Monday, December 3, 2012

Editorial: Humiliation is not the way to go

The unnamed editor seems so confused about the issue of school discipline that I have to wonder why the board thought it was a good idea to write about it at all.

How many sides of the issue can one editor stand on? He writes, "... a bright red, aching backside was effective. ... We just can't believe that public humiliation is an appropriate way to deal with a juvenile problem ... but it seems very unlikely that those two boys will fight on school grounds again. ... In-school suspensions also are an effective innovation. ... an area that used to be as simple as swatting away trouble. .... raining down scorn on a pair of wrongdoers, effective or not, is a stretch of that authority."

First, it's off-base to imagine a clear distinction between the corporal punishment of old and the public shaming that the editor refers to here. They are essentially the same. The act of placing another human in a helpless physical position to inflict pain with impunity isn't about the pain so much as the humiliation, and you can be confident that whenever someone was paddled in school, it was known to all the students, making it pointedly public. Second, shame is where it's at. Instilling discipline means shaming, in every human society everywhere. It's essentially the society telling the perpetrator that bad behavior carries the risk of societal rejection, the worst punishment for a social animal.

If there were a broadly effective method for getting every kid to behave well in class, our schools would be using it. Let's talk about the "in class" piece of that. What we have to recognize is that assembling kids in large groups with minimal adult supervision leads them inevitably to make up their own social structures, which will be immature by nature. The problem is not the kids, it's the culture they come from plus the ones they create in the context of the industrial-style education model that we all grew up with.

I think the old way is better, but I go back a lot further than the corporal-punishment fascists. Preindustrial education was done on a much more individual basis, the children working among adults, not with other kids, acquiring skills directly from the people who used them. This raised the child directly into the adult social context, providing both structure and role models, and if later in life they worked with a teacher, it was someone with specialized skills that would clearly lead to professional and/or social advancement.

This isn't a perfect model either, but it offers a contrasting angle that throws the deficiencies of the current model into relief. Warehousing children in large groups to train them in a standardized curriculum seems insane when we need to produce adaptive, creative self-starters for an increasingly entrepreneurial society. Until we can find a way to get out from under the old industrial model, discipline in the classroom (and society at large as a result) will be a growing problem, no matter what methods we try.

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