School life is full of challenges and struggles, and that’s the way it should be. If you’re not struggling and striving, you’re not growing and maturing. There’s the challenge of mastering the foundations of a subject by committing core knowledge to memory. Then there’s the challenge of applying that foundational knowledge to increasingly complex subject matter. There are challenges on the sports field and when public speaking must be done. But the most difficult and most important challenge is the challenge of doing the right thing, whether you feel like it or not.
How can we help our pupils to overcome their personal desires and do their duty, and thereby live happy and fruitful lives? How can we help them become the kind of parents who dutifully care for small children when they wake at night, sick or frightened, the kind of employees who dutifully rise punctually from bed so that they arrive at work on time, the kind of employers who dutifully pay a fair wage, even if it means less wealth for themselves?
If our goal is to help our pupils become adults who readily take on responsibility for others, then we will need to embrace discipline. Discipline means giving orders that must be obeyed, regardless of personal feelings. When a pupil submits to discipline, they are strengthening vital moral muscles: they are doing something which they may not wish to do, but which they have a duty to do. They may wish to chat to their neighbour in class, but under discipline, they must work silently. Thus they learn to control their tongue, something which will help them enormously later in life when professional or personal discretion is required. They may wish to snack on sweets in class, but under discipline, they must wait until break before eating. Thus they learn to overcome their appetite, which will help them be healthy and avoid addiction throughout their life.
Discipline works precisely by requiring obedience to authority, not by using persuasion and seeking agreement. It is thus fundamentally different from behaviour management, which offers hundreds of techniques of horse-whispering to manipulate pupils into doing what we want. Discipline presents a clear choice to pupils: do this or face the consequences. They must thus exercise their will in order to obey, and it is through exercising the will that the will becomes stronger. But if we aim to engineer a situation in which pupils are doing what is required without having made a clear choice, then we are failing to give them the opportunity to exercise, and thus to strengthen, their will.
If persuasion is used, or agreement is sought, then pupils are not gaining vital practice in overcoming their own personal convenience for the sake of duty. Without this training, they are in much greater danger of living all their lives as slaves to their emotions and desires. They are in danger of being incapable of maintaining personal commitment, of holding down a steady job, of resisting the temptation to overindulge in food and alcohol.
Teachers who insist on discipline are sometimes accused of wishing to destroy the freedom of those under their authority, but precisely the opposite is true. A young person who is in the habit of overcoming personal desires in order to be obedient to authority will grow into an adult who is able to overcome their personal desires in order to serve others and take responsibility. They will have the strength of character needed to be truly free, which means, to be able to make the right choices and carry them out, however personally inconvenient this might be.
Who is more free, the soldier who overcomes his fear and fights bravely for his country, or the one who is overcome by his emotions and paralysed by fear at the crucial moment? Whom do we admire, the brave hero who sacrificed himself for others, or the coward who hung back, worried about his personal safety? Do we say the soldier was merely a slave because he happened to be obeying orders when he sacrificed personal safety for the sake of his country and his comrades?
Freedom does not mean doing what you feel like doing. Animals do that. Human beings make choices and exercise their will. Animals must be managed and manipulated. Human beings can submit to discipline, and thus develop the strength of character needed for true freedom. If we really care about our pupils, then we will use firm discipline. They may not understand why we were so tough on them until after they have left school and taken on adult responsibilities. But it’s our duty not to seek the easy gratification of being buddies with them now, because we want the best for them in the long term.