down to your view of teachers. If you trust teachers to protect children, you assume teachers will use their authority to protect their students. If you think teachers don’t care about children, then you assume teachers will use their authority to harm their students.

I trust teachers. Don’t you?




  1. Will try to do a proper blog reply sometime… but that last paragraph and line doesn’t sit comfortably with me. In my 20 year career I have come across some of the worst adult (teacher) abuses of power over children. Much is about creating climates where these abuses can not take place but we know they still take place, rarely but we must question this aspect of our power in schools. Not crazy – give the children authority… but to develop responsible citizens who are able to understand the role of authority within systems and question it when it seems to stray over the lines… they then need to know how best to appose this.

    There is a big difference for me about understanding rules and the need to live a life of respect and service and obedience without question.

    • This doesn’t seem to answer my point, just repeat the opinion I challenged. I’m still no clearer as to why the default for you is that teacher authority is a threat to children rather than something that protects them from each other and from themselves.

      • That’s not my default? I empower teacher authority in all my schools. My point is it can and is abused and has to be challenged. I have no problem with teacher authority in the majority of situations. I do challenge it when others seem to think there can be no issue because trust reigns supreme… trust me, it is abused far too often. You seem to be arguing for something that could easily be abused if not given the proper safeguards around it.

        • I’m arguing for teacher authority. If you are not against it, then why did you write a blog connecting obedience with abuse?

          • You really don’t understand how obedience can be associated to abuse? My track record very clearly shows how I support teacher authority.

            • I don’t see how obedience can be separated from authority.

            • Have you read my post? There’s a whole paragraph dedicated to what I believe and not sure it has anything to do with what you attribute it to (though sure you’ll find a quote out of context). I also think that they are difficult to separate. That was not the point of my original blog though. Which would you prefer obedience or willing compliance?

            • Obedience is compliance. And it is always “willing” in the sense that disobedience is possible and “unwilling” in the sense that it involves doing something other than what you want.

            • So, is there ever a time where you would argue for disobedience?

            • Yes. Where authority is illegitimate. And that’s the point. When we start condemning obedience in general, we condemn the use of legitimate authority.

            • Don’t think my blog did that. It talked about the dangers of obedience and how authority can become illegitimate if there is not a sense that it can be challenged.

            • The point is not that authority cannot be challenged but that legitimate uses of authority shouldn’t be. And that is *obedience*.

            • Fine with that…

            • So “no excuses” policies that deter disobedience are fine with you?

            • I’d need to read them and see how they are applied in practice and know what safeguards are in place… in principle no problem if they make sense.

  2. Your last sentence is rather at odds with the blogpost you quote–but this is not because teachers abuse their authority, but because they don’t have much.
    This said, it’s a little unfair to blame teachers when SLTs make it difficult for them to administer effective sanctions. And I suppose the SLTs could pass the buck to Ofsted, who have their heads buried deep in the sand with their claim that behaviour is at least ‘satisfactory’ in 99.7% of our schools. If SLTs don’t keep up their end of this charade, it’s their necks in the noose.
    Many thanks for the Arendt passage–sadly, I doubt it ever finds its way into ITT, CPD, Ofsted or the DfE. Perhaps ministers could make it part of official guidance on Child Protection.

  3. […] British schools « We should be more offended by dishonesty than by pointing it out Is obedience dangerous? Part 2 […]

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. […] Is obedience dangerous? Part 2, by Andrew […]

  6. […] Is obedience dangerous? Part 2 […]

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