We live in a time when democracy is in fetre-At. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the current debate surrounding me relationship between schooling and authority. As is the case with most public issues in the 19805, the new conservatives have seized the initiative and argue that the current c risis in public education is d ue to the loss of authority. The call for a reconstituted authori ty along conservative lines is coupled with the charge that the c r isis in schooling is in part due to a crisis in the wider culture, which is presented as a "spiritual-moral" crisis. The problem is clearly articulated by Diane Ravitch, who argues that this pervasive "loss of authority" stems from confused ideas, irresolute standards, and cu ltural relativism.] As a form of legitimation, this view of authority appeals to an established cultural tradition, whose practices and values appear beyond criticism. Authority, in this case, represents an idealized version of the American Dream reminiscent of nineteenth-century dominant culture in which "the tradition" becomes synonymous with hard work, industrial d iscipline, and cheerfu l obedience. II is a short leap between this view of the past and the new conservative vision of schools as crucibles in which to forge industrial soldiers fueled by the imperatives of excellence, competition, and down-home character. In effect, fo r the new conservatives, lC'drning approximates a practice mediated by strong teacher authori[)1 and a student willingness to learn the basics, adjust to the imperatives of the social and economic order, and exhibit what Edward A Wynne calls the traditional moral aims o f "promptness, truthfulness, courtesy, and obedience. ,,2
What is most striking about the new conservative discourse on schooling is its refusa.l to link the issue of authority to the rhetoric of freedom and democracy. In other words, whm is missing from this perspective as well as from more criticdl perspeaives is any attempt to reinvent a view of authority that expresses a democratic conception of collective life, one thm is embodied in an ethic of solidarity, social transformation, and an imaginmive vision of citizenship.3 I believe that the established view of authority tells us very little about what is wrong with schools. But it does challenge critical educators to fashion an alternative and emancipatory view of authority and ethics 3...'i central elementS in a critic.ll theory of schooling. Agnes He ller states the problem well when she argues that "it is not the rejection of all authorities that is at issue here, but the quality of authority and the procedure in which authority is established, observed and tested.,,4 Heller's remarks suggest a dual problem that criticdl educators will have to face. First, they will need a reconstructed language of critique in order to challenge the current conservative offensive in education. Second, they will need to construct a language of possibility that provides the theoretical scaffolding for a politiCS of practical learning. In both CdSCS, the staning point for such a challenge centers on the imperative to develop a dialeaical view of authority and ethics which can both serve as a referent for critique and provide a programmatic vision for pedagogical and social change.