153. "Students need Self-Discipline" Chicago Tribune, (February 13, 1984).

Here he goes again. President Reagan captured, in a grossly oversimplified and dangerously distorted manner, an issue that needs addressing. The President has called for restoring discipline in schools, and the White House is said to favor greater use of police departments to restore law and order in schools.

The President confounds the issues. He and his various spokesmen talk about “millions” of incidents of physical attacks on pupils and thousands of threatened or abused teachers. But violence in schools– the kind the police might deal with– is a serious problem in a small number of schools [8 out of 100, according to a nationwide study].

Of course, violence in even one school is intolerable, but the fact that it is not a serious problem in 92 percent of American schools shows it is not at the root of what troubles most of them. The abuse of drugs and alcohol is more common, but the police have not been effective in dealing with that in or out of schools.

The gut of the issue is the conditions under which students are committed to learning. There is no evidence that in many schools pupils who wish to learn are unable to do so because of a disorderly environment. For the majority of schools, the main problem is psychic, not physical. There is a widespread lack of motivation and ability to apply one’s self, to defer gratifications, to make an effort for later rewards. At issue here is”discipline” in a quite different sense: not law and order, but mentality that provides for a kind of Protestant ethic or work ethic at school. There is nothing police departments or the Department of Justice can do to foster such discipline.

Reagan and his archconservative legions confuse obedience with self-discipline.

Obedience is achieved when students follow rules set by school authorities and backed up by threats, sanctions and penalties. It is basically an authoritarian and suppressive approach. It is correctly associated in students’ minds with learning by rote, not asking questions; with accepting elders’ dictates and the use of the rod. It reflects very much a 19th Century approach to educating the generation that will launch the 21st Century.

In contrast, self-discipline entails a process in which pupils develop their own internal voices of authority, which become an integral part of their innermost selves. It is a process by which they grow able to mobilize themselves to the tasks at hand. Self-discipline evolves when students feel that rules they have to live by and assignments they are handed are fairly given and properly evaluated– not make-work arbitrarily dished out.

What makes for a productive school environment is not blind obedience, which lasts only as long as the police patrol or the teacher-supervisor lingers, but the acquiring of self-control and inner guidance, which holds even when one is on one’s own. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that a prime purpose of the whole process of education [as distinct from teaching], which begins at home and peaks at graduation from high school, is to help the growing person to be weaned from the need for obedience and to allow youngsters to be mature, self-propelling and self-limiting persons.

Obedience is deceptive: It generates the appearances of an educational environment by imposing order, but underneath it there simmers alienation and rebellion, which hinder the essential internalization of authority. In effect, true education, proper personality development, is being undercut.

Discipline as obedience appeals to Reagan. Our future, however, requires open, adaptive, creative persons; individuals able to deal with a rapidly changing world, able to develop new technologies and new techniques– not assembly-line automatons but professionals, computer programmers, knowledge engineers and others who can follow their own lights without slackening on the job.

Reagan’s preoccupation with discipline as obedience draws on more than his 19th Century world view. He is told that calling the police into schools costs little, and hence fits neatly into his plan to shortchange all programs but defense. And, politically, the call for strict discipline is a winner. Public opinion polls show that Americans list the need for discipline as the first item they prescribe for schools.

Part of the public may indeed favor authoritarianism, as the President does. But large segments of the public may use the term “discipline” merely as a code word. They want schools in which their youngsters can learn, and that presupposes evolving the ability to mobilize one’s self to the task at hand, not to be policed to do so: self-discipline rather than imposed discipline.


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