The War on Discipline

March 11, 2014

Multiple Pages
The War on Discipline

Since the 1960s we have spent trillions to uplift the bottom. All nostrums, whether liberal or conservative, free market or statist, have failed and there is nothing on the agenda that offers any hope. The latest, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper scheme to help struggling young men of color, is similarly doomed. 

Why? All such methods avoid imposing painful hard work. As the old slogan tells us: no pain, no gain. Achieving anything in life entails some discomfort, but this simple fact is unspeakable for today’s social engineers. No politician dares endorse measures that cause discomfort to recipients. Imagine training today’s impulsive poor to steel themselves against temptation by electrically shocking them if they open the fridge too often. Better to put a smile on their faces with free meals, free cell phones, subsidized housing, and yet more pointless social services.

Nowhere is this pain-free, work-averse mentality more evident than in education. Sesame Street perfectly captures today’s pedagogical orthodoxy: happy multicultural “fun” where nobody is ever disciplined for screwing up. Imagine the outrage if Big Bird had to sit in the corner with a dunce cap for his chronic tardiness. Millions of parents would protest that doing so would traumatize Junior and leave him unable to do his homework. What’s next? The sugar-addicted Cookie Monster starved until he finished his broccoli?

“Achieving anything in life entails some discomfort, but this simple fact is unspeakable for today’s social engineers.”

The misguided quest for pain-free learning is a hopeless progressive fantasy. School is inherently painful. Merely showing up requires getting out of bed no matter how tired you are. It requires traveling, sometimes in bad weather, five days a week, 180 days a year. It demands that you eat school cafeteria food for at least 10 years to satisfy legal requirements and then returning home, again occasionally under unpleasant conditions, all while foregoing more enticing alternatives. Worse is sitting still for long periods, being bossed around by teachers, fighting off boredom, and most of all having one’s self-esteem lowered by repeated academic mistakes. Why else have compulsory education?

But rather than accept the pain/learning nexus, today’s educators seek to mitigate it, and what better way to make it all “fun” than to hamstring discipline-minded teachers? The Blessed Sister Anna Marie Godzilla, the 4’9’’ Dominican from hell who taught Latin to terrified dolts, would never make it past the first week of school. Woe to the teacher who uses shame, stigma, and ridicule to impart knowledge. This even includes teachers rewarding stellar performances—a gold star to the smartest only makes others feel rotten. Better to praise everyone, bestow inflated grades, and boost everybody’s self-esteem. Especially in today’s Hobbesian inner-city schools, savvy teachers will not punish the chronically disruptive—just call the police or have the school nurse prescribe Ritalin.

And if this “kindness” still does not relieve the pain, dumb everything down. After all, why psychologically scar children for life by making them feel stupid? Let scrapbook-like portfolios replace essays, forget about rote learning (so-called “drill and kill”), while books give way to video games and films. If too many students fail the test, drop the test. In an emergency, teachers can falsify the results and hardly anyone will complain.

Today’s education reforms perfectly reflect this fear of punishing students. When it comes to helping the bottom, absolutely nothing entails reversing lethargy, let alone combating disorderly behavior. Instead, “education reform” safely focuses on curriculum, school choice, unionization, standardized tests, funding levels, teacher incentives, and technological gimmicks, even ending inequality as the pathway to greater learning. Zero about cracking the whip while the official orthodoxy assumes that students, even the most uncivilized, naturally crave learning, so everything is about feeding these knowledge-hungry minds.


Now for the really bad news: the slowest learners must suffer the greatest pain if they are to catch up. It’s an iron law. Students with IQs of 85 will necessarily struggle more to master arithmetic than their brainier classmates, so the dummies must be pushed harder. It’s no different than sports—klutzes such as me had to spend extra hours of practice to compete against “naturals.” 

Ironically, the war on tough discipline is escalating, and bottom-dwellers will be the casualties. It’s all about “disparate impact”—unequal rates of punishment—since blacks are disproportionately punished. In this bizarre egalitarian’s fantasy, unequal punishment is educationally bad for blacks. Oddly, nobody seems to notice that forcing schools to lighten up on blacks will only encourage their misbehavior and thereby promote even less classroom learning. The KKK could not have invented a better way to debilitate blacks educationally. And black leaders love it—who could possibly endorse cracking down on people of color?

To this end, the ACLU has long sought to end corporal punishment (almost entirely in the South), while Eric Holder’s Justice Department is suing school districts to equalize suspensions and expulsions. Obama calls for ending “zero tolerance” for minor infractions since blacks are disproportionately punished and therefore less likely to graduate. Atlantic Philanthropies has spent close to $40 million already on reducing discipline disparities.

This “enlightened” kindness has it backwards—schools with large black enrollments will become more chaotic and crime-infested, and the better students will flee. A far better solution would be to allow teachers to terrify miscreants into submission. Faced with paddling or public humiliation, students would be motivated to improve their test scores. The Blessed Sister Godzilla, She Who Terrorizes the Indolent, for Secretary of Education! Obama should instead announce his “Kick Ass to Help Youngsters of Color” program. 

So why push policies guaranteed to fail or even make matters worse? A cynic might suggest that this ersatz kindness guarantees black underclass dependency and this, in turn, means more jobs for middle-class black social workers, therapists, role models, and mentors. (It is always assumed that only blacks can properly relate to underclass blacks, so no whites need apply.) But a less devious explanation is probably more accurate: Those targeted for uplift refuse to pay the bill for making progress and will not vote for anybody who demands payment. Tough measures are thus politically DOA.

In the case of education, at least among many of those in chronic poverty, imagine the howls of outrage if Junior were physically forced to sit still, keep quiet, and pay attention while learning how to write a proper paragraph and made to redo it all day long if he messed up. Absolutely cruel and unusual. If given a choice between years of hard labor to obtain a real degree versus years of sloth and a decorative parchment awarded as a matter of right, the latter usually wins. How dare political leaders insist that anything worth having requires pain? 


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