Epistemology is Not a “Four-Lettered” Word 3: Authority

This thread in my blog addresses epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge. I maintain that educators avoid epistemology like it is a vulgar word, but the reality is that every decision they make, and every activity they plan can be interpreted in terms of epistemology and it defines in many ways, the lessons students take from class are defined by the epistemological stance of the teacher (both the articulated epistemology and the avoided epistemology).

Epistemologists differ on the role of authority in defining knowledge. For some, epistemology is external; we confirm knowledge and are assured what we know is correct by referring to an some “thing” that is independent and distinct from ourselves. In the classroom, external authorities of knowledge can include the teacher, books and other printed materials, experts and the literature they create, and other sources assumed to hold the answers to our questions. We defer to those authorities and accept their decisions.

For others, authority is internal; we confirm knowledge and are assured we know what is accurate by making our own observations and following our own reasoning. For those wha assume authority is internal, experts can be sources of knowledge and direction, but final decisions regarding what is correct lies within the learner. Teachers whose stance towards authority is internal will challenge students with the question, “How do you know?” or may challenge students who make claims to, “Prove it.” These are not intended to suggest the student is wrong, but to encourage the student to develop critical skills and an internal sense of authority.

authority in learning