Published in Educational Studies, Fall 1991.

Children and Discipline
A teacher's guide
John Wilson and Barbara Cowell
(London: Cassell, 1990.) 142 pages.

Review by Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 4/12/12

The moral cogency of this curious book is exceeded only by the vulnerability of its philosophical argument. The authors strain so to establish that "rule-following" characterizes the most basic human interactions that they sacrifice their very important concerns to a Procrustean logic that yields little more than implausibility.

Rather than argue that for certain kinds of society certain notions of authority have certain consequences, they press to establish that any rationally coherent form of life must recognize these consequences. They hope to get at "proper" understandings of such notions as discipline and authority and in the process they fail to examine their own, clearly optional, commitments.

The authors resort to a troubling stratagem in their presentation. After each section of philosophical argument they go on to suggest psychological impediments the reader might have to accepting the authors' conclusions. Considering that they vehemently protest the evils of indoctrination, this maneuver -- examining "hang-ups" -- is suspect.

However, when philosophers make strange moves there is often something interesting going on. We get clues to the authors' intentions early on in the foreword. The "solution to real problems" will be achieved, writes editor Cedric Cullingford, not in more will power but in policy based on greater understanding. Wilson and Cowell write that in all societies problems about discipline and authority are a "running sore" that can be healed but only by prolonged and careful thought. Apparently, such thought has heretofore been too brief or too careless.

The book is divided into three sections: the first, philosophical, the second, psychological; and the third, practical. I must remark that I have little to fault in the latter two sections. Having been both a school principal and a grade school teacher for twenty-five years I find their discussion often sensitive and insightful. Furthermore, I can endorse the practices they recommend having used them myself, e.g. making explicit and participative social contracts in terms of which the school is run, although such contracts are far more problematic than the authors suggest.

The Philosophical Arguments

Their philosophical argument develops so.(The numbers in brackets are page citations.):

If humans interact, they are engaging in rule-following behavior, with rules or norms commonly subscribed to, "whether or not they are codified, overtly agreed to and stated beforehand or contracted for." [9]. "You cannot think or talk without following rules, rules of language."[33]. (How does one "keep the rules" of language? By meaning what one says..[21])

Rules imply sanctions, i.e. disadvantages visited upon those who violate the rules, otherwise we would not be able to distinguish among the rules, the prescriptions and prohibitions, interacting humans were following.[9]

Rules imply authority and a common decision procedure. "...rules and authority are logically required by human cooperation." [15]" is a conceptual truth that human beings must accept some authority and obey it if they are to get anything done..."[14]

Rules involve deliberateness. "if she follows rules, then to some extent she does so deliberately and of her own free will."[34]

Rationality requires discipline. Discipline is obedience to established and legitimate authorities as such. " omit the notion of discipline in this sense is to omit a whole swathe of concepts (authority, punishment, contract, law and so on) that are logically inevitable for rational creatures."[24]

To enter into an activity is to make a contract. "By choosing to play cricket or anything else, one contracts to obey a particular set of rules in common with other people."[36]

Authority in education derives from a contract in which "...we curtail (children's) liberty, and in return we look after them..."[36] Discipline is needed for survival as a child [29]

Certainly, we can follow their train of argument thus far, even if their premises are less than self-evident. But how do they connect with schooling?
Education is a unique and distinct enterprise [50] , "...the feeling is that there are in principle enterprises with a nature that is different." [48]. Clarity of thought requires conceptual delimitation, thus education is different from other enterprises. "we must, if these terms are to have any clear meaning, be able to distinguish a political (moral, ideological) reason for doing something from another kind of reason, which means we must be able to distinguish it from an educational reason."[52]

The specific good, learning, delimits the specific enterprise, education. "...the concept of education, as we have tried to delimit it, cannot sensibly be seen as contestable, dependent one one's ultimate values or anything of that kind, any more than can the concept of medicine, with its connected good (health)."[53]

Education is necessary for any human society or individual. [53]. Education is sustained and serious learning, not a matter of chance or nature. "If there is no class of people empowered to educate... education becomes difficult or impossible. ... Those most plausibly to be identified as educators and therefore to be given the relevant powers are the teachers...." [54]

Supporting this train of argument is the hypostatization of various concepts, notably "society." e.g. "A good deal of learning is necessary if children are going to learn to "pull their weight - something that society usually demands if it is going to protect them and offer them its services."[20]. They clearly assume the suitability of a consensus model of society, e.g. "Any society or interacting group of rational creatures must have a common decision procedure -- indeed this can be taken as a defining characteristic of a society."[12]

Particularly perplexing is their statement, "Whether it really suits all societies to have a democratic government ...(is a question) that need(s) more psychological and sociological knowledge..."[17] Here a society is something that can be better or less suited as a matter of empirical fact, yet they authors insist that indoctrination is a particularly bad thing on the individual level, e.g."What we object to in totalitarian societies, like Nazi Germany, is not just that they had bad rules and bad authorities: much more important is that they felt they had the right to tell people what to think. They used rules and authorities to produce the sort of people with the sort of beliefs they wanted."[32]

One might be inclined to indulge their philosophical expatiations as a Contractarian tour de force bearing with their peculiar mythology because they raise important concerns later in the book. But their inconsistencies grate. "Rule" is so broadly cast that "rule-following" ranges from any behavior that is not chaotic, to using language, to deliberately proceeding according to an explicit formulation. Also, "contract" is presented as what a child enters into when "accepting" nurturance, yet the authors tell us that parents and teachers "initiate children into certain contexts that are governed by rules."[35] The authors' italics seem to indicate that something special is going on here, but it is not clarified. If the children's behavior is not chaotic, then they are already following rules, on Wilson's and Cowell's account, so what is special about this initiation?

The juggernaut of their argument presses us to understand education primarily as formal schooling, yet in discussing what the benefits of education might be, they invoke the reader's memories of a "loving parent or teacher."[56]. They remain, however, reticent to say much about the positive possibilities of modern education because they sound "futuristic or Utopian."[56]

There is also a mixing of conceptual and empirical criteria. Power, the authors argue, is not a sufficient but a "necessary condition" [31] of discipline since without it authority would quickly deteriorate from de facto authority to de jure authority. This does not seem to me to be a useful way to characterize the empirical need for power to enforce discipline lest authority come to be ignored.

Wilson and Cowell have willy-nilly produced an ideological tract. Despite their stated intentions to argue from "First principles: which means, not from any partisan ideology"[4], concerns they mention early in their book have pressured them to a quite different result.

In their preface, the authors characterize "practical and painful" difficulties faced by parents and teachers in such a manner as to lead one to question the philosophical generality of their enterprise. They propose, in effect, a program in that they wonder

how to maintain discipline without unnecessary harshness

how to encourage reasonable moral thought and behavior without indoctrination; and

how to keep order and control in the family or the classroom without adopting a pose of infallibility or omnipotence. [xiii]

They also are concerned to reach agreement about the nature and scope of authority in order to insure that teachers have the authority and power to run schools properly.

I share, but do not imagine these concerns to be touchstones for such concepts as authority and discipline. I believe, however, these concerns partially explain much of what the authors propose as the distinction between more and less primitive societies, e.g. warring vs. discussing [33], and unreasonableness and rationality, e.g. having certain beliefs [55] vs. being obedient to authority. They also partially explain why the authors have risked drawing attention away from these very important concerns by prefacing them with a formidable conceptual muddle.

I write that the authors' concerns "partially" explain the weakness of their arguments. But there is a more fundamental explanation: the compulsion of any philosopher who would argue from "first principles" thereby privileging his or her analysis with a kind of "rational infallibility." With no little hubris they comment that the rules and sanctions of the wider society of which the school is a part "will probably be hopelessly muddled, partly because our law-makers are not very bright..."[127] Thus they abdicate their responsibility to explain to what extent rationality is compatible with democratic pluralism.

The Moral Concern

The latter parts of the book are actually much more edifying and should have come first, if only not to frighten off the reader less forbearing than a reviewer need be.

The authors present some research they conducted on teacher conceptions of authority and report that "...for 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."[91]

To wit, the authors ask a teacher about dealing with bullying:

" 'If the only way you could, in practice, stop one child bullying and torturing another was to make him frightened of you and your power, would you make him frightened?' 'Oh no, I couldn't do that, you shouldn't make anyone frightened, it's wrong.' 'But if that were the only way - I mean, if you did not have time to do it by love and influence and the force of example?' 'Well, I just couldn't, I just couldn't live with myself if I did.' 'But doesn't bullying make you very angry?' 'Very, but that's all the more reason to control myself.' 'So you'd just let the bullying go on?' 'Well, I suppose I'd have to. Perhaps I could tell the little child to keep out of the big one's way.'"[91]
My initial impulse here is to fire the teacher on the grounds of abysmal moral incompetence. But such a practice, were it widespread, might rid the schools of half of their staffs. Wilson and Cowell have struck on a situation that is, I fear, endemic to any large compulsory school system in a modern pluralistic society (for reasons, however, it is beyond the scope of this review to assay). In fact, prospective teachers in the United States, as part of their professional preparation, are indoctrinated into such moral and philosophical muddle in the name of Educational Science.

Thus, there is an important role for philosophy to play in the preparation of teachers. It is unfortunate that this book is not well-designed to support that role.

See, also,
The Ethical Miseducation of Educators