July 20, 2006

The seductive illusion of power's efficacy

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.)

To understand the dynamics at play when governments take on guerilla groups and insurgencies, it requires a look at the role that perceptions of power play.

People often quote the Bible passage that "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10) but I think Paul, the author of that document, was mistaken about this (as he was about so many things), and that it really should be the love of power to which we should assign blame. After all, beyond a certain point, money does not meet any actual physical needs and I suspect that it merely serves as a concrete and measurable index, a proxy measure for the more elusive and abstract concept of power. Except in highly circumscribed hierarchical organizations, it is hard to tell who has more power and who has less. But money provides a way. People with more money are usually perceived as more important, more powerful, and have more status, than those with less.

Power has the ability to seduce a person into thinking that acquiring more of it will enable them to more easily solve their problems and achieve their dreams. In seeking it, people lose all sense of proportion and reason, tempting them to overreach, and in the end, destroying them. Shakespeare's explored these themes in two great tragedies, Macbeth and Richard III, showing how acquiring great power ultimately caused those two ambitious but flawed people to stumble and fall.

Power is so seductive that few can avoid succumbing to its allure. Is there any one of us who has not daydreamed of what we could do if we had total power over our circumstances and could make people do what we wanted them to? Even those people who want to do good easily fall into thinking that what they need is more power to achieve their worthwhile ends.

Fortunately, few of us actually possess much power over others but in those few situations where we mistakenly think we do, a little reflection would show us that depending on power to achieve our ends is actually harmful.

The first situation is that of parents and children. Parents think they have power over their children and in a limited sense they do, especially when their children are very young. They can make them eat their spinach, go to bed at designated times, sit in a corner when punished for doing something wrong, practice the piano, and so forth. But children can rebel, especially after they reach adolescence, and parents who try to over-reach and think that they can force their children to think in a certain way or to have certain values are deluding themselves. As soon as their children grow up and are no longer under their control, they will do what they want, often deliberately going counter to their parents' wishes just to assert their independence.

Teachers are another group that sometimes think they have a lot of power. Because teachers are put 'in charge' of classes and can take disciplinary action and assign grades, they too tend to think that they have more power and influence over their students than they actually do. Yes, teachers can make students do certain things such as work problems, read papers, write essays, and so on. Teachers can even force students to parrot certain opinions and express a particular point of view. But teachers cannot force their students to change their minds about anything, and any teacher who tried to do so is, like a parent with adolescent children, acting delusionally.

I have taught for a long time and have realized that I have very little real control or power over students. The only influence that I have over them is what they are willing to voluntarily grant me and I believe that this is true of any relationship. We may be able to force people to take specific actions and to do certain things, but we cannot change the way people think or make them learn or like what we make them do.

This is why I am always amused by the efforts of those self-appointed protectors of students (like David Horowitz) who seem to see students as delicate hot-house flowers, and are fearful that 'liberal' college instructors are brainwashing these intellectually fragile and highly impressionable students away from 'conservative' values, whatever those may be. Such ideas about student naivete and impressionability could only be held by someone who has never really taught students or, more importantly, listened to them. It is quite possible that a few college instructors do try to do what he alleges, although Horowitz has a history of making such allegations without evidence to back them up, leaving him with no credibility. But has there been any evidence that even if these rare instructors do exist, that they are effective?

Let me be perfectly clear about this important distinction concerning power. We can, if we wish and had sufficient power over others, make them jump through hoops and we can demand external conformity (though speech and action) to whatever we want. But we have no control over people's internal processes. We cannot force changes in their thinking and we cannot make them like doing whatever we force them to do.

Any experienced and reflective teacher knows that the more you try to force students to change their minds, especially over things they care about, the more likely you are to actually strengthen their existing beliefs. This is why the goal of my own teaching is not to change students' minds about anything. My goals are instead (1) to make them understand and be able to articulate and use whatever knowledge serious scholars in the field have learned about the topic at hand, and (2) to help students better understand why they believe whatever they believe. In the process of achieving that deeper understanding of the subject and of themselves, students may change their minds (just as I may change mine due to my interactions with them), but that is an incidental outcome of the learning process.

In their book Power in the Classroom (1992) Virginia Richmond and James McCroskey emphasize that students have more power than we realize, and that the more we try to exercise direct authority, the more likely it is that they will devise ways to thwart us, leading to reduced learning. As they say “[P]ower can be used effectively to get people to do what we want, so long as (a) we are willing to watch them do it, and (b) we do not care what they think of us [or the task] afterward. Both of the above conditions are seldom present outside of prisons.” (p. 102)

This does not mean that teachers have no power at all. It means that they should realize that the power they have is not over students' minds, but over the conditions under which students learn. Teachers can use their administrative power to create environments that are conducive to learning by, for example, giving students more choices and control over what they learn and how they learn. Teachers can also adjust their teaching styles to make the classroom more interactive and engaging and the material more interesting, while maintaining course requirements and standards. This is the only kind of power that teachers can use and should use. And used wisely, it can result in the only worthwhile goal of education, which is to make students more curious about the world around them, more able to pose meaningful questions about that world, and more adept at seeking answers.

We all have actually very limited power over other people. The more we realize this inherent limitation, the more effective we become in using that limited power to achieve worthwhile ends. Conversely, those who have an inflated sense of the power they have and what raw power can achieve, and seek to achieve results using power alone, are doomed to disastrous results.

Nowhere are the destructive consequences of following the siren song of power more visible than in the political arena.

Next: The consequences of power hubris in the Middle East.


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It appears to me that you are assuming some psychological facts to be null. I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong.

Specifically, the fact that repetition leads to indoctrination does mean that those with power to coerce parroting speeches can slowly make those student's thought processes match the speeches. It would seem akin to being told that a red block is green for a prolonged period. Eventually, while the object and one's sensory input of the object is unchanged, the mental response and association is shifted.

Additionally, while it in no way agrees with a single course indoctrinating a student's life, I've heard voiced perception, by many PhD students and professors, that entrenched biases are too often maintained against evidence even in the science community as the realm of experts in a subfield is small enough that peer review necessarily goes to a scientist with whose theory you are disagreeing.

Posted by Novel on July 20, 2006 06:39 PM


There are two points here.

By "parroting", I mean that in my physics classes I can teach that applying the laws of physics suggests that the universe is over 10 billion years old. I think I have the right to expect that physics students, on an exam, be able to demonstrate how the laws give this result. I also think I am justified in rejecting as indequate an answer about the age of the universe in which a student says it is 6,000 years old because the Bible says so.

But that alone will not change students's beliefs. I have had students go through three semesters of my physics courses and tell me that they still believe the 6,000 year old answer. That belief is fine by me. All I want is that they can apply the laws of physics correctly, not that they believe them just because I say so.

But that does not come close to what might be required to force my students to actually change their beliefs. Perhaps if I locked them in a darkened room for months with sensory deprivation and piped the words "The universe in over 10 billion years old" over and over, I might change their beliefs. But teaching is not like that.

As for the other point, it is certainly the case that those theories that challenge the dominant paradigm have a hard time being accepted. This paradoxical feature of science (its seeming reluctance to accept novel theories while at the same time periodically allowing scientific revolutions) is a well-studied phenomenon and forms the core of my seminar course. It is rarely the case, though, that a reviewer will reject a paper purely because it disagrees with the dominant paradigm, but it is true that those who challenge that paradigm probably have a higher burden pf proof. I am preparing a paper called "The undogmatic dogmatism of science" that deals with precisely this question.

In a previous posting, I talk about this very interesting point. If you are interested in reading more about this fascinating topic, I also strongly recommend Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Posted by Mano Singham on July 20, 2006 10:33 PM

Mano, I am glad you wrote this. The other day I heard someone say that professors have power over their students in the classroom and I thought this a naive view. The professor only has as much power over the students as the students volunarily submit, which could be nearly zero if the student dislikes the professor. If the professor is seeking any sort of social approval from their students, the students may actually have more power over the professor than either party recognizes.

This is not to say that either setup is more or less desireable. I don't know what the optimal balance of power for learning actually is (?) but I imagine it lies more in favor of the one doing the learning due to the nature of true learning.

Posted by Aaron on July 21, 2006 12:52 PM

on money and power,

I think that the important thing to note about money is that it allows the transfer of power away from the actor to another party. For instance in the present Middle East conflict, people who produce weapons can profit and gain power in an economic sense through the actions of those actually fighting for power in a politcal sense. The implications in the transfer and exploitation of power are of course not as simple as this, but it something to consider and argue.

- V.

Posted by Vinod Gundapaneni on July 25, 2006 01:09 AM