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What Age Taught Me About Being a Teacher

This story originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Max Weber, the renowned late-19th century social theorist, who probed the concept of authority, made two important distinctions. First he drew the contrast between power and authority (terms we often confuse and conflate). Power is the capacity to unilaterally force others to comply with one’s own will, and authority, by contrast, involves a voluntary compliance following the granting of legitimacy to the person or group who commands the authority. The latter emerges out of deliberation and choice; the former is coercive and restrictive.

Second, Weber distinguished between two kinds of authority: “positional” and “personal.” The former is granted to us by our role and status, our socially recognized position in an institution, a group, or a culture; the latter is an expression of our individual traits; our knowledge and skills, our personality, expertise and charisma. Positional authority is static and unmoving, defined and reified by law, tradition and rules, while personal authority is dynamic and iterative; it grows, develops and matures over time as we test the contours and limits of our relationships, our commitments and our engagement with the world.

I have always taken Weber’s analytic mapping very personally, and used his distinctions as a useful template for considering my own growth as a teacher; for reflecting on my developing pedagogy, and for marking and measuring the changing nature of my relationships with my graduate students at Harvard, where I have taught for the last four decades...

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