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Is obedience dangerous? Part 1

May 6, 2017

A few months ago there were a couple of blogposts trying to link obedience with child abuse.

One post associated child abuse and obedience, implicitly, using an abuser as a model of adult authority:

I do not want every child to be obedient. In fact I would question what kind of society we would have if obedience reigned supreme? Let’s all obey Trump – no questions asked, in fact lets imagine he is never opposed? This is a pretty dangerous road to travel but I think it has much to explore….

I have an issue with the way obedience can used to get children to be compliant.

When I worked in Tower Hamlets (more than 15 years ago) a child protection discloser came in. Four very nervous children disclosed to a Learning Mentor that they had been beaten the night before, at a evening Koran reading class. As deputy I spoke to one boy who was said to have got the worst of it. I knew him well, he was in my class for a second year. He had very severe eczema. The children had told us how they were beaten in certain places. K had been beaten on his feet, and when I spoke to him his shoes were damp with blood. He slowly and painfully took off his socks at my request. His eczema inflamed and bleeding. He could hardly walk and yet he did, even though the pain was terrible. He was 10 years old.

By the end of the day twenty two boys had come forward to say they had received beatings and humiliations from a ‘pop up’ reading school on the local estate. Some only once but a few were constantly hurt. One child had keys held against his face whilst the so-called teacher karate kicked them and another had to crouch in the corner of the room with a broom handle slid over his neck and between his elbows… He would often have pig or cow written in chalk across his shaved head. He had special educational needs and was a complex boy.

The other post made the point more explicitly:

One of the most important lessons I teach in the school year is the one that tells the pupils that they should not do what an adult tells them to do….

… The lesson in question is on ‘Protective Behaviours’, i.e. protecting oneself from being abused…

That’s the one in which they learn to recognise that adults do not have absolute authority over them and that they have a right to say ‘no’ if what they are being asked to do is wrong. Famously, the pupils of [unnamed but easily identified school] would pick up someone’s grape off the floor, without argument or complaint. Whilst the total authority of the teachers in this school appears to be underpinned by kindness and concern – a benevolent dictatorship, if you will – administrations and contexts change. Would they comply if it were something considerably less pleasant? If it were someone considerably less pleasant?

So there you have it, if you try to ensure that children follow their teacher’s instructions, you might be enabling abuse. And at the time these posts went up some of the “Progressive Trolls” seemed okay with claiming the teachers they targeted online committed “emotional abuse” by enforcing rules.

Now, a lot could be said about those who see strong discipline as being on a continuum with child abuse. This has been a part of progressive rhetoric since, at least, the days of A.S.Neill’s Summerhill, perhaps ironically given that the behaviour of teachers at Summerhill (such as exposing themselves to teach anatomy or encouraging young children to masturbate in order to cure their neuroses) would now be seen as abuse. One might have thought that the abolition of corporal punishment, and its replacement with being told to wait in a room, might have put an end to this rhetoric. But now it seems to be that the mere aspiration of getting kids to follow the rules that is linked to abuse.

I think the claims that obedience enables abuse confuses legitimate authority with arbitrary power. Belief in obedience is not belief in the use of adult power according to whim. When traditionalists talk about obedience, it is firstly, obedience to the rules. Now unless a school has a rule that says child abuse should take place or be kept secret, this is unlikely to encourage abuse. Secondly, where traditionalists talk about obedience to adult authority, it is talking about the legitimate authority of adults with responsibility for children. If a teacher is not acting legitimately, then they do not have that authority. I would argue that a “no excuses” school, with its clear rules and routines actually does more to draw boundaries around teachers’ authority, than the “excuses” school, where the rules and sanctions are made up according to the whim and status of the teacher, and emotional manipulation is considered preferable to the threat of punishment. What is more likely to lead to abuse? Punishing a child for not doing their homework or winning over a child’s personal loyalty through special praise, attention and affection?

I’m not sure why the model of the abuser here is one of an authoritative adult who tells compliant kids what to do. How often do the cases of abuse involving teachers we see in the press involve the teacher who diminishes, rather than exploits, adult authority? How many cases of child abuse in schools, involve teachers acting as if their students were able to consent to sex, rather than accepting it was the teacher’s responsibility not to sleep with their students? Do you really think that the adult who befriends children and treats them as an equal is less likely to be an abuser than the adult who takes responsibility for children and sets firm boundaries?

In fact, it seems to me that “no excuses” discipline protects, rather than endangers kids. I will explore this further in part 2.

Update 8/5/2017

There were some complaints on Twitter  about my reference to teachers at Summerhill in the first part of the 20th century “exposing themselves to teach anatomy”. Apparently this was a very serious allegation to have made. Just to clarify, I did not mean to imply this was part of the curriculum. I was referring to a claim the school’s head made about teachers (including himself) exposing themselves to address children’s “curiosity”. I had charitably assumed it was curiosity about anatomy, and that, bizarre and inappropriate as it was, this behaviour was meant to be educational. I apologise for any upset this assumption caused and next time will simply assume they were all just sick perverts.

 

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9 comments

  1. Last year the ATL claimed that 43% of their members had to deal with physical violence from their pupils, which suggests that abuse of teachers is vastly more worrying than teachers abusing children. It is laughable to suggest that there is any likelihood of children being physically struck by teachers in an English school–even if it weren’t almost certain to end your career and result in prosecution, most adults are afraid of children.
    The whole concept of ‘behaviour management’ presumes that adults lack moral authority and hence must rely upon some form of emotional manipulation to maintain a semblance of order. The irony here is that even the bolshiest kids are far happier when they know where the boundaries are and know that they will be fairly and consistently enforced. So long as teachers have the right to send pupils out of the classroom for any infraction, it is very seldom necessary to use sanctions at all.


  2. I would argue that you are misrepresenting my post if you think that it shows ” strong discipline as being on a continuum with child abuse.” If you read further in my original post, you’d see that I believe in strong discipline as a product of understanding and not authority. I’m most in favour of the notion of ‘self-discipline’. I do not see that as being on a ‘continuum’ with child abuse. My argument is that ‘compliance’ is not something that we should be encouraging. If your argument is that the pupils somehow know the difference between benevolent authority and an abusive authority, then I’m not sure the appeal to authority is necessary. They already know why certain rules should be followed and why in other circumstances they might refuse to do what they’re told. Those who do what they’re told without question, because of a perceived authority, are the people we should be most worried about. An interesting irony in this whole debate, pitting the so-called ‘progressive trolls’ against those who feel they have the ‘answer’, is that the traditionalists, themselves, are the very people who rebelled against the progressive paradigm – they refused to accept what they were told.


    • “I believe in strong discipline as a product of understanding and not authority”

      Then it’s not that I have misrepresented you, it’s that you don’t understand what I mean by “discipline”. I don’t think there is a meaningful concept of discipline that can be separated from obedience.

      The rest of your comment seems to be withdrawing the argument you made in your blogpost, for which I thank you.


      • Well if you interpreted it as a withdrawing of my arguments then you are mistaken. We do, however, fundamentally disagree. You write, ‘I don’t think there is a meaningful concept of discipline that can be separated from obedience.’ I do. That’s probably the nub of the issue.


        • That may well be, but you certainly seemed to be backing off from the connection you claimed between obedience and abuse.


    • “…traditionalists, themselves, are the very people who rebelled against the progressive paradigm – they refused to accept what they were told.”
      There is a massive difference between intellectual freedom and disrupting a class, and an equally large gulf between adults with the responsibility for the intellectual growth of their pupils and hormone-fuelled teenagers are keenly aware of their rights without having much concept of responsibility. Even the most benevolent authority will still be challenged, and the last thing teachers need is to harbour doubts as to whether they have the right to exercise it.


  3. […] Teaching in British schools « Is obedience dangerous? Part 1 […]


  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  5. […] Is obedience dangerous? Part 1, by Andrew […]



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