The stereotype of the old-fashioned schoolroom shows us the stern-faced teacher walking up and down the rigidly straight aisles with a ruler in her hand glowering at the children who were told not to speak in class or even to sneeze. If a child dared to make a noise and, say, whisper to the child next to her, the ruler would come down swiftly and the child would break into shrieks and later have nightmares about those terrible days. The idea was, it seems, to keep the kids in line, force-feed them knowledge — teach the kids the “three Rs” whether they wanted to learn or not.
Following the lead of people like Jean Jacques Rousseau in France and later A.S. Neill in England, parents and teachers in this country began to realize that this model was somehow wrong and that the child matters. Theory started to shift toward what we now call “child-centered education.” The subject-matter began to be thought of as less important than the child who was being taught. Such notions as “authority” and “discipline” took on a pejorative meanings, calling up images of the ruler coming down on the knuckles of the small child by a teacher who suffered from Jehovah’s complex. Soon popular psychologists got on the bandwagon, thinking they could not only teach better than the teachers, but also raise children better than the parents. Parents and teachers were told not to “inhibit” the child, that “stern discipline” was not the way to go, that the child ought to be treated like an adult and allowed to find their own way. Teachers and parents were told to be their kids’ friends, not authority figures. Soon the “free schools” sprang up, patterned after Neill’s Summerhill school in England — where students were allowed to select their own subjects and study them when they were ready to, and not before. His system worked with many bright, precocious children, but in the majority of cases the children learned little and the experiment was called by many people, including Bertrand Russell, a failed experiment.
But the child-oriented movement in this country had gained headway and began to take this country by storm. Supported by people like John Dewey (who later abandoned the theory, realizing that it had gone too far afield) and by the pop-psychologists who fell all over themselves rushing to get their books into print, parents and teachers questioned their own instincts and fell in line behind the so-called “experts” who may or may not have ever taught or even to have children of their own. They were not to restrict the children; they were there to support the child no matter what, always say “yes” and never say “no.” Thus was born the permissive society with which we are now so familiar where students are told they can walk on water even when it is not frozen and “authority” and “discipline” have become bad things — in the home as well as the classroom. Neill took a plain truth, namely, that students learn more quickly those things they enjoy — and developed it into a blatant falsehood, namely, that they will not learn those things they do not enjoy. In fact, students learn to like a great many things they might have avoided had they not been required to study them. Further, maturity is a function of being able to do those things we are not fond of doing, or which we have an aversion to doing. Child-oriented education has resulted in numberless children who are mis-educated and remain immature well into adulthood.
While this might be seen as (a necessary?) swing of a pendulum away from the stereotype given at the outset of this discussion, the pendulum at present shows no signs of moving. There is little evidence that more than a handful of folks connected with education realize how damaging this theory has been to the education of our children — as evidenced by comparisons of the American school system with the likes of Finland. Take, for example, the current notion of discipline which is regarded as a bad thing, whereas, in fact, intellectual discipline involves the ability of a mind to follow an argument, form cogent arguments, perceive untruths and formulate responses to blatant falsehoods. In a word, discipline is essential to real thought. It does not require teachers patrolling the classrooms with rulers in hand. But it does require teachers who are acknowledged as legitimate authority figures and who are committed to teaching tough subjects and demanding positive results from their students. Above all else it requires teachers who demand that their students learn to read, write, speak their language, and calculate such things as the tip in a restaurant — things that increasing numbers of American students cannot do. The sort of thing that passes for thought in a classroom where discipline is thought to be a bad thing is merely disjointed, incoherent drivel.
Flaubert said that discipline makes art of impulse. Similarly, discipline makes thought out of tangled, incoherent ideas and half-truths. Undisciplined thought is not real thought at all, it is mere impulse, gut feelings. And coming from kids who are, in many cases, overflowing with undeserved self-esteem, the way is paved for our mindless age of entitlement where spoiled kids cannot read, write coherently, or figure. But let us not simply assume that the pendulum will swing back somewhere just short of the teacher cruising the aisles with ruler in hand — say, to the vital notion of intellectual discipline instilled by demanding teachers who recognize and reward genuine excellence. It’s not going to happen unless enough people realize that the pendulum needs a push. And, sad to say, there appear to be very few around who even recognize the fact that the pendulum has become stuck in place.