Foundations of Democracy, Middle School

How Should We Choose People for Positions of Authority?

The following is taken from Lesson 4 of the Center for Civic Education’s Foundations of Democracy curriculum for middle school students. The curriculum is designed to

  • Promote an increased understanding of institutions of our constitutional democracy and the fundamental principles and values upon which they were founded.
  • Develop the skills needed by young people to become effective and responsible citizens
  • Increase understanding and willingness to use democratic processes when making decisions and managing conflict, both in public and private live.

It is organized around four concepts, authority, responsibility, justice and privacy, which form part of the common core of civic values and concepts that are fundamental to the theory and practice of democratic citizenship in the United States.

This particular lesson is adapted from Unit 2 of the Authority concept.

Lesson Overview

Students learn to identify the requirements of a position of authority and the qualifications a person should possess to fill that position. Students learn a set of intellectual tools designed to help them both analyze the duties of a position and to decide if an individual is qualified to serve in that  particular position. In an excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s Winning of the West, students learn the characteristics that qualified Lewis and Clark to fulfill the responsibilities of leading an expedition to the West.

Purpose of Lesson

This lesson introduces you to a set of intellectual tools which are useful in selecting people to fill positions of authority.  These tools also are useful in evaluating the qualifications of persons who are in such positions.  When you have finished this lesson, you should be able to identify and explain the requirements of a position of authority.  You should also be able to identify and explain the qualifications a person should have to fill the position.

Terms to know

position of authority






Why should we be careful in selecting people to fill positions of authority?

Every day our lives are influenced by people in positions of authority, that is, people whose role or job gives  authority to regulate or control some part of our lives. For example: elected officials and those who are hired to assist them are in positions of authority. We give a great deal of power to many of these people. People who are well qualified to exercise authority can make our lives easier and better. Unqualified people in positions of authority can make our lives difficult and unpleasant.

Different positions of authority call for people with different qualifications—knowledge, skills, talents, and characteristics. Someone who is well qualified to be police officer might not be qualified to be a judge. A person qualified to be a judge might not make a good police officer. When selecting people for positions of authority, it is important to consider what qualifications they should have to do their jobs well.

You may have the opportunity to choose people for positions of authority. For example: in your school you might vote to elect someone for class president. When you are eighteen, you will have the right to vote to select people to serve in your government.

Let’s begin this part of our study by examining the qualifications of two leaders who filled important positions of authority early in the history of our nation.

divide_bCritical Thinking Exercise


The following was adapted from The winning of the West by Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president and historian (1858-1919). In this selection, he writes about the explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838). As you read this excerpt, think about the characteristics Lewis and Clark had that qualified them to lead an expedition to the West.

Lewis and Clark Expedition

Lewis and Clark were appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to lead an expedition through the Louisiana Territory. The United States had bought the territory from France in 1803. With luck, they hoped to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the area which they would cover had never been visited by people from the eastern United States. Vast plains, Native American tribes, mountains, and many rivers stood between them and their goal. President Jefferson, who chose Lewis and Clark for the journey, wanted them not only to get to the Pacific and back safely, but also to write about what they saw along the way.

Lewis and Clark were very accuïate observers. Rarely have other explorers described so well the physical features, the animals, and plants of a newly discovered land.

Of greater importance, the two young captains had the qualities necessary to lead an expedition through unknown lands. They kept good discipline among the crew. They punished any wrongdoers, but not severely. They did their share of the work, took the same risks, and suffered the same hardships as the other members of the expedition.

Lewis and Clark were liked and respected by their followers, who obeyed them with loyalty and cheerfulness. They showed respect and concern in dealing with the Native American tribes. Only people who were so brave and thoughtful could have led The party safely among the dangers that they met.

Examining the Situation

  1. What were the responsibilities of Lewis and Clark?

  2. What qualifications did Lewis and Clark have that helped them fulfill their responsibilities?  

How should we choose someone for a position of authority?

In the last activity, you listed some responsibilities of a particular position of authority. You also identified some of the qualifications of Lewis and Clark that enabled them to do their job well.

Following are some intellectual tools—a specific set of questions to ask and ideas to consider—that are useful in deciding whether someone is qualified for a particular position. Review them to prepare for the next exercise.

  1. What are the duties, powers, privileges, and limitations of the position?

    Before you can decide. how well qualified a person is for a position, you must first consider what the position involves. To do this, examine the position and answer the following questions:
        • What are the duties or responsibilities of the position?

        • What powers or abilities to exercise authority are given to the person filling the position? 

        • What privileges are given to the person filling the position?

        • What limitations or restrictions are placed on the powers of the person in the position?

  2. What qualifications should a person have to fill the position?

    Each position has different requirements. A person needs to have the qualifications necessary for the particular job. Depending on what the position is, some important qualifications might include the following:

      • special knowledge or skills
      • ability to be fair
      • honesty
      • intelligence
      • diligence (willingness to work hard)
      • reliability or dependability
      • courage
      • ability to work with others
      • respect for the rights and needs of others
      • commitment to important values and interests

  3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate?

    Each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses should be considered in terms of the qualifications required for the position.

  4. Based on your answers to the first three questions, which candidate would best fill the position? Why?

You should be able to explain the reasons for your choice.

divide_bCritical Thinking Exercise


The following activity will give you an opportunity to practice using the intellectual tools you have just studied. Imagine that you are a member of a student government committee. You are to recommend students to serve as judges on a student court. The judges will be responsible for holding hearings and recommending punishments for students accused of causing discipline problems at your school.

Working in small groups, complete the chart on the next page. In the left-hand column of the chart, read the description of the duties, powers, privileges, and limitations on power for the position of a student judge. In the right-hand column, list the qualifications you think a person should have to do the job well. The first blank is filled in to give you an idea of the type of answers you might give. Use a copy of the chart for your answers.

After all groups have completed the exercise, each group should report its findings and discuss them with the entire class.

Using the lesson

  1. Select a position of authority.  Describe the position in your journal and list the qualifications a person should have to fill the position.

  2. Think of an upcoming election in your area for a city, state, or national office.  Give a short talk to your class discussing the questions that you think voters should ask themselves about the qualifications of the candidates.

fod lesson4 chart


Note to teachers: If you enjoyed this Foundations of Democracy lesson, please consider purchasing the Foundations of Democracy textbook that contains this lesson and many others.
Foundations of Democracy Middle School Student Book (image)
Foundations of Democracy explores four concepts—Authority, Privacy, Responsibility, and Justice—using illustrations, handouts, open-ended discussion questions, and calls for students to apply situations to their own lives.

For more information, or to purchase Foundations of Democracy textbooks, click here.

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