Does discipline equal distinction?

(John McCann)

(John McCann)


One can measure the quality of a school by the extent to which it refuses to inflict “discipline” on its pupils. Common sense says it should work the other way around. The view that excellence, quality and school success flow from school discipline is one that doesn’t necessarily have a basis in reality. It is a view that is largely manufactured in the public imagination.

The publicity campaigns of schools, government and business lead parents to believe what signifies excellence in education visually. Excellence is clean, white, suburban and middle class. Excellence is the idealised, Hellenistic body of the athletic young body. It is the gleaming, photogenic, toothy smile of the school prefect. It is the proud, Westernised, black pupil graduating from an elite school wearing his crisp white shirt and blazer adorned with badges.

We see such images pasted across school buses and billboards and in newspapers after matric results are released and when schools open for admissions. In speeches made by government officials and principals we learn that a good school is one with a 100% pass rate. We learn that the well-mannered, conforming pupil is what distinction at school is all about. These significations are generally attributable to the “discipline” regime of the school.

As public schools are subject to commodification and placed on the open market to compete, the well-resourced elite private school, with its own liberal standards of discipline, becomes the exemplar of all that is good. Fee-paying schools are expected to emulate private schools in producing a well-groomed elite. They are morally obligated to meet the same standards as those set by the private schools in preparing pupils to compete in the labour market.

A certain kind of discipline becomes key. This is not the coercive discipline of corporal punishment but a subtler kind of Foucauldian governmentality based on the exercise of power, manipulation and domination.

Pupils must perform at all costs. Whether this is by virtue of exclusionary admission process, coerced by megalomaniac teachers wielding demerits and detentions or incentivised by teachers issuing merits and gold stars for good work or through constant evaluation, pupils must achieve no matter the cost. Pupils are at times morally blackmailed into performing by schools that enlist parents into various disciplining efforts such as surveillance, signing codes of conduct contracts, disciplinary processes and so on.

Some may argue that, given this set of circumstances, schools have no choice. Existing pupil-to-teacher ratios in public schools, overcrowded classes, bloated curriculums and heightened competition means that schools must resort to such Manichean methods to ensure that learning takes place. Ironically, schools “discipline” pupils to serve them adequately. Discipline leads to results and excellence — the means justify the ends.

I have the opposite view. Discipline is not indicative of school success but of educational failure. Discipline does not represent high-quality learning but, paradoxically, the best of poor schooling. Schools with a strong culture of discipline tend to pretend that schooling is education. They cover up what is really going on in the school. The presence of discipline generally demonstrates the failure of the school to effect the pupils’ interests.

Pupils become self-motivated when they are interested. Similarly, if the school is a stimulating environment, offers varied activities, and social solidarity and co-operation are exercised, then there is no need for discipline. In my experience as a teacher, when pupils are engaged in their subject and are learning, so-called discipline problems generally evaporate.

It is when the pupils’ interest is flagging that the teacher resorts to an overarching regime of discipline. When learning flags on a mass scale the entire school begins to resemble a military camp. Systematic discipline is a sign that the school management team has lost its grip on educational leadership and the teaching staff on what learning is actually about. Schools obsessed with discipline do not care whether the young people they serve are sincere about their intellectual development or are curious life-long pupils. What counts is short-term results and results achieved through discipline.

When a subject rolls out in a predictable fashion, as it does under the new Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements curriculum, it steamrolls carelessly over the interests of the pupils. A curriculum that values uniformity and conformity over creativity is bound to generate ill-disciplined, unmotivated pupils.

What is the price we pay as parents, pupils, teachers and school communities for the outcomes of discipline? Broadly, discipline encourages the view that what counts in society is a culture of conformity geared to results.

It can breed authoritarianism in society and creates conditions for all sorts of social ills linked to intolerance and intellectual docility such as racism, xenophobia, classism and gender-based violence. What pupils get out of excellent schooling is that education and transformation don’t matter. Performance is what matters. Obstacles must be removed. Applied in a capitalist society, schools premised on results suggest that profits trump people.

Worryingly, teachers are increasingly licensed by their school governing bodies and school management teams to use discipline to punish pupils for a lack of motivation and failed attempts to understand. It is used to motivate the learning process itself in the classroom. It is no longer simply employed to correct tardiness, antisocial behaviour and other misdemeanors. You know that a school really is in trouble when discipline itself is driving the educational process.

Teachers who simply officiate the curriculum become frustrated by the fact that they are deprofessionalised technicians rather than intellectual leaders and may take revenge upon the system by inflicting discipline upon their young people.

The irony is that many so-called excellent schools pride themselves on their celebration of individuality, difference, diversity, community but in practice this is revealed to be nothing but a superficial marketing ploy.

The image of excellence begins to be emulated by reality itself and pupils are whipped into conforming to the image of the school itself. Pupils are forced to be ambassadors for their schools, represent the school brand, protect its reputation.

They become walking advertisements for their institutions, objectified and dehumanised by the discipline of the market and those who don’t measure up are disposed of.

As a result, even well-known, excellent schools pay lip service to liberal values. Behind the facade of individualism and diversity we find lurking the banal conformity of discipline and authoritarianism.

Pupils who step out of line and show distinction through their attempts to understand, their expression of difference, whether that be a recognition of ethnic, class, gender, sexual, cultural, language or political difference are quickly brought into line, whether through assimilationist management of diversity or the harsher sanctions of moral isolation and punishment. Is this the kind of education we want in our South African public schools?

Brenden Gray is the head of the graphic design department at the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of art, design and architecture, a doctoral candidate at the university’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, and a lecturer at its education faculty

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