Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

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Kindness and Justice

March 21, 2009

“It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice.”

Chesterton (1905)

It always fascinates me that those who express disapproval of punishment take such a self-righteous tone. To me a belief in desert, and with it a belief in rewards and punishment, is an integral part of believing in right and wrong. If good deeds did not deserve to be rewarded, and bad deeds did not deserve to be punished, then it would be very doubtful whether “good” or “bad” would have any meaning at all. So why would somebody who denies desert, see themselves as occupying the moral high-ground, rather than denying the existence of any moral highground?

My theory is that it comes down to different virtues, in particular: being kind and being just. On the surface there is a similarity. Both kindness and justice require a concern for the worst off, and a belief in either might lead one to help others, particularly those who are suffering. However, there is a major difference. If you help others out of kindness you are helping because you feel like it. Ultimately it is about you. If you help others in the interests of justice, you help them because they deserve to be helped. It is about them. Kindness, while still a virtue, is limited by the extent of your compassion. Justice can only reach a limit by being satisfied. Acts of kindness serve our desire to do good, acts of justice serve goodness itself. Kindness seeks to order our actions; justice seeks to order the universe.

In practice the two are very different. Kindness suggests that we harm nobody, while justice requires the guilty are punished. Kindness might endorse feeding the starving; justice asks why they are starving in the first place and demands we do something about it. Kindness asks what we can afford to give; justice asks if there is anything we deserve to keep. Kindness can be given to anybody, even to cats and dogs; justice can only be given to the wronged. When you are praised for an act of kindness it is natural to say “that was the least I could do”. That is the most accurate description of kindness. We all, to some degree, live our lives in a kind way. None of us, to any degree, live our lives in a just way. It would take a deliberate effort never to make a kind action. It takes a deliberate effort ever to make a just action. If we listened to justice we might give away all we own to those who deserve it more. If we listened to justice we might have to give up control of our lives for the benefit of others. If we listened to justice we might have to get ourselves killed, by challenging those with the power. A little bit of kindness here or there is far, far easier.

Now, I don’t mean to dismiss kindness. In our day-to-day lives kindness improves the lives of those around us, particularly when it is born of love. In fact, very little else, does more to improve the lives of our friends, families, pets or acquaintances. It is good to be kind, and it is good that it is within our reach. But it is a personal quality. We can live kind lives; we can’t build kind institutions. We may have a kind mother, a kind friend or even a kind boss. We don’t shop in kind supermarkets, get educated in kind schools or live under kind laws. Even those institutions, such as charities, churches and families that might consider the practice of kindness to be part of their purpose would soon fall apart if that kindness was unconstrained. A charity which attempted to serve all good causes would soon cease to function. A church which embraced sin as much as sanctity would cease to be a church. A family into which everybody was adopted would cease to be a family. Justice, however, is something we can strive for in institutions. In fact this is about the only place we get to serve justice. Where we have power and authority over others, when we are making decisions between the conflicting interests of others, we are able to make decisions that aren’t about ourselves. A judge can be just. A politician can be just. A teacher can be just.

It is at this point we can turn to education. An education system can serve justice. It can seek to ensure that all receive what they are entitled to. It can give opportunities to those who lack them. It can provide education to the poor. It can judge the merits of different parts of the curriculum, and pass on a valuable heritage. It can make sure that nobody profits from harming the chances of others, and can see that children are governed in a fair manner and protected from each other. Unfortunately, these are not the aspirations of our education system. Kindness has taken over. No longer are children to be given greater opportunities or a chance to improve themselves. They are encouraged to feel good about themselves as they are now and their situation as it is now. No longer is hard work to be inflicted on the lazy; that would be cruel. The difficult choices involved in being just are to be replaced with the conviction that every problem could be solved if only everybody could be a little kinder. Punishment is rejected in favour of lavishing kindness on the guilty, even at the expense of their victims. Nobody is to be given what they deserve, when they can be given what seems nice. Even the word “education” is being sidelined, and replaced with words that suggest that schools are there simply to look after children not to improve them. An education system that was just in its actions would do far more for more children than one which simply allows the chattering classes to foist their kindness on the young. However, this is not on the horizon. Worse, if you dare cry out for justice, then you will be branded as uncaring. We live in a topsy-turvy world where it doesn’t matter how much harm you do as long as you appear to care about the people you are harming.

Reference:

Chesterton, G.K., Heretics, 1905

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Desert Part 3: The Purpose of Punishment

November 30, 2008

Last time I observed that punishments are, by definition, given because they are deserved. This is the “retributive” view of punishment (although as mentioned earlier, this is the more traditional concept of “retribution” as requital rather than revenge or retaliation). Plamentz (1967), while not defining punishment to be retributive, suggests that it is only in societies which have professional judges and teachers where punishment would be seen as a means to an end, and that in “primitive” societies punishment would simply be seen as proper and fitting.

I do not mean to suggest that punishment serves no purpose beyond that of desert. I have already mentioned that it is a vital part of the concept of morality, or the concept of rules, that poor conduct should be punished. My point is that without the notion of desert, we are left with a deeply flawed concept of punishment. Lewis (1953) described punishment without desert as the “Humanitarian Theory Of Punishment”. Regarding its application to criminal justice he wrote:

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic … But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice.

Lewis argued that this theory, despite appearing merciful, would deprive criminals of their rights as human beings. The enlightened, non-retributive action, taken in response to crime would be as compulsory as retributive punishment, but not subject to the same restraints. While I hesitate to raise it to the level of human rights, I would suggest that in the education context the Humanitarian theory of punishment allows similar injustices.

Deterrence is the most commonplace, pragmatic justification for punishment. Docking (1987) observes that “the view of most teachers is that some punishment is necessary for deterrent purposes” but identifies the popularity of Bentham’s (1789) view: “But all punishment is a mischief: all punishment is in itself evil … It ought only be admitted in as far as it promises to exclude some greater evil”. A purely deterrent based system of punishment can be seen as (that most incoherent of concepts) a “necessary evil”. However, deterrents can act against justice in several ways. It is not necessary to punish the guilty to deter. Punishment of those who are thought to be guilty (“the usual suspects”) or punishment of wider groups of people than simply the guilty may also deter. Whole class punishments, in which every student in a class is punished regardless of guilt, is often a deterrent even though such punishment of the innocent is utterly unjust. If punishment was truly only about deterrence then collective punishment and victimisation of undesirable elements would be the order of the day. Similarly, there would be no reason to show restraint in punishment. If students were not deterred by a particular punishment, then there would be no reason not to increase its severity, no punishment could be unfairly harsh if there was no concept of desert to suggest the punishment needed to fit the crime. Punishment as deterrent would be more brutal and less discriminating than punishment as retribution. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily make it wrong but it does give a lie to those who suggest retributive punishment is cruel or unfair when compared with punishments given only as a deterrent.

The other proposed purpose of punishment is that of “rehabilitation”. The claim is that punishments can, in some way, reform the character of the punished. There is some truth to the suggestion that punishment can teach a lesson. Wilson (1971) suggests that punishment is educative because it consists in part of “seeing the point or rightness of the rules” as “it is because the rules are right that it hurts to break them”. Plamentz (1967) identifies punishment of young and “innocent” children as intending to “train them to `feel’ as they ought”. Peters (1966) adds the possibility that a punishment might serve as a “sharp shock” which would bring an offending student “to their senses”, breaking them out of a fantasy and causing them to contemplate what behaviour is or is not socially acceptable. Others, such as Piaget (1932), suggest specific ways of punishing that might reform. However, there are clear limits (noted by most of those named above) to the extent to which such an effect might take place. It is also less than clear that punishment is educative when it is intended to be purely educative. It seems to me more plausible that it is when a punishment consists of a clear judgement of moral fault and desert that it provides most to think about and learn from.

More importantly, without desert, there is once again no requirement that the punishment fits the crime. At the moment we see inappropriately lenient punishments (eg. a verbal warning, a day off school) that are intended to “reform”. However, particularly in light of the fact that such punishments never do reform, it would be equally justified to use inappropriately harsh punishments. If a child is being punished in order to be reformed then there is no point at which they have “done their time” and can cease being punished. The only justified punishment, even for a minor misdemeanour such as dropping litter, is one that continues until it is clear that they will never reoffend. Again, a supposedly humanitarian doctrine could be used to justify the most severe punishments.

It might seem odd that I am arguing against the principles of deterrent and reform on the grounds that it would lead to punishments that are too harsh, when normally I am complaining that punishments are not harsh enough. Actually, this all takes us back to the issue of human nature. If human beings were rarely inclined to do wrong then perhaps small deterrents would deter all wrongdoing and small penalties, of the right kind, could reform the worst offenders. The lenient punishments we currently see might be compatible with deterrent and rehabilitation if the desire to do wrong was rare and weak. The fact is that human beings are prone to doing wrong. Deterrents would have to be severe and rehabilitation extensive to prevent misbehaviour completely and there is no reason why the advocates of the Humanitarian theory of punishment should be aiming for anything less than this. The retributive approach to punishment seeks justice, it hasn’t failed if some offences are still committed. By contrast, if an offence continues to occur it hasn’t been deterred, and the offenders haven’t been rehabilitated and so, according to the Humanitarian theory of punishment there is no reason to cease punishing until reoffending becomes unthinkable. Of course, what happens in practice is that those who reject desert also fail to acknowledge what human nature is like. Then and only then, when what children are like and what can be done about it are both being ignored, do we arrive at the situation our schools are now in: a state of complete and utter denial.

References:

Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Collins, 1957, first published 1789

Docking, J.W. Control and discipline In Schools: Perspectives and approaches,Second Edition, Harper and Row Ltd, 1987

Lewis, C.S. The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, Res Judicatae 6, 1953

Plamentz, J. Responsibility, Blame and Punishment, in Laslet, P. and Runciman, W.C. (eds) Philosophy, Politics and Society: Third Series 1967

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966

Piaget, Jean The Moral Judgement Of The Child, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline in Education, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971

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Desert Part 2: Punishment

November 26, 2008

No concept has been at the centre of more heated debate in education than punishment, and no concept has been more undermined by the collapse of ethical thinking. Almost every aspect of punishment has been challenged, dismissed or redefined at one time. It is obvious to children, and to most parents, that a punishment is a painful, unpleasant or undesired experience, given to somebody as a result of a judgement of what they deserve in return for their poor conduct. This is not obvious to educationalists, human rights lawyers, educational consultants or psychologists. For some this is the rejection of the very concept of desert; for others it is simply a lack of intestinal fortitude with regard to the (often unpleasant) act of punishing. It is hoped that difficult judgements and personal responsibility can be avoided. Of course, punishment, like desert and sin, is an indispensable moral concept. If an action is not deserving of punishment it is in no way wrong. Even without explicitly referring to morality it is still the case that if a rule can be broken without the possibility of a penalty, it is no longer a rule. Punishments define moral boundaries, without them we are utterly lost and so we can never have a coherent morality without punishment.

Attempts to challenge a concept as indispensable as punishment often turn out to be little more than word games. For this reason we should consider the correct understanding of the word:

The name `punishment’ means `requital` or ‘return,’ deriving from an Indo-European root meaning `exchange’ and therefore not very remote semantically from the term `retribution` which means ‘giving back’… It is common to refer to a `retributive theory of punishment’ a paradoxically redundant expression that would seem to mean a `penal theory of penalty’… Punishment is best understood as a judgement enacted on the person, property or liberty of the condemned party … it is an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context. A rational act of condemnation it is neither irrational like impulsive revenge, nor inactive, like reflective disapproval, but an `expressive act’ or `communication’. It is not a private act, but an authorised act undertaken in the defence of the order of society, an act of social definition.

O’Donovan (2005)

Sometimes it is claimed that punishment can be replaced with “positive methods”, i.e. encouragement and rewards. While rewards for complying can motivate, withdrawal of rewards still constitutes a punishment. Indeed, many, perhaps most, punishments could be described as a withdrawal of some comfort or convenience. Inevitably punishment is still occurring under systems of “positive” behaviour management but in a more costly and impractical way.

Another game that is played with the word “punishment” is simply to implicitly, or explicitly, redefine it in ways that make it automatically an aggressive, or immoral act. This has already happened to the synonym “retribution” to the extent where it is now widely seen to mean “revenge” or “retaliation” rather than a requital. Examples of this are very common when one looks at the work of the behaviour management industry. It is common place to take concepts that are part and parcel of punishment and then suggest they are actually an alternative to the cruelties of punishment:

Here, an “expert”  claims that a consequence is different from a punishment:

Consequences are a respectful, fair, democratic response to misbehaviour. Unlike punishments they don’t ridicule, they don’t embarrass, they don’t humiliate and they aren’t unfair… Consequences are different because they focus on the behaviour being displayed, not on the child. All too often teachers slip into labeling young people because of their behaviour and this has the effect of making punishments seem like personal attacks.

Here another “expert” claims that discipline is an alternative to punishment:

Many parents think that punishing a child will teach him or her discipline, but this is not the case. Punishment and discipline are two very distinct concepts and they should not be used interchangeably as they so often are… Discipline helps children realise what has gone wrong, that they have become out of control and that they need to regain control before an activity can continue. This is done in a positive and consistent manner so that children can see the pattern of what is appropriate behaviour and what is inappropriate behaviour … Discipline does not seek to simply call out children’s faults or misgivings (which very often is the basis of punishment), and instead uses praise for appropriate behaviour to gain results. Discipline is also never physical (while punishment very well may include swatting or smacking), sarcastic, belittling or disrespectful…Ignoring misbehaviour and encouraging positive alternatives, putting a child in open-ended time out to allow him or her to regain their self-control, discussing inappropriate actions and how to make up for them, using sticker and star charts to map good behaviour and giving a child two positive options for future actions are all methods of discipline that help re-direct children to more appropriate behaviours.

Both writers allow for penalties to be enacted, or rewards to be foregone, but both claim that these are not the same as punishments. Inevitably there is no clear definition of what punishment is, just the repeated implication that it must be humiliating, painful and unfair. One assumes that this allows the writers to retain their own right to punish, but to condemn others for the self-same act.

A less condescending variation on this is those schools who claim that their discipline system is based on choice and consequences. It is hoped that by emphasising choice children will see sanctions as something they can avoid rather than a vindictive act on the part of teachers. I would tend towards the view that this is a good thing to try and communicate, although my experience of such schools is that students continue to see those sanctions as, at best, punishments or, at worst, victimisation. However, it seems to be an utter misunderstanding of what a punishment is to suggest that calling a sanction a punishment makes it any less of a matter of choice. We choose what we deserve, just as surely as we choose a consequence given without an explicit concept of desert. Punishment, far from removing the notion of choice, enhances it by placing it entirely within the moral arena, the ultimate arena for personal choice and responsibility. A punishment is a choice and a consequence, and it is the type of choice and consequence children are most likely to be familiar with.

Another, more academically respectable, way to redefine punishment is that used by behaviourists. As with rewards, they wish to remove the element of moral desert from the concept and classify it only by its effect on behaviour, so for instance Nuttin et al (1968) describes punishment as “a … negatively valued event contingent on an action or series of actions”. By this redefinition, anything that is worth avoiding which may result from your actions is a punishment. This may seem plausible, due to the fact that there are similar colloquial usages of the word (one might refer to a boxer taking “punishment” in the ring) but when applied in this context it leaves us (as behaviourism always does) with a moral vacuum where concepts have lost their purpose. Without desert punishments are essentially purposeless. The only way around this is, of course, if new purposes are contrived.

We shall consider these next time.

References:

O’Donovan, Oliver, The Ways of Judgement, Eerdmans, 2005

Nuttin, Joseph and Greenwald, Anthony G. Reward and Punishment in Human Learning, Academic press, 1968

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Desert Part 1: Rewards

November 22, 2008

Returning to my earlier discussion of ethics, desert is another ethical concept that has been repeatedly neglected, or used only selectively, in education in recent years. “Desert” is the extent to which an action is worth rewarding or punishing. These days there are real problems with the very suggestion that children might deserve to be treated differently depending on their behaviour, or effort. Most of the time, the objection to desert takes the form of an objection to punishment, however, in its most extreme form rewards are also challenged, for instance:

It is conventional for schools to demand respect from the children. But does the school and the behaviour of adults, show respect for the children? There are so many ways of showing disrespect, and some of them are ways I thought had disappeared in the 1970s. It says: How many stars have you got this term? And here are the children’s names, in alphabetical order:

Amy (here are 12 stamps, each saying ‘well done’)

Amrit 15

Chloe 12

Daisy 2

Freddie 5

Do I need to continue? From the publication of this data on the classroom wall, Amy, Amrit, Chloe, Daisy and Freddie are expected to respect their teacher?

Sedgewick (2005)

According to this account, even public rewards for those who deserve it are simply an attack on those who don’t. “Respect” has been redefined to mean its opposite, a contempt for personal merit, rather than esteem for it.

Sometimes “rewards” are still allowed, but are made meaningless by being unrelated to merit. One disturbing fashion at the moment is to reward students who don’t misbehave, giving the clear message that poor behaviour is normal and mere compliance with the rules and expectations of the classroom is of particular merit. Cowley (2001), having warned that rewards should, in theory, be earned, nevertheless, gives the following advice:

To keep a difficult class focused in the computer room it might be an idea to offer them a reward (for instance the chance to use the internet) when they have completed the work set to your satisfaction. Although this is not strictly ‘allowed’ it can be very effective and it will also win you a reputation as someone who is open to negotiation

As ever those wanting to undermine our understanding of morality can turn to psychology for a morality-free interpretation of basic moral concepts. Behaviourists (now often called Behaviour Analysists) have used the term “reward” to refer to any incentive given to encourage a particular behaviour. This is to lose the entire point of the concept of reward; rewards are not simply inducements to comply, but are positively deserved. Wilson (1971) explains what a “reward” that isn’t deserved actually amounts to:

…to give pleasure to someone, if he had no notion that he deserved such a thing, will seem to him to like flattery, currying favour or offering a bribe, not like a ‘reward’… even when he feels there is an acceptable reason for the pleasure in terms of custom or precedent (as on his birthday, for example), he will construe it not as a ‘reward’ but as a gift. Only when deliberate pleasure-giving is for moral desert, is it properly speaking a ‘reward’. Other sorts of deliberate pleasure-giving come under categories such as ‘gift’ or ‘prize’, or on occasion ‘bribe’ or ‘inducement’, and so on.

This is where the problem lies. Nobody can develop the idea that an activity is worthwhile through a bribe. Nobody can realise that good behaviour is worthwhile for its own sake if it is bought. There is nothing wrong with rewards, where they recognise merit, but everything wrong with them when they are part of a transaction or a negotiation.

And finally, a wider point can be made about cultures where people feel they should be rewarded or respected for simply compliance with minimal social expectations. In his controversial routine, “Niggas Versus Black People” the comedian Chris Rock, describes the value system of the criminal underclass within the black community in the United States (controversially described as “niggas”):

You know the worst thing about niggas? Niggas always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do. For some shit they just supposed to do: A nigga will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigga will say some shit like, “I take care of my kids.” You’re supposed to, you dumb motherfucker. What are you talking about? What are you bragging about? What kind of ignorant shit is that? “I ain’t never been to jail.” What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker.

It doesn’t take long in a British classroom to find a student who wants to be rewarded for not interrupting or for doing some work, or something else they are “just supposed to do”. Instead of seeking to achieve, students think their teachers should be grateful if they merely comply. I’ve frequently encountered students attempt to enter negotiation about rewards for accomplishments such as “I didn’t get a detention this lesson”. One student proudly told me they hadn’t been excluded at all since year 8.

What do you want, a cookie?

References:

Cowley, Sue, Getting The Buggers to Behave, Continuum, 2001

Sedgewick, Fred, How to Teach with a Hangover: A Practical Guide to Overcoming Classroom Crises, Continuum, 2005

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971

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Needs

November 1, 2008

Agreement about needs, then, depends upon agreement about values. An adolescent, you may say, needs freedom to express himself; I may say that he needs to consider other people’s feelings. To claim, therefore, that education should ‘meet the needs’ of adolescents (or any other category of pupil), or to argue that the curriculum is a good one if it ‘meets the children’s needs’, by itself is meaningless. ‘Needs’ for what? Unless goals are specified no ‘needs’ can be identified. Even then, unless goals are agreed to be good ones, ‘meeting needs’ is still far from being justified. A young bully, for example, from his point of view may ‘need’ to find victims. Plainly this is a ‘need’ which, though identifiable, should not be met. Further still, though, even if we managed to reach agreement about which of his ‘needs’ we satisfy, it would still have to be shown that it was education, specifically, which should be employed to bring about these deprivations and satisfactions.

P.S.Wilson (1971)

So far I have discussed the three main explanations given as to why children are blameless for their behaviour. These were:

In practice, it can undermine the case against personal responsibility to use several different explanations. Jordan can’t have told me to “fuck off” because he’s young and because he’s poor and because he has an undiagnosed medical condition. A willingness to use all three explanations only serves to show up the fact that these explanations are functioning as nothing more than excuses.

Describing all three as examples of a broad category of “needs” gets round this difficulty. A child’s immaturity, poverty and disability are all “needs” to be met. Not only that, but it can then be claimed that any teacher who wishes to hold a student to account is deliberately letting a students’ needs go unmet out of personal malice. After all, who would dare deprive a child of something they need? All bad behaviour is then declared to be a result of unmet needs. A propagandist for this idea might then try to give examples such as a hungry child being bad-tempered, a young child crying, a deprived child being punished for not bringing expensive equipment to school, or a colour blind child using the wrong pens when drawing a diagram as typical examples of bad behaviour. The logic is simple, if a child behaves badly it is simply a sign that the teacher had failed to be kind enough, or understanding enough, to meet that child’s needs. Alternatively it can be claimed that whole schools have failed to provide enough expertise to identify all needs or failed to recreate themselves as what Peters (1966) called “orphanages for children with parents”; institutions concerned with all possible aspects of student well-being, rather than their education. All that is needed is kinder and better trained teachers, and more sympathetic schools, to diagnose and treat all needs and bad behaviour would just disappear. The cloak of pseudo-scientific expertise can then be adopted by appealing to Maslow’s (1943) Hierachy of Needs a psychological theory which attempted to list and rank all human drives as “needs” of one sort or another.

Of course, such an argument is fundamentally incoherent. As Wilson (above) pointed out, needs do not exist in isolation; something can only be needed for a purpose. When we recognise this then the idea that we can categorise a wide variety of human conditions and human wants as “needs”, let alone the idea that we can use these needs to explain bad behaviour or absolve people of responsibility for their actions falls apart on many different grounds. There are a number of unanswerable questions and objections to the model.

Firstly, we have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet. We can’t even agree that we need food and air unless we first agree that we want to live. The purpose of meeting psychological and social needs is far from clear. Happiness? Psychological health? Are we really obliged to make all students happy and psychologically healthy? It would be an absurdity to try and provide everything our students want, but it is far from clear which of their desires count as a need or not. Maslow has helpfully included sex as a basic need, a fact often forgotten by those who would quote him in an educational context, as the obvious implication would involve turning schools into brothels (as well as orphanages). However, if it is not possible to identify what needs we should be meeting then we can’t possibly declare that needs haven’t been met.

Secondly, we have the problem of identifying what exactly is needed. It might be easy to recognise that a hungry child needs food or that a child with no legs might need, say, a wheelchair. It is less clear as to what, say, a dyslexic, child needs. By this I don’t mean that there are different treatments for dyslexia that we would have to select between, I mean that there are value judgements to be made before we can judge what is needed. Specifically, do we believe that a dyslexic child needs to gain the greatest possible skill in reading and writing or do we believe that they need to be assisted with reading and writing where it might obstruct them? This is not a minor issue that can simply be answered by saying “a bit of both”. If we take the first option we will be trying to make them read and write as much as possible, even to the extent of giving them extra lessons in reading and writing and removing them from conventional lessons, or even mainstream schooling. If we take the second option then we are choosing to give them as little reading and writing as possible. Two exact opposite answers to what appears to be the same need. Without a value judgement about the aims of education (i.e. an answer to the question of whether we want the student’s school experience, or their abilities, to most closely resemble what is “normal”) we cannot decide what it is that the student needs. This problem doesn’t end with learning disabilities. How do we confront a child’s poverty? Or their immaturity? I am not simply saying that these problems are difficult, I am saying they are insoluble without identifying a purpose alongside a need. It is only by knowing explicitly what we are trying to achieve that we can judge what is needed to achieve it.

Finally, we have moral and psychological questions about “meeting the needs” of badly behaved children. Assume that answers existed to the question of which categories of needs should be met and how schools and teachers can meet them. We still have problems relating this idea specifically to badly behaved children. Even if we could find a situation where meeting a need was not contentious in general, we might still find it difficult to see meeting that need as a way to deal with a particular child’s poor behaviour. To pick the most extreme example, imagine a school that discovered many of its students were starved of food, that this could not be dealt with more effectively through other agencies, and the school had the resources and facilities to feed these students. It seems clear that, unless you favour child starvation, there is an obvious moral case for meeting this need, and the available food would be given to those who most needed it. Now imagine we accepted the belief that meeting this need was not, a moral duty, or an act of charity, but a method of treating the underlying cause of poor behaviour. We would cease looking for the most famished child to feed first and start feeding the worst behaved. Here is where the moral and psychological problems begin. We would be rewarding the worst behaved child with something they wanted. Yes, we could tell ourselves that every child, even the worst behaved ones, deserve to be fed, but we would nevertheless be providing the badly behaved hungry child with preferential treatment over the well-behaved hungry child. This is an obvious and blatant injustice. If this moral problem was something that we could ignore (perhaps by convincing ourselves that all hungry children are badly behaved and any well-behaved child simply cannot be terribly hungry, or by denying any relevance of morality to the “science” of behaviour management), we still have the psychological problem. For that child, and no doubt their peers, we have established that you are rewarded with food for bad behaviour. This will serve only to reinforce and encourage the bad behaviour. Now, if this is the case for the most obvious and blatant need, for a case where the only action taken is as morally desirable as you can get, it seems highly unlikely that there are going to be any cases at all where meeting needs (in the sense of providing a student with something they actually want) is a just, or an effective way to deal with bad behaviour. If feeding the hungry might be harmful or wrong in this situation, imagine how more contentious other types of “help” (like extra attention, free holidays, help in lessons or immunity from punishment) might be. They are likely to be even more obviously unjust and counter-productive.

Of course, the incoherence and injustice of the needs-based approach to education is inevitable. Modelling human beings as bundles of needs is to rob them of their humanity. Whenever we view human beings as something other than moral agents we are likely to end up advocating solutions which are in conflict with both our consciences and our knowledge of the human mind. As long as we expect children to have no conscience, then we cannot help them, we can only dehumanise them.

 

References

Maslow, A.H. A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50 1943:370-96, 1943

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971

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The Blameless. Part 3: The Afflicted

October 25, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because they have a medical or psychological condition.

There are two versions of this argument. The first version suggests that if a child is behaving badly in a lesson they must secretly be unable to do the work, and that the most likely reason a child might be unable to keep up with their peers is some form of disability or illness. There are two main flaws in this argument, both incredibly obvious. Firstly, there is no clear reason why a child unable to do their school work would misbehave rather than simply say they couldn’t do it. At the very least it assumes that the penalty for admitting to personal academic failure is greater than that for disrupting the learning of others, which would itself be a disordered situation, where personal responsibility needs increasing, not denying. The second flaw is that it assumes that assessing a child’s inability to complete work is a difficult task, probably requiring expertise beyond that of the classroom teacher. In actual fact, this form of assessment is an integral part of teaching and while doctors and psychologists might be required to find a root cause of an inability to complete work, nobody is likely to be more effective than a teacher at identifying a failure to be able to do work. These two flaws mean that the argument is dependent on the circumstances of both the child being unreasonable and the teacher being incompetent, which, while this may sometimes be the case, is a ludicrous assumption to make when dealing with poor behaviour in general.

The second version of this argument claims that medical or psychological conditions directly cause involuntary incidents of poor behaviour. Obviously children shouldn’t be punished for actions influenced by Tourette’s or having a coughing fit. However, such situations are incredibly rare. In order to allow for more wide use of this excuse medical and psychological “conditions” have multiplied to cover virtually every human inclination. Such conditions are usually impossible to explain, let alone identify, without using a comparison with some view of what is normal for a child (often this is tied in to the concept of “developmental levels”). If a child is more energetic or inattentive than normal they have ADHD. If they won’t follow instructions as much as expected then they have Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If they are anti-social or even annoyingly pedantic then some form of autism will be suggested. (The latest condition I have encountered, admittedly online rather than in real life, is a parent who claims her children have “impaired proprioception” a physiological condition, symptoms of which include such supposed anomalies as “crashing into things, throwing themselves onto the floor, swinging as high as they possibly can”). In the event that no specific behaviour disorder can be identified then, conveniently, almost every failing can be covered by “low self-esteem”.

Now identifying what is abnormal is probably a very useful principle in medicine. It is deeply flawed as a way of considering the causes of human behaviour. Our behaviour, including our bad behaviour, is based on our desires. Different people have different desires. The worst behaved kids will, of course, have a desire to misbehave that is either stronger, or less well resisted, than that of the better behaved kids including the average (or “normal”) child. If this is grounds for seeing the behaviour as abnormal and in turn diagnosing a “condition” then the obvious result of this is that what are clearly just character traits, that should be as susceptible to human judgement as any other, will become seen as uncontrollable quirks of fate. Worse, the more extreme a moral failing, the more it is claimed to be beyond conscious control. In the case of those who argue that children are naturally good we gain a particularly spectacular piece of circular reasoning: All bad behaviour (unless covered by the previous explanations) must be abnormal; therefore it has a psychological or medical cause; therefore it is not under the child’s conscious control; therefore the child is naturally good; therefore the child’s bad behaviour is abnormal.

The confusion over what counts as a disability, and what is simply a matter of character or ability, has created the Special Needs racket, a system where help intended for students with genuine disabilities is lost in a swamp of claimants and the disgraceful efforts to “include” badly behaved students at the expense of those who do behave. Baroness Warnock, who was responsible for the creation of so much of the Special Needs system, is reported to now be in the position of disowning it:

“Mary Warnock, architect of England’s special needs education system, is to publish a damning report on how it has turned out in practice. Baroness Warnock says pressure to include pupils with problems in mainstream schools causes “confusion of which children are the casualties”. She also says the way the most severe needs are assessed is “wasteful and bureaucratic” and “must be abolished”. .. Lady Warnock says that it was expected that 2% of pupils with special needs would receive statements. That statements were actually given to 20%, she says, reflects the lack of clarity over their application.”

From http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4071122.stm

A final note: once again the word “need” has appeared when discussing a way of absolving children of moral responsibility. In the next few days I will look at this more closely.

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The Blameless. Part 2: The Poor

October 20, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because their behaviour is determined by their background.

When children’s bad behaviour is excused as being a response to circumstances (or to their environment), then this is usually circumstances that result from them being underprivileged. It is easy to observe that the claim is often made that children (or even adults) are badly behaved because they are poor. There is some evidence to support the idea. Even if we eliminate as unhelpful examples related to being unable to afford school equipment or uniform, we can still see that there is a lot of bad behaviour in schools where there is a lot of poverty and deprivation. It is easy for me to think of badly behaved children I have taught who were suffering from incredible deprivation. There is a link of some kind between poverty and bad behaviour and so it does appear plausible that poverty itself causes children to misbehave. Or at least it does until you stop looking at whether badly behaved kids are poor, and start looking at whether poor kids are badly behaved.

If poverty caused bad behaviour in itself we would expect recent immigrants from poor countries, particularly the children of asylum seekers, who often arrive with very little, to be the worst behaved kids. This is exactly the opposite of what is the case in my personal experience. Although there are exceptions, recent immigrants, even those who have arrived in the worst possible circumstances, are often the most eager to learn and work hard. Of course, my experience could be unrepresentative, so let’s have a look at the statistics.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation “Rates of poverty were highest for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Black Africans, reaching nearly two-thirds for Bangladeshis. Rates of poverty were also higher than average for Indian, Chinese and other minority group households.” So if poverty itself caused bad behaviour we would expect Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Black Africans to be the worst behaved children in school.

Does this hold up? Here are the figures for permanent exclusions by ethnic group (From http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000793/SFR14_2008TablesAdditional10Julya.xls):

PRIMARY, SECONDARY AND SPECIAL SCHOOLS: NUMBER OF PERMANENT EXCLUSIONS BY ETHNIC GROUP AND GENDER England, 2006/07 (ESTIMATES*)

Boys

(Percentage of school population)

Girls

(Percentage of school population)

Total

(Percentage of school population)

White

0.19

0.05

0.12

White British

0.19

0.05

0.12

Irish

0.23

0.04

0.14

Traveller of Irish heritage

0.54

#

0.35

Gypsy/Roma

0.78

0.28

0.54

Any other White background

0.14

0.03

0.09

Mixed

0.35

0.11

0.23

White and Black Caribbean

0.56

0.16

0.36

White and Black African

0.31

0.10

0.20

White and Asian

0.18

0.04

0.11

Any other Mixed background

0.27

0.09

0.18

Asian

0.12

0.01

0.07

Indian

0.06

0.01

0.04

Pakistani

0.16

0.02

0.09

Bangladeshi

0.15

0.02

0.08

Any other Asian background

0.07

0.02

0.05

Black

0.35

0.10

0.23

Black Caribbean

0.57

0.19

0.38

Black African

0.22

0.04

0.13

Any other Black background

0.39

0.11

0.26

Chinese

#

0.00

#

Any other ethnic group

0.10

0.03

0.07

Unclassified (8)

..

..

..

Minority Ethnic Pupils

0.21

0.05

0.13

All pupils (4)

0.20

0.05

0.13

* Figures relating to permanent exclusions are estimates based on incomplete pupil-level data. See Notes to Editors 5.

# less than 5, or a rate based on less than 5 exclusions.

Totals may not appear to equal the sum of component parts because numbers have been rounded to the nearest 10.

Figures for fixed period exclusions show:

PRIMARY, SECONDARY AND SPECIAL SCHOOLS:

NUMBER OF FIXED PERIOD EXCLUSIONS BY ETHNIC GROUP AND GENDER England, 2006/07

Boys (Percentage of school population)

Girls (Percentage of school population)

Total (Percentage of school population)

White

9.32

3.22

6.33

White British

9.39

3.24

6.38

Irish

9.88

3.91

6.92

Traveller of Irish heritage

24.87

7.00

16.24

Gypsy/Roma

25.90

12.44

19.33

Any other White background

6.21

2.13

4.22

Mixed

13.03

4.96

9.04

White and Black Caribbean

19.76

7.79

13.77

White and Black African

11.45

4.71

8.08

White and Asian

6.96

2.01

4.54

Any other Mixed background

10.54

3.89

7.27

Asian

5.08

0.96

3.08

Indian

2.90

0.59

1.78

Pakistani

7.09

1.23

4.25

Bangladeshi

5.35

1.17

3.26

Any other Asian background

3.81

0.77

2.34

Black

13.28

4.68

8.99

Black Caribbean

18.57

6.81

12.67

Black African

9.76

3.26

6.51

Any other Black background

15.36

5.55

10.61

Chinese

1.27

0.38

0.83

Any other ethnic group

6.10

1.67

3.98

Unclassified (6)

..

..

..

Minority Ethnic Pupils

8.50

2.75

5.68

All pupils (5)

9.34

3.19

6.32

Totals may not appear to equal the sum of component parts because numbers have been rounded to the nearest 10.

A quick glance reveals that the poorest ethnic groups actually have rates of exclusion that are either about average (for black African students), or below average (for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese and Indian students).

As an additional point, if you know anybody who has taught in the developing world they are likely to tell you that (other than occasional problems with paying attention when hungry) children in some of the poorest countries in the world behave well in school despite appalling conditions of poverty. It simply isn’t poverty itself that causes children to behave badly. Communities can suffer poverty without suffering exceptionally bad behaviour in schools.

What we see in schools is not poverty making children behave badly, but many of the worst behaved children coming from poor homes. Given the retreat from discipline within schools it is hardly a surprise that students learn to behave, if at all, in their own homes. This provides us with a more plausible explanation of the connection between poverty and bad behaviour. Homes where children are not taught to behave or encouraged to learn are often poverty-stricken homes because a culture of poor behaviour and a culture of low aspirations go well together, but poverty itself does not cause low aspirations or poor home discipline.

I won’t explore how poor home discipline develops and it’s precise connection to poverty (but if you are interested Thernstrom et al (2003) would be a great place to start), but for now we can simply observe that when we identify the connection between poverty and bad behaviour to be one based on poor discipline in the home, then we cease to have any reason to excuse poor discipline in school. It is not that the badly behaved children from deprived homes are not responsible for their actions; it is that they are not held responsible for their actions at home and the case for holding them responsible for their actions at school is strengthened, rather than weakened.

Whereas most of the reasons for claiming that children aren’t responsible for their actions are usually justified with “psychological theories”, the claim that poverty removes responsibility is often justified in far more wide ranging social theories. There is a part of the British middle class socialist tradition that suggests the poverty is the cause of all of the moral weakness of the poor. (Often expressed in ways that make me think of this chap). If such an argument were to be taken seriously, it would, as Chesterton (1908) argues, give us grounds, not so much to improve the condition of the poor, but to exclude and disempower them:

I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: “It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance.” It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, “Very well, then, we won’t trust them,” and bang the door in his face. On the basis of Mr. [Robert] Blatchford’s view of heredity and environment, the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air? If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia.

When psychological theories are resorted to in this case then it is often with reference to theories about human needs such as those of Maslow. The use of ill-defined “needs” in education is a big enough topic to require another post at a later date.

References

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, 1908

Thernstrom, Stephan and Thernstrom, Abigail, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap In Education, Simon & Schuster, 2003

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