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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

Machiavelli and
Classroom Management

Clearly it was the fact that I had to write an introduction to Niccolo Machiavellis The Prince for a new edition of the Renaissance classic that got me thinking about how Machiavelli had missed his intended audience: the teachers of the young.

Teachers need Machiavelli.

Okay, teachers also need a generosity of spirit, a sense of empathy, and a creative delight in the sheer magnificence of the universe that Machiavelli lacks, but that doesnt rule out my whole needing-Machiavelli theory.

Who, apart from those working with the K-12 crowd, are a more perfect audience for the advice freely dispensed by this notorious author of the hard-hearted political masterpiece about how those in authority need to maintain authority at all costs? True, most of us associate Machiavelli with a ruthlessness, a viciousness, an unapologetic appetite for power most often associated with the Borgias, the Medicis, or those running for the position of School Board President for Life.

Machiavelli is not an author youd shelve next to Mr. Rogers; he is not a warm and fuzzy build-up-your-low-self-esteem kind of guy. Beloved by dictators and despots alike, Niccolo Machiavelli has not, as far as I can tell, been regarded as a master of pedagogy. I dont think that hes been used in most Introduction to Education courses.

But I think he should be and heres why: Machiavelli understands the nature of authority. He defines what it is, how to achieve it, how to use it, how to keep it, and how to share it only when it will work to everyones advantage. He doesnt apologize for it. He doesnt attempt to camouflage it under gentler, kinder, wooly-minded language.

And can we all please agree that some form of authority is necessary for the effective functioning of any and all classrooms, whatever the subject matter, whatever the age of the students? Can we all please agree that chaos, mayhem, emotional frenzy, intellectual disorder, and a random system of rewards and the withdrawal of rewards will not a good learning experience make? Good. Then lets listen to Uncle Niccolo (who has little in common with Ol St. Nick, believe me).

Machiavelli, famous for such lines as, For it must be noted, that men must either be caressed or else annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones; the injury therefore that we do to a man must be such that we need not fear his vengeance is not exactly your usual education guru, but even such apparently heinous pronouncements have something to teach the teacher.

This one, for example, Id like to suggest, might be translated for the classroom as follows: You must be consistent in your approach to your students. They trust and work best with a teacher who is stable, even-tempered, unswayed by incidental changes but inevitably responsive to major ones. You can be friendly towards your students but you are not their friends; friends do not have power to fail friends, or give friends grades, or get friends kicked out of school, for example. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. When there is cause to censure, discipline, or punish a student, that act must be explained and then carried out fully, otherwise the teacher risks losing the respect, authority, and -- most crucially -- trust awarded to him or her by the students in general and that one student in particular. And when authority and trust are loss, some measure of effective teaching is forever lost with them.

So how, exactly, does a teacher assume authority? Machiavelli declares that, after investigating the question thoroughly, the issue comes down to whether in order to carry out their designs they have to entreat or are able to compel. (For our purposes, lets put it this way: is authority given to the teacher by the students or taken from them by the teacher? Its a scary thing to narrow down such complicated relationships, but its also pretty scary to turn your back for the first time on a new class, isnt it? So lets see what will happen if we keep translating.)

Machiavellis declares: In the first case they invariably succeed ill, and accomplish nothing; but when they can depend on their own strength and are able to use force, they rarely failed. To ask is dandy if you can count on yes as the answer; but if the answer is in doubt, the ability to compel is much cleaner than relying on ones ability to persuade, coerce, or manipulate -- all of which are underhanded, unspoken, unethical, and best left to politicians.

Finally, in Chapter XVII of The Prince, Machiavelli puts forth the proposition that authority is maximized through fear rather than through love. Now thats really unnerving, right? We want to believe that the best teaching comes from those of us who love our students. But lets look at Machiavellis idea as if we were doing a bare-bones analysis: Everybody loves and fears the same way. All people love because of internal feelings that correspond to affection, which cannot be forced. (Those of us who have dated for any length of time know this, for example.) But fear? Fear is an internal feeling that can be generated by an external force. You cant make somebody love you, in other words, but you can make certain that they act as if they respect you within the confines of your locus of authority: your classroom.

Machiavelli aside, we all know that love and respect are inextricably bound up in the best teaching. Yet sometimes it is easier to count to ten and let a challenge pass than to exercise responsibly, effectively, and clearly, the authority of our position.

I might want angels on my shoulders when I teach, but I want Niccolo Machiavelli watching my back.

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Article by Regina Barreca
Education World®
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