Book Review: Authority, Responsibility and Power by R.S. Peters

February 19, 2022

Authority, Responsibility and Power by R.S. Peters,1959. I read a secondhand copy from 1970, but there is a recent edition published by Routledge.

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2021 was to read more books and I intend to continue that into 2022. I will be reviewing those books that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased.

R.S. Peters (1919-2011) is the greatest philosopher of education of a short lived golden age for philosophy of education in the 1960s and 1970s. Reading his work now will always mean noting what is now dated and what is still as relevant as ever. The first section of the book, which is specifically about authority, is more than a little behind the times, in that there is some uncertainty about how the family is changing at that time, and how it is likely to change in the future. Peters observes that changes in the family (which he welcomes) might have consequences for how children view authority. He does not, or cannot, spell out what those consequences are.

The section that is most fascinating to me is that on responsibility. It is a remarkable feature of contemporary education that many of those involved in it, particularly those who don’t actually teach, doubt that children can be considered responsible for their actions. The discussion here made me realise how rarely we consider the issue in terms of “responsibility”, rather than discussing “agency” or “free will”. Peters identifies the roots of a decline in belief in personal responsibility in the followers of Freud and Marx whose deterministic ideas seem to have indirectly fed the contemporary belief that if an action has a cause, it cannot be avoided. However, Peters argues that, if anything, Freud and Marx wanted to find the causes of irrational beliefs that they encouraged people to reject, and didn’t intend to abolish all moral responsibility.

The burden of the message of both Marx and Freud was that a man who understands the cause of social evils an personal predicaments is in a position to do something about them. Understanding paves the way for action as well as sympathy.

While Peters does not apply the idea of responsibility to matters of school discipline, I found myself unable to avoid thinking about that. Particularly his claim that “a necessary condition of people being responsible is that they should believe that they are”. If Peters is correct, when we excuse a pupil’s actions and say they couldn’t help themself, we may well be creating a situation where in the future they genuinely cannot help themself. If we don’t believe somebody to be responsible for their behaviour, how can we ever expect them to choose to change their behaviour?

Another argument with a profound contemporary relevance is about the aims of education. Peters argues that debates about the aims of education, and what the outcome of education should be, are often disagreements about the procedures that are to be used to educate and the intrinsic value of the content to be passed on. This continues into a discussion of the essential value of knowledge, and how it has been devalued, that could have been written in the last five years given its relevance to recent debates. However, his belief that the intellect can be cultivated by the way knowledge is taught, with an emphasis on justification and criticism rather than just drill, is one we don’t hear much of these days (except perhaps in the work of Martin Robinson).

While some sections have dated, particularly those discussing psychology, most of this book remains relevant to current debates and deserves to be better known.

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