Originally published in educational Horizons Spring 1996. 103-5

Fear in the Classroom
Is Schooling Still Sufficiently Educational?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D.

School days, I believe, are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence.
They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances,
brutal violences of common sense and common decency.-- H.L. Mencken (1929)


edited 1/25/19

For most people, schooling has been experienced as a mixed blessing. Oppressive tedium offset by memorable encounters with novelty and discovery. Warm relationships with classmates and teachers balanced against the existential inanity of institutional rules. Escape from the smothering indulgence and whimsy of the home to deliverance into the hands of neurotics and bullies.

Such have been the tradeoffs. For many, in the balance, they have been positive. For others, perhaps today for the increasing majority, the costs, social and personal, outweigh the benefits. Under the assumption that schooling is the most socially efficient way to educate the masses, the law has long compelled parents to send their children to school. But times have changed, drastically: in many states, laws bestow sovereign immunity upon the schools. This situation, in effect, is to tell parents, "You must send your children to school; but don't expect us to protect them if it is inconvenient!"

As a department head in a junior high school some years back, I was sent to cover for a teacher who was coming in late. I entered the room to find a teacher's aide already there. The class was working on a drill sheet. In the center rear of the class sat a boy -- call him Sam -- not working, looking around, back and forth, at his classmates. All the desks around Sam were empty. Toward the front of the room sat Marcie, a quiet, diminutive girl.

Suddenly, loudly, Sam made an obscene remark to Marcie, commenting negatively about her personal hygiene. Marcie reacted as if struck, put her head down on her desk, and began sobbing quietly.

The teacher's aide told Sam to watch his mouth. Sam laughed cruelly, repeated the comment, then turned to look at some other students who were cautiously staring at him.

I offered to take Sam out to the discipline room and write up the incident. No, said the aide, that's not how Mrs. Jones, the regular teacher, would handle such things. Under her breath she confided that at least Sam wasn't punching Marcie anymore.

At that point, Mrs. Jones entered the room. Perturbed, I asked her to step outside and I recounted the incident, insisting she follow through on some disciplinary procedure. "What's the point?" she said. "This happens all the time; sometimes even worse. Nothing gets done when I follow disciplinary procedure. The principal just reminds me that I, the school expert in Special Education, am expected to know how to deal with such situations without involving the regular school procedures."

I confronted the vice principal in charge of discipline. He knew Sam well. In fact, the week before, he had tried to suspend him. That involved calling the State Department of Education to get permission. "What are you people doing down there to provoke him?" asked the official, denying permission to suspend.

Somewhat later, I had occasion to speak with a state official about such problems. He told me his hands were generally tied. Not only do state regulations beg the innocence of such students, he confided, but the political repercussions from statistically suggested discrimination manifested in such a suspension would threaten a public hearing and possibly his continued employment.

The harsh reality was that Marcie's parents were nobodies. Her continued victimization would provoke no lawsuits, threaten no policies, and upset no procedures, nor would it be interpreted as discriminatory behavior of any kind on the part of the school.

I protested that most teachers I knew wouldn't tolerate such behavior. They would do something to remove the threat, even if it would be easier to go along with the system. And a good principal would support them. The state official shrugged, "You people deviate from the system at your own risk. Suppose you started getting unsatisfactory ratings or threats of transfer. Would you place a minor incident above your career?"

Being then somewhat younger and more naive, I persisted, "But allowing such bullying is a moral abomination. What do kids learn when they see it happening in school right under the noses of supposed authorities?" "This is a pluralistic society," he replied. "What you call a 'moral abomination' is someone else's mere fact of life. Don't you realize that your professional standards compel you to recognize diversity!"

In the name of diversity -- and diversity is desirable -- educators permit the Sams in their schools to victimize the Marcies. In the name of understanding, or "humanism," they forbear using the power they have to maintain the necessary order. To do otherwise is often to risk their careers. But it is not entirely the fault of what the system has come to be.

John Wilson and Barbara Cowell, having interviewed teachers in British schools about problems of discipline, point to an important factor: ". . . [F]or the kind of tender-minded and idealistic liberals of whom teachers and (still more) educators are largely representative, the mere idea of actually holding power produced serious feelings of guilt."1

Educators are not the only ones to identify power as an inherent evil, rather than as a tool. In our society, it is considered a mark of higher culture to express a distaste for overt use of power. Recurrent fads celebrating executive machismo notwithstanding (power suits, power lunches, managing like Attila the Hun, etc.), this syndrome extends across the majority of professions.2 To avoid the remote dangers of moral sternness, and to avoid the inconveniences of public debate, our schools have given up on morality, even the most universal sort: thou shalt not unnecessarily harm!

What might help the situation? Maintain compulsory education but not compulsory schooling. Let the victims escape, if they can! To explain, consider that most states compel drivers to maintain the performance of their automobiles to state-mandated and tested-for levels. But these states do not require that any driver use the services of a particular service station. In fact, an individual owner may service his own car, so long as it meets state standards. The reality is that most people will avail themselves of trained mechanics for service. But neither are the owners compelled to use a specific mechanic, nor are the mechanics compelled to accept for service whatever car an owner brings them.

A legislative proposal has been introduced recently in Colorado to do away with "compulsory education." I was interviewed by Colorado Public Radio regarding my position on the issue. I asked for clarification: What was the proposal? Was it to do away with state-mandated educational requirements, thus reopening the door to the child labor abuses that abounded in the last century? Or was it to do away with compulsory school attendance? My interviewer wasn't sure. He said he thought the voters of Colorado were tired of seeing more and more of their educational tax dollars go to dealing with kids who make trouble because they don't want to be there in the first place.

I said that I thought that noncompulsory school attendance was a morally preferable situation to the present practice, recalling Plato's admonition that knowledge that is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. But the Colorado proposal, and not only because of its ambiguity, would be like scratching an itch with a scalpel. Unless schools can reject students whose parents want them to attend, the problem of undermotivated, distracted students would not necessarily be addressed. In any case, it is not clear how student-on-student abuse will be affected by even a change to non-compulsory schooling so long as educators persist in avoiding moral commitment.

Some years ago, I sat in on a disciplinary procedure for a junior high student -- call him John -- who was accused of persistent fighting. He defended his action by saying that he was always being picked on, and, indeed, this seemed to be the case. The principal remonstrated with him, "But you have been told time and time again that when other students bother you, you should go to a teacher, or come to me for help." John sealed his fate by replying, "All you do is talk, talk, talk. You don't live in this neighborhood. And besides, when I complained before none of you did s__t!" John was transferred to the local disciplinary school.

He came back six months later to visit me. "How do you like Lincoln?" I asked, inquiring about his school, known for being a strictly run place with staff recognized as "folk artists in adverse conditioning," "It's really good." he beamed. "Not like this crummy place. At Lincoln you can get some work done. People aren't allowed to mess with you and start fights. And the teachers get to teach! They don't have to use up all their energy playing with troublemakers."

Educators often complain that the general public seems hostile or indifferent to the "needs of the schools." Perhaps educators would do well to consider that these voters may be Marcie and John grown up and finally, finally getting their voices heard.

See Related article:
Dissecting School Benefits: a typology of conflicting goals


1. See John Wilson and Barbara Cowell, Children and Discipline: A Teacher's Guide (London: Cassell, 1990), 191.

2. See Abraham Zaleznik, "Power and Politics in Organizational Life," in Harvard Business Review: On Human Relations (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1979), 375-396.