on the non-unequivocal goodness of questioning authority

Look, friends. I’m far from a fan of authority, per se. On any given day there’s like a 30% chance that I will assent to full-on anarchism. But I need to discuss how annoying (and possibly pernicious) this “question authority” catchphrase truly is.

The concept of authority is pretty closely tied up with that of expertise. To teach people to “question authority” is to wield too wide of a brush because it readily melts down into questioning legitimate expertise as well. The resulting anti-authoritarian spirit can easily partially fuel precisely the anti-intellectualism and anti-scientificism that we wish to fight in critical thinking (and all) classes. This is why I find it at least a little strange that some of the most scientific-minded people I know would be caught dead saying things like this.

It’s not that I don’t understand what the “question authority”-ers are getting at. “Question authority” after all doesn’t necessarily mean “reject authority.” They just want students, and people, to be able to see burdens for justification, demand reasons, evaluate them, consider whether it is reasonable to comply with the (un)justified demands of others or the government, and so on. These are valuable skills, no doubt.

But developing this suite of critical thinking abilities is *so* much more complicated than “question authority” even begins to capture. Indeed, a robust disposition to “question authority” may on balance be detrimental to the welfare of many individuals. Not all but plenty of authorities are worth respecting, because they are correct and/or because to do so is of prudential value. Advocates of generally questioning authority seem to take for granted that they already possess the intellectual and/or cultural capital required to know when it is appropriate ultimately to reject authority, and when it isn’t. Recognizing legitimate authority or expertise is a skill that takes development over time, and it becomes integrated into our other faculties of judgment, so it may go unnoticed and underappreciated. But lots of people have not developed this skill, and to emphasize the “question authority” bit without also deliberately tackling the “respect authority” bit is lopsided, misleading, and maladaptive. Those of us who have been enculturated to respect authority may need to compensate with a “question authority”-type mindset. But those of us who have been enculturated to distrust even legitimate experts may need to be deliberately taught how to identify them, and not to further “question authority” indiscriminately.

Want to become an authority-questioning maverick? Sure, go ahead. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when you end up killing yourself, your kid or someone else’s, or when you land yourself on the school-to-prison pipeline. What “think critically” lacks in sloganly sexiness, it makes up for in non-misleadingness.

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