F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
May 28, 2000
Wet Noodle Replaces Hickory Stick

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

Kids want and need discipline, but in many of our public schools they just aren't getting it.

"Over the past thirty years or so, the courts and the federal government have hacked away at the power of educators to maintain a safe and civil school environment," comments Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute. "Rigid school bureaucracies and psychobabble-spouting 'experts'" have undermined all authority, "so that kids today are more likely than ever to go to disorderly schools, whose only answers to the disorder are ham-fisted rules and therapeutic techniques designed to manipulate students' behavior. . . ."

In the current issue of City Journal, Hymowitz complains that the efforts of educators to restore the discipline that once prevailed "have only alienated students and undermined adult authority even more. Their first stratagem has been to bring in the lawyers to help them craft regulations, policies, and procedures," she reports. "These legalistic rules, designed more to avoid future lawsuits than to establish classroom order, are inevitably abstract and inflexible," says Hymowitz. "Understandably, they inspire a certain contempt from students. Putting them into practice," she adds, "often gives rise to the arbitrary and capricious decisions that lawmakers originally wanted to thwart."

Hymowitz worries that "the influence of lawyers over school discipline means that educators speak to children in an unrecognizable language, far removed from the straight talk about right and wrong that most children crave." But that's not the only linguistic abuse. "When educators aren't talking like lawyers, they're sounding like therapists," she continues, "for they've called in the psychobabblers and psychologists from the nation's ed schools and academic departments of psychology to reinforce the attorneys in helping them reestablish school discipline."

Hymowitz summarizes some of the squishy alternatives to old-fashioned discipline. "School bureaucrats," she notes, "have been falling over one another in their rush to implement trendy-sounding 'research-based programs' -- emotional literacy training, anti-bullying workshops, violence prevention curriculums, and the like -- as 'preventive measures' and 'early interventions' for various school discipline problems. Of dubious efficacy, these grimly utilitarian nostrums seek to control behavior in the crudest, most mechanical way," says Hymowitz. "Nowhere is there any indication that adults are instilling in the young qualities they believe in and consider integral to a good life and a decent community. Kids," she complains, "find little that their innate sociality and longing for meaning can respond to."

Hymowitz laments the obstacles that "prevent principals and teachers from creating the kind of moral community that is the most powerful and dependable guarantor of good discipline ever devised. When things work as they should," she observes, "principals forge a cohesive society with very clear shared values, whose observance confers a sense of worth on all those who subscribe to them. People behave morally primarily because they assent to the standards of the group," says Hymowitz, "not because they fear punishment. A community of shared values cannot be legalistic or bureaucratic or based on moronic behavior exercises," she insists; "it must be personal, enforced by the sense that the authority figure is protective, benevolent, and worthy of respect."

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