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The Horror Of Discipline In A Sentimental Age

When parents and teachers disagree on a matter which pertains to the education of a child, teachers sometimes say, “We both want what is best for your son.” When teachers are frustrated by disagreements with parents, administrators sometimes remind them, “You both want what is best for the student.” And what do teachers, parents, and administrators all want for the boy? They want him to be faithful to God, to raise a good Christian family, to have a backbone, to do good work, to be a generous and fruitful member of his community. “We all want what’s best for your son,” is a calming, collecting thing to say. It means that we all have the same ends, the same goals, the same destination in mind. And for most parents and teachers in the midst of a disagreement, everyone does actually want the same thing. It is fair and right to remember this.

When tempers flare, pacifying truths are a godsend. Christ is the Truth, and the Truth “did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” which is to say that the truth doesn’t always calm people down. Whenever the truth can calm people, it’s a good thing.

At the same time, pacifying truths tend to not be the whole story. This doesn’t mean they are lies, but it means they aren’t alone sufficient. The “gentle medicines” which Lady Philosophy offers Boethius at the beginning of The Consolation calm him down, but they aren’t final. They cannot put all his anxieties to rest. It feels good to “count your blessings.” It feels good to know “things could always be worse.” None of those truths is apt to make the present suffering go away, though. They are merely a pleasant distraction.

Think it over long enough and you realize that, “We all want what’s best for your son,” is only the first step in a very long and complicated solution. After we’ve determined that we all want what’s best for the boy, we also have to agree on what we’re willing to sacrifice in order to achieve what is best. It’s one thing to say we all want a student to be a good husband who loves God when he grows up. It’s another thing to agree on what he’ll have to sacrifice now in order to become that sort of husband later.

If you ask a morbidly obese man if he’d like to be healthy and fit, he will immediately say he does. But if you ask him what he’s willing to do to become healthy and fit, he won’t reply so quickly. If all he had to do was push a button that made him healthy and fit, he’d push the button. But if becoming healthy and fit means months or years of diet and exercise, he will be less willing.

Likewise, when teachers and parents disagree, it’s rarely goals they disagree on. It’s the means of achieving those goals. St. Paul teaches, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” We all want a harvest of righteousness, but what unpleasant things are we willing to endure that we might get to it?

The dream of a sentimental age—which ours mostly certainly is—is that discipline doesn’t have to be unpleasant. We believe there’s a way around the unpleasantness of discipline. If authority figures are just warm and encouraging and nice enough, they won’t have to make anyone’s life really difficult. The unpleasantness of discipline was a convention of some antiquated cruel and patriarchal age, but we have finally realized that niceness is the real key to righteousness. After all, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” which means we can reorder affections without hurting feelings, correct without punishment, prune without cutting, operate without incisions, crucify the passions without a cross.

But no. None of that is possible.

The harvest of righteousness at 40 or 50 begins with the unpleasantness of discipline. It begins with vinegar, not honey. It begins with hurt feelings. It begins with the cross.

My aim here is to correct an overcorrection. A colleague lately observed that schoolroom discipline of the late 18th and 19th centuries was not mild enough, and this is obvious to anyone who glosses Jane Eyre or the novels of Dickens, wherein children are ferociously beaten with rods for the slightest infractions. It’s genuinely monstrous. Nonetheless, the pendulum has swung back (just as far) in the opposite direction, and today we’re inclined to believe that even a sharply worded rebuke is monstrous, as is docking points for careless handwriting.

Teachers, play the long game. Your goal isn’t for students to like you now, but for students to like you twenty years from now. If they happen to like you now, too, great, but you’ve got bigger fish to fry. Don’t give up on discipline just because it’s unpleasant, and look for your vindication when the harvest of righteousness begins, but no sooner.  You should want what is best, not what is easiest.

2 thoughts on “The Horror Of Discipline In A Sentimental Age”

  1. Great essay! On a related note, it concerns me when I hear administrators talk about how staff and teachers should be “friends” with students. Usually, that idea is couched in some upbeat modern psychological language about “relationship building.” Nine times out of ten, the idea of “friendship” being encouraged by schools is something Aristotle wouldn’t touch with the twelve-foot pole. The teacher-student relationship is certainly a species of friendship, but I make it clear for modern ears that I think of my students as potential future friends. It would be great if they came up to me five years after graduation, shook my hand, and called me by my first name. Then again, most of the best students maintain a humble posture even after they become colaborers in the field with their teachers.

  2. So correct! Being a grandparent and great grandparent has given me a birds eye view
    Of the ultimate damage done by placating and attempting to become the child’s best “buddy,” by providing no boundaries and/or consequences. Your article speaks to the matter powerfully. I pray some will find courage to carefully ofer tough love. It is often a matter of life and death!

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