In the postmodern era, authority is under fire. All revelation, tradition and external authorities are questioned and subjected to the supreme court of our own personal reason and judgment. Education is one of the spheres that flounders in a world that has rejected authority.
One of the most obvious expressions of this spirit of the age is the loss of authority granted to teachers in the classroom. It is harder to be a teacher today than ever before. On one level, nothing has changed. It was Socrates who said, “Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” He seems to have experienced the problems of classroom management long before child-centred education was conceived. But on another level, everything has changed. It is no longer simply the perennial problem of the sin-nature in every child chafing at the instructions of a teacher; that has been the battle of every teacher since Tubal Cain. Now, it is not merely the authority of a particular teacher that is being challenged, but the very notion of authority.
However, loss of authority in education runs far deeper. The person of the teacher often carries little weight, but the content of her teaching fares no better. In an egalitarian age the teacher’s knowledge is not something to be looked up to, for everybody’s “knowledge” is as good as anybody else’s.We see this in the massive popularity of Wikipedia, which is surely an icon of our day. A wiki is a type of site in which the users create and edit the content; it depends not on a few experts but on an army of amateurs and enthusiasts like you and me. The use of a wiki paradigm to determine what is true fundamentally undermines education.
Wiki-style learning ignores authority. As Tim Challies puts it, “The wiki model levels authority structures, finding no value in age, experience or education. When editing an entry on justification, thus declaring how God saves his people, the ten year-old child stands on equal footing with the most eminent theologian. In this way it offers a kind of radical egalitarianism at odds with biblical authority structures and plain common sense.”
It also redefines truth. Truth in this model is nearly indistinguishable from consensus. When truth is in dispute, the deciding factor is not whether the fact can be proven from an authoritative source. Instead, the deciding factor is what the majority agree on, or perhaps what an administrator decides upon, even though that administrator may have no knowledge about the topic. The wiki model tells us that truth is what the majority determine it to be. Even some in Hollywood recognize that this is problematic. Stephen Colbert coined the word wikiality saying “together we can create a reality that we all agree on—the reality we just agreed on.” Consensus reigns. Truth does not have its source in God; it has its source in us.
So, concludes Challies, “Wikipedia says that knowledge flows horizontally from human-to-human and that truth is the sum of this knowledge; the Bible tells us that knowledge and truth find their source in God and that all truth flows vertically from him to us. At the heart of the wiki model is a new conception of truth—truth is what we agree upon.”
Authority in the classroom is lost as students consider themselves capable of both discovering truth and arbitrating in disputes about knowledge. Learning is horizontal rather than vertical. Who needs a teacher if you have access to the web? And if 10-year olds are part of the consensus that arrives at truth, who needs text books?