Machiavelli in the High School

concerning cruelty and clemency and whether it is better to be loved than feared

Image via Akseli Koskela
A statue of Niccolò Machiavelli out the
front of the Uffizi, Florence.
There are occasions, especially in today’s public schools, when a High School teacher wouldn’t go astray in referring to the works of Niccolò Machiavelli as a guide to how deliver a lesson.

Niccolò Machiavelli was a Renaissance Florentine statesman, and it is his famous book “The Prince” which gave him the reputation from which the word “Machiavellian” derives. He has a, perhaps misplaced, reputation for “strategic thinking”, “self-interest”, “deception” and “manipulation”.

And it is for precisely this reason that his book comes with excellent references to the teacher’s professional library. A little deception and manipulation never go astray in a teacher’s arsenal of techniques for what the academic textbooks blandly call “behaviour management” but which Machiavelli refers to as the “concerns of Princes”. I used to think that writing “Fun” in front of “Reading Comprehension” was a clever little deception - now I can deliver a lesson on assonance by looking at the lyrics in rap music. As an aside, finding examples of assonance in rap music is easy - finding four consecutive lines of rap music without a swear-word in them is another question altogether!

So here’s a tidbit of Florentine wisdom:

I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency.”

If I swap a word or two of old Niccolò’s vocabulary you will find that Machiavelli advises that “a teacher... ought not to to mind the reproach of being strict; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise”.

Despite being an archaic old prescription for an absolutist ruler in a time not unacquainted with violence, all I had to do was swap two words in the sentence to make it seem sage advice. Ever been in that classroom which began great because the teacher was really relaxed and laid back but finished in a state of chaos with the teacher blowing steam like a little Chernobyl? I’ve been there. However, I would like to add one caveat to Machiavelli's instructions for medieval dictators: that consistency beats just plain “strictness” any day of the week.

Ruthless, unflinching consistency that is. And maintaining consistency in the face of all the excuses known to mankind and new ones added daily is not as easy as you'd imagine.

So to close: why Machiavelli advises that it is better to be feared than loved:

for love is preserved by a the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Hmm, maybe not that ruthless.
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PAMO said...

The teachers I learned the most from in high School were indeed consistent and slightly feared. I didn't really think of it as fear, I guess, more like respect.
I imagine consistency is extremely tough to maintain with teenagers. But they notice it I'm sure!
By the way, very nice that you look to lyrics in rap music to teach.
Another great post Akseli. Always a pleasure to read your words.

JJ said...

Akseli: I don't often say this, but I wish I had written this marvelous post. As a fellow teacher, with some high school experience, I can attest to the truth of what I am reading between the lines. I'm not sure about fear, but perhaps Machiavelli meant it was better to stay home and love than to teach high school.

Akseli Koskela said...

PAMO, yes the thing about teenagers is that they can be extremely persuasive! Especially when it comes to trying to persuade you as to why a certain rule shouldn't apply to the particular circumstances where they were caught breaking it.

JJ, yes I agree completely! School can be a tough place, sometimes love is best kept at home.

Francis Hunt said...

The amazing thing in the long run is that the teachers who are consistent (and even a little feared) are the ones who finish up being respected and even loved, while those who set out to be loved generally finish up being despised (long before they have their inevitable nervous breakdown).

Karyn said...

So you teach high school, eh? I thought college for some reason. What grade? Do you enjoy the kids? I have a son turning 18 in a few days, trying to imagine him in your class. He would enjoy the lessons on rap music. I would think your class would be very interesting.

#167 Dad said...

Great post. It's fine line we educators must walk, a fine line. Sounds like you're getting it done. Assonace of Rap music, Very cool...

Akseli Koskela said...

Francis, you are definitely right. Not all laid-back teachers are weak-willed, some are laid-back but still have very definite expectations of what is acceptable and what's crossing the line. But teachers that are perceived as unable to control the class will generally end-up being despised and blamed by the students and parents for the students' own failings.

Thanks Karyn, yeah, just a regular ol' high school teacher. Rap music is generally a good way into poetry techniques. Although at least here in Australia rap music is losing some of its popularity, it seems kids are all into "Indie" music nowadays.

Bill, yes I'm sure you know what it's like. When you never know the full story and the most dominant kids are the ones with the most persuasive excuses it's harder to be "fair" than most people think.

Judie said...

Akseli, I am sending my son Joey, a teacher, a link to your post. It is really an excellent one! I just hope that with his busy schedule, he takes time to read what you have written. I know he would agree wholeheartedly!

Akseli Koskela said...

Thanks Judie.