RE: [xmca] Got discipline?

From: Hasty, James E. <hastyj who-is-at>
Date: Tue Jul 03 2007 - 07:43:17 PDT

Just thought you'ld appreciate ths. Peter is a professor at UGA. In fact, he is sitting on my committe when I finally get around to writing and defending my comps in the next decade or so.


-----Original Message-----
From: on behalf of Peter Smagorinsky
Sent: Tue 7/3/2007 8:13 AM
To: xmca; Alysha; Anne; Antoine Joseph; Bill Slusser; Bob Fecho; David; Eric Koppert; Fred; Jack Nicholson; Jane; Jeff Golub; Jim Marshall; Jim Myers; Joel Taxel; Larry Johannessen; Mark Faust; Marty Nystrand; Michael Smith;; Peg Graham; Russ Durst; Terry; Tim Roberts
Subject: [xmca] Got discipline?
The Thomas opinion is at

Got discipline?

In a free-speech ruling, Justice Thomas misstates the purpose of education.
By Jonathan Zimmerman, JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN wrote "Innocents Abroad: American
Teachers in the American Century."
June 28, 2007

WHAT ARE schools for?

For the last decade, I've taught a history course with that title at New
York University. My students and I examine the different purposes that
Americans have assigned to public schools, including:

A. to teach the great humanistic traditions of the West;

B. to develop the individual interests of the child;

C. to promote social justice;

D. to prepare efficient workers.

Over the last four centuries, Americans have struggled to balance these
goals - and many others - in their schools. To Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas, however, there's only one right answer:

E. to instill discipline and obedience

That's what Thomas wrote this week in his strange concurring opinion in
Morse vs. Frederick, better known as the "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" case. A banner
with those words was unfurled by senior Joseph Frederick outside his Alaska
high school, and he was suspended.

Ruling 5 to 4 in favor of the principal who censored the banner, the court
decided that the school's interest in discouraging drug use outweighed the
student's free-speech rights. But Thomas went further, insisting that the
student had no right to free speech in the first place and that the history
of American education proves it.

He's wrong. Simply put, the accurate history in Thomas' opinion is not
relevant. And the relevant history that he recounts is not accurate.

Let's start with what he got right. As he correctly asserts, America's first
schools primarily promoted discipline. "Early public schools were not places
for freewheeling debates or exploration of competing ideas," Thomas wrote.
The mostly male teaching force in the early 1800s brooked little or no
dissent, often whipping children who challenged adult authority.

True enough. But so what? Here's the part that Thomas leaves out. From the
very birth of the common school system in the 1830s, the strict discipline
that he celebrates came under fire from a host of different Americans. The
most prominent champion of common schools, Horace Mann, warned teachers
against excessive force and the suppression of students' natural

That's one reason Mann and his generation backed the hiring of female
teachers, who were seen as more kind, tolerant and nurturing. (The other
reason was that schools could pay them less.) By 1900, roughly
three-quarters of American teachers were women.

The early 20th century would bring another burst of change to American
schools, centered on the question of democracy. To reformers like John
Dewey, schools based on strict discipline - and its pedagogical companion,
rote memorization - could never give citizens the skills they needed to
govern themselves. Instead of fostering mindless obedience, then, schools
needed to teach children how to make up their own minds - that is, how to
reason, deliberate and rule on complex political questions.

To be sure, plenty of Americans still wanted teachers to bring the kids to
heel. And it's fair to ask whether schools today promote the kind of inquiry
that Dewey envisioned.

The point is not that Dewey was "right" or that everyone agreed with him.
Rather, history teaches us that Americans have always disagreed on the
proper goal for schools.

None of this debate appears in Thomas' opinion, which gets cut off just when
things get interesting. To Thomas, American educational history seems to end
at the start. Our first schools aimed to instill discipline, he wrote, so
that's what schools should do.

Worse, Thomas assumes that the schools succeeded in this task. "Teachers
commanded," he wrote, "and students obeyed." But this command melted away in
recent years, Thomas claims, when courts invented specious student rights -
and "undermined the traditional authority of teachers to maintain order in
the public schools."

Here's the part of Thomas' opinion that would be relevant - if it were true.
But it's not. Yes, teachers tried to establish strict order and discipline
in early American schools. As often as not, however, they failed.

Consider the 1833 memoir of Warren Burton, a New Hampshire minister. When
faced with a particularly cruel teacher, Burton writes, his classmates
revolted. They tackled the teacher, carried him outside and threw him down
an icy hillside.

The theme appears in other memoirs and especially in fiction from the 19th
century, which depicts unruly students - usually boys - challenging or
mocking teacher authority. Think of Tom Sawyer lowering a cat by a string to
snatch his bald teacher's wig. Such stories resonated with Americans because
they understood - in ways Thomas does not - the chaos and violence that
pervaded so many public schools.

So Thomas can spare us the nostalgia. Our schools were never the paragons of
discipline he imagines. And pretending otherwise simply diverts us from the
big question, which will never have a single answer:

What are schools for?
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