ObedienceMay 28, 2009
The educational philosopher John Wilson, wrote an excellent chapter about discipline in his book “Philosophy and Practical Education” (1977). He observed that other philosophers had identified “discipline” as a kind of good order (or control) that was conducive to learning. Some writers even identified discipline with a situation where order was maintained because students understood the point of what they were learning. Wilson found this to be inadequate, and almost a form of wishful thinking on the part of philosophers who wish to use the word “discipline” to refer predominately to the situation they most approve of. Their conception of “discipline” can be criticised because a situation could be ordered or even organised without much actual use of discipline, for instance due to the existing disposition of the students or the charm or beauty of the teacher. Wilson also notes that “discipline” is sometimes used to refer to situations (like that of military discipline) where learning is not the over-riding objective. He concludes that discipline actually centres on obedience and, in particular, obedience to an authority. He notes that this is a deeply unfashionable viewpoint to take and might be condemned as “totalitarian” or as a form of “tyranny”.
If obedience was unfashionable then, I fear that it is even more unfashionable now. But of course, in the topsy-turvy world of education there is nothing more unfashionable than what is clearly right. Obedience is not tyranny, nor totalitarianism, nor is it training for a life of servility. Obedience is a basic prerequisite for a learning relationship. If you are going to learn it is essential that you follow the instructions of your instructor. If you don’t then you are unlikely to learn because a significant proportion of instructions are given because following them will result in learning. Even a lot of instructions that relate to behaviour, such as requests to pay attention or stop talking, are simply establishing what needs to be done in order to learn.
Of course, an anti-authoritarian might object by pointing out that there are some instructions that don’t relate directly to learning. For instance: instructions to smarten up one’s uniform, not to drop litter, to stop chewing gum or to show good manners. Now, this is not really the place to explain why we might want children to be polite, tidy and not perpetually chewing, but once it is accepted that we might request such things from students then we don’t have the option of allowing students to disobey in these cases and not in others. Selective obedience is no obedience at all. If students find such instructions too burdensome to obey they will quickly find instructions relating to learning equally burdensome. It should take extreme grounds (such as inappropriate instructions that impinge upon safety or propriety) to justify any disobedience at all.
Now, unless you are very fortunate, a teacher in a British school can expect to be directly disobeyed by students dozens of times a day. The nature of this disobedience will vary. Many students, particularly in lessons, will not comply with instructions until they have seen that other students are complying. You actually see them look around the room while they decide whether to do what has been asked. Other students will see particular categories of instruction (like “do your work”, “take the homework sheet with you” or “bring a pen to the lesson”) as purely optional. Some students will be embarrassed to obey a teacher in public, and will only follow instructions slowly and discretely. Some students are simply looking for confrontation and will disobey in the hope of being able to wind up their teacher. Some students will have existing (low) expectations about what should happen in a lesson and refuse to comply with any instruction that challenges those expectations. Often disobedience is a habit, and even students who want to learn will have to make a deliberate effort to break the habit before they can comply with instructions. Such students almost welcome the threat of a punishment because they know it will give them motivation to comply and make it more acceptable to obey in front of their peers. Many teachers become so used to disobedience that they cease to see it as defiance. They just absorb the idea that nobody can take their coat off without being asked five times and start to see the repetition of instructions and the issuing of threats as little more than a form of punctuation that is necessary for effective communication.
Minor behaviour problems such as being off-task and talking when the teacher is talking are usually a form of deliberate disobedience. Major behaviour problems, such as verbal abuse and threats, are often attempts to intimidate teachers in order to stop them expecting obedience. The expectation of obedience is the basic element that separates classes and schools with good behaviour from classes and schools with poor behaviour. Obedience is the virtue that schools and teachers cannot compromise on. Unfortunately, it is something they usually do compromise on. A good discipline system will see any disobedience whatsoever as grounds for punishment. Bad discipline systems will see it as a teachers’ responsibility to nag, cajole, encourage and ultimately beg students to comply with a given instruction.
And one final note about disobedience. It is the root cause of much, probably most, teacher stress and, in my experience, most teacher nightmares. A teacher in a British school is likely to be used to starting to do something, even something as simple as speaking, and having to stop what they are doing due to deliberate disobedience. If you are not a teacher it might be hard to imagine how frustrating this defiance is. I can only suggest that you imagine that feeling you get when you are in a traffic jam on an important journey. Now imagine how you feel when you think the traffic is starting to move on, only for it to grind to a halt a second later, and imagine that happening repeatedly for hours on end. Now imagine how you feel when you realise that the hold-up is not actually due to an accident ahead, or a busy road, but is in fact due to somebody (probably a caravan owner) deliberately driving at 10mph in front of you and not letting anyone overtake. Now imagine that you are trapped in this situation for two dozen hours a week. Finally, imagine that every so often your boss drives up to your window and tells you that if you are trapped in a traffic jam it must be because you are a crap driver. If you can imagine that, then you have some idea how frustrating it feels to be a teacher.