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School Discipline

A review of School Discipline by William Chandler Bagley.

From reading Mr. Bagley I come with mingled feelings of sadness and alarm—sadness because he has made me realize that I have never lived in the real world, and alarm because he unconsciously conjures up a picture of thousands of very young, well-intentioned maidens and youths forming gravely and conscientiously from books like this the whole framework of their ideas of what children are like, of the technique of teaching, and of the values and ideals of what Mr. Bagley calls the “educative process.” While some of us are dallying with Freud and Jung, Dewey and Mme. Montessori, and raging idealists like Edmond Holmes, Mr. Bagley is professor of education in the University of Illinois, on the job day and night, industriously turning out text-books for teachers which set the pace, standardize the output, provide the rule-stick for no one knows how many of that new hundred thousand of young teachers whom the capacious maw of our public school system swallows every year.

Mr. Bagley’s book is pretty free from either cant or padding, and is therefore of a type that is all the more dangerous. His is the hard, direct language of a practical man, who lives in a world of ignorant and shady schoolboards where teachers get their positions through personal or political pull, a world of juvenile criminals, saloons, reform schools, prisons and labor disturbances, a world where “an educational system that would differentiate individuals in any wide measure would be socially disastrous.” “School discipline” would be the means by which this social disaster of individual expressiveness would be avoided.

Mr. Bagley, in other words, is the frank protagonist of the class struggle in education. All through his book runs the thinly disguised implication that the unruly school is only a symptom of a larger unruly society. He quotes approvingly from the Journal of Education a passage which cannot be too thoroughly pondered. In commenting on recent suicides of women teachers because of their difficulty in disciplining unruly classes, this editorial says: “There is no denying the fact that there is the same bumptiousness among boys as there is among men and women. The unrest in politics, society, business, labor, suffragists and church, is present with boys and girls. It is a common event for men in business or in politics to commit suicide because they cannot deal with men as of old. Teachers are sure to pay the ‘high price’ of the times in which we live.”

Was there ever a franker recognition of that stubborn revolt against all the variegated forms of absolutism which smoulders and often flames in our slowly democratizing America to-day? Men cannot be dealt with as of old, and they who try to deal must pay the price. There is no suggestion that there is anything the matter with the forms, that they should be examined and the screws loosened, and an overhauling of the machinery undertaken. Those who pay the price in meeting this new indomitable resistance of men and children against being turned into machines must go bravely to their death as martyrs in a cause.

I am perhaps unjust to Mr. Bagley. He is not quite so raw. His class struggle would be a decently domesticated one, with the conflict controlled, everything nicely in hand. His ideal is the orderly school, the “well-disciplined” school, just as the employer’s ideal is the strikeless factory. But Mr. Bagley is almost Marxian in his emphasis on the “authority” of the teacher, in his sense of the institutional divergence of interests and functions between “teacher” as one sociological institution and “pupil” as another. The young teacher, breaking her heart over her lack of personal control of her class, is cautioned to remember that their mutiny is not against her but against the “school,” and is therefore to be dealt with by institutional means. No one is to be allowed to forget the inherent class inferiority of the child, not only as an intellectual, but as a human being. This theory of the spiritual and rational integrity of the adult is perhaps the worst fallacy in education. And to consider the child as a very defective and irresponsible adult instead of the adult as a very imperfectly matured and usually damaged child, is one of the silliest of the illusions to which orthodox education is prone.

There may be something exhilarating in the class struggle conducted on the industrial field between class-conscious labor and entrenched capital. But unwittingly to reproduce the class struggle in the world of growing, learning children is to bruise incurably the sensitive, unsophisticated, intensely personal reactions, and permanently warp their values. Only a heavy toll of wrecked teachers and futile children, cowed or mutinous, can be the result.