All this the world well knows; yet none know well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 129)
Our current moral climate is based on the idea of absolute individual autonomy. Each person must be allowed to make their own personal choice, and if any higher authority interferes with this personal choice, they are to be branded as tyrannical. Anyone who insists upon an absolute moral standard must be dismissed as a fanatic.
In this climate, schools have to be counter-cultural, because absolute individual autonomy leads to chaos. Increasingly, even those who continue to accept moral relativism in their own conduct are insisting on absolute standards in their classrooms.
When a school insists on absolute standards, on rules to which there can be no exceptions, then it can grate against the attitudes of parents. They may wish to have exceptions made for their children. It’s very easy to believe that the rules should be bent for one’s own child, that they must receive special treatment because of their unique individual personality or circumstances.
When parents ask for rules to be bent to accommodate their child, they don’t put it that way, of course. They are likely to represent the school as tyrannical and inflexible. It is very easy for them to have these arguments accepted, given the moral climate I described above. Nothing is easier than representing a school leader who refuses to compromise as a tyrannical bully, given the general agreement in our society that people should be able to live just as they please, unconcerned by any fixed moral standards.
It takes great courage for a school to stand up to parents like this. They have to be prepared to suffer misrepresentation and slander of the grossest kind, given that there is no dogma so fixed in our society as the dogma of relativism (and so few are able to recognise the deep irony of this dogmatism).
But stand up they must. If a few pushy parents can force a headteacher to compromise, then discipline in the school is at the top of a very slippery downward slope. The parents must be informed that the rules are fixed, that their child must abide by them, and that if they do not like this, they are welcome to move their child to another school. If they prefer slack discipline, then there are plenty of places where they will be able to find it.
There is no real parental choice if parents are permitted to bully schools into compromise, because there will be no schools with firm discipline if this is the case. Consider the analogy of libraries. Public libraries are (or they used to be – here is another place where slackness has often destroyed choice) places of silent study. If people are permitted to chatter in libraries, there is no longer a place where ordinary people can go to read and study silently. The firmness of the rules is what creates that choice for the public. Compromising the rules destroys the special character of libraries as places of silence and contemplation, and impoverishes the public service which they provide.
The lines from Shakespeare in my epigraph refer to the unbridled exercise of individual autonomy in sexual relations. While it might seem fun, even ‘heavenly’, in the short term, we all know the destruction to marriages and families, and the damage to children, which self-indulgent promiscuity causes. Self-indulgent, undisciplined attitudes towards the raising of children might also seem fun, but they too cause untold harm, and the harm falls most on the most vulnerable members of our society.
In an atmosphere of slackness and self-indulgence, we need courageous school leaders who buck the trend, and refuse to compromise. Then parents will really have a choice. They really will be able to choose a civilised, ordered environment for their child’s education.