Authority as a source of knowledge often involves both inquiry and/or practical instruction. The concept of schools and universities is based on the idea that “authorities” in a particular field can provide knowledge to those who are not. When we walk into a classroom, we take for granted that the teacher or professor knows more than we, as pupils do, with regard to the overall subject matter we are trying to learn. Authority provides efficiency in our quest for knowledge. If we can take for granted that something is valid, based on credible authority, we can expand our knowledge by building on that authority’s knowledge.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Authority as a Source of Knowledge
The disadvantage of authority is that it is not always reliable, but then again, sources of knowledge most needed and most applicable to our lives are also not 100% reliable.
We cannot and do not discount authority as a form of knowledge, because we would severely limit our ability to make progress (both daily and long-term). It would also seriously impede discoveries that benefit our quality of life. Like other forms of obtaining knowledge, authority is reliable enough for us to depend on its validity in our daily lives. It is justifiably practical to do so.
Levels of Authority
There are different levels of authority. One of the most obvious being In academia. One example of increasing authority could be the college student taught by the PhD candidate, who learns from the tenured professor.
We not only validate and classify the level of knowledge authorities have to offer with such titles, but we also determine the value of the authority’s knowledge based on other evident factors such as how much success one has in a particular area.
E.g. We assume a prize-winning, best-selling author to be good, if not excellent at his craft, regardless of his educational background.
Choosing the Most Reliable Sources of Authority
We can expand our knowledge by combining authority and inquiry – asking a contemporary about a topic with our goal being to obtain information or knowledge. We choose the authority based on what we are trying to know or understand.
For example, if we want to know what it is like to be a successful professional basketball player, we would do better asking Michael Jordan than we would asking a professional player who never gets any playing time. Jordan’s response could offer us a glimpse into the reality of his experiences. We are, in essence, relying on the information he provides us as a trusted authority, based on his demonstrated expertise.
Similarly, if we wanted to better understand trigonometry, we would be more successful in our quest for that knowledge, by consulting an advanced mathematician, rather than someone who has a PhD in Russian studies. (The exception being that, by some chance, that person happens to be an expert in both areas.)
How We Use Knowledge Provided by Authority
Authority as a source of knowledge can come in many forms including but not limited to:
- eyewitness accounts
- written accounts such as emails, memos, historical documents etc.
- conversations e.g. with a friend, off-the-record interviews etc.
We make use of such authority almost everyday in both our personal and professional lives. That is, we make decisions based on authority, ideally coming from a trusted, reliable source. The times we do so are countless.
Parents rely on teachers to provide knowledge of their children’s progress in school. A journalist will most likely go forth with a story based on information provided by a trusted inside source. A child born often relies on the knowledge of her parents and grandparents in order to better understand what life “was like” before they were born.
We use authority to obtain knowledge and make decisions by taking for granted that the authority’s information has a larger probability of being accurate than inaccurate. We make a practice of this so much we often fail to acknowledge it.
One final point: when we make use of authority as a source of knowledge in almost any field of academic study, we classify them into primary and secondary resources — the topic of a future post.
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