Discipline Must Be School-Wide

Copy of a lost bronze bust of Aristotle made by Lysippos (4th century BCE)‘By doing just actions we become just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we come to be perfected in self-mastery; and by doing brave actions brave [ . . . ] So then, whether we are accustomed this way or that straight from childhood, makes not a small but an important difference, or rather I would say it makes all the difference.’ – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

It takes a school to discipline a child. Good moral habits, like any other habits, can only be formed with repeated practice, and children will not gain the practice necessary if they behave differently in different parts of the school, or with different teachers. Consistency is essential, for practical and for moral reasons.

Doing the right thing needs to be a habit. If you are a polite person, you are in the habit of acting politely. You don’t have to think about such questions as ‘Shall I interrupt this person, or allow them to finish what they are saying?’ or ‘Shall I respond to this person’s points with personal insults, or with reasoned critique?’ Interrupting and insulting are alien to you, because you are in the habit of being polite.

How did you become polite? You weren’t born that way. Small children do not have good manners. They learn them, through the culture in which they mature. If that culture does not exemplify and demand politeness, then they will not get the practice necessary to form the habit. In fact, they will be practising rudeness, not politeness. If they are not reprimanded for interrupting, they will continue to interrupt. If only one adult in their life reprimands them for interrupting, but the rest tolerate it, they will grow up with bad habits.

For good habits to be formed, those in authority over children must act consistently, so that they don’t have to ask themselves how to behave with each adult. This is abundantly clear in schools where there is no consistent culture of good behaviour. Children will behave politely for one member of staff, and rudely for another. In this situation, they are not developing the habit of politeness, because they are not practising it consistently. It’s equivalent to having to give different answers to sums for different teachers. It’s confusing, it’s ineffective, and most importantly, it’s wrong.

It’s wrong because it does not teach children that there is simply a polite way of behaving which should be used in all circumstances. It is not okay to be rude to certain people, when those people are perceived to be weaker, or unable to exert their power over you. It is simply right to be polite, whether to the headteacher, the classroom teacher, the caretaker or the cleaner. Politeness is not something which is only required in relation to the power and position of the person; it is something that is always required.

When there is no consistent school-wide behaviour policy that is centrally determined and enforced by centrally controlled sanctions, children are learning the poisonous lesson that you can mistreat some people, as long as they don’t have the power to make you treat them well. Weaker members of the community can be abused, whether they are less experienced teachers or less popular pupils.

Without a thorough and consistent school-wide discipline system, we are not only allowing bullying, we are promoting it, because we are refusing, in practice, to insist that there is only one right way of treating other people, whoever they are.


The Teacher’s Authority


Martin Luther King Jr, who challenged authority on the basis of objective truth.

The Teacher’s Moral Authority

No community can function without the rule of law. In a classroom, it is the teacher who maintains order. He must enforce rules, or there will be chaos. The weak will suffer tyranny from the strong. There may even be physical threats to the safety of both pupils and teachers. Both teachers and pupils have been violently assaulted in British classrooms where there is a lack of proper order and discipline.

The teacher has a grave responsibility to ensure that the classroom is a safe and ordered place. In order to fulfil that grave responsibility, he must have authority. Pupils must obey the teacher’s instructions for the sake of maintaining an ordered community, which will be of benefit to everybody.

Are there any exceptions to this? Are there any times when pupils have a right to disobey a teacher’s instructions? Yes, but they would be exceptional. They would be occasions where it would actually be immoral to obey the teacher.

This is analogous to the rule of law in society. We are obliged to obey the law, unless there are grave reasons for not doing so. Martin Luther King Jr articulated these reasons in his letter from Birmingham Jail in 1964, in which he said:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King could only make such statements because he was judging the law based on objective standards. He measured the laws of the USA against objective standards of justice, and found them wanting. Thus he deliberately broke the law in order to draw attention to its injustice. He had no wish to express an ‘personal opinion’ or exert his ‘individual voice’. He considered that both he and the law must submit to higher principles which were not matters of opinion, but of truth.

It would be a grave and extreme case indeed if a pupil found similar reasons for disobeying their teacher’s authority. And the pupil would not even be capable of acting this way unless he had sufficient knowledge to measure his situation against objective standards. He will be enabled to acquire this knowledge if his classroom is ordered and his teacher takes his responsibility for forming minds seriously.

The Teacher’s Intellectual Authority

Intellectual authority is related to moral authority, but distinct. In most cases, the teacher knows more than the pupil, and if the pupil is going to learn, he needs to recognise this, so that he can move towards the expertise which the teacher has.

There will be times, however, when the pupil genuinely knows more than the teacher. An older pupil may have a special interest in a topic and have done considerable extra reading and study, and have acquired greater knowledge than the teacher in that particular area. This is conceivable, but it is a special case. In these cases, the pupil may realise that the teacher has made a factual error. For example, he may have given an incorrect date for an historical event.

What should the pupil do in this circumstance? He may raise his hand and, after having obtained permission to speak, point out the error to the teacher. The teacher may be convinced that he is right nevertheless. In this case, the pupil should drop his objection until such a time as it can be pursued without publicly undermining the authority of his teacher.

Promoting Critical Thinking

To think critically about any topic, a large store of knowledge is required, so that relevant examples can be compared and reasoned judgements made. The main task of the school teacher is to transmit this knowledge to pupils, so that eventually, once they have attained sufficient expertise, they will be able to think critically. The more knowledge pupils have, the better they will be able to judge the accuracy of the information which they encounter, not only in school, but in the media and in politics.

Therefore, the goal of being able to ask reasonable questions and make rational judgements is best served by the recognition of the teacher’s moral and intellectual authority. Pupils will learn much more in a safe and ordered classroom where they can listen and learn from those who know more than they do. Not that they will be silent in such a classroom, but when they do speak, they will do so in a respectful and rational way, and their comments will be based on knowledge, not ignorance, and on the humble quest for truth, not the arrogant assertion of opinion.

It is liberating to realise that education is not about the glorification of subjective self-expression, but about the acquisition of objective knowledge. Once pupils have realised this, they are on the road to developing genuine critical thinking.

What Is a Traditional Teacher?


Illustration of the twelve teachers of wisdom in Dante’s Paradiso, by Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482)

I was once asked to provide a definition of traditional teaching in one tweet, and I described it as ‘knowledge for the mind, and discipline for the will’. A traditional teacher sees their role as primarily the transmission of valuable knowledge and secondarily the formation of good habits. These two goals involve a struggle against the natural ignorance and arrogance of the human race. Education is a battle against nature, not an embracing of its providential designs. The philosophy that Hirsch has labelled ‘providential individualism’ must be rejected.

Forming Good Habits

Knowledge cannot be acquired without good habits. A pupil who does not concentrate, who does not work hard, who interrupts teachers and peers, will remain both ignorant and arrogant. In order for knowledge to be acquired, egotism must be overcome; the pupil must begin to realise how ignorant he is and that others know far more than he does; he must realise that in order to obtain the knowledge which his superiors have mastered, a long, hard struggle will be needed.

A rigorous programme of academic study develops all four of the great human virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. A pupil must make prudent decisions about how to spend his time best; he must do justice to his teacher by obeying instructions and showing gratitude for the gift of knowledge; he must be temperate, especially in his speech; he must show fortitude if he is to persevere in mastering academic subjects thoroughly.

These virtues are not acquired overnight, any more than a thorough knowledge of history is to be obtained by reading a few articles on Wikipedia. They are acquired by a persistent effort to overcome egotism, by repeated practice under the guidance of authoritative instruction. To stand much chance of acquiring them, we need a community in which these virtues are viewed as the norm, and in which there are public consequences for being imprudent, unjust, intemperate or cowardly.

Humanity is something which we must struggle to acquire under the guidance of an authoritative community, not something we are born with. This is much easier to understand when one is involved in the raising of children, especially when they are younger. It is abundantly clear to a parent of young children that they are struggling to acquire the habits of their tribe. They are imitating the speech and the actions of their elders. Without an authoritative example to follow and without the struggle to imitate that example, they would not reach maturity.

Transmitting Knowledge

Walking and talking are universal accomplishments for ordinary members of the human race. They are remarkable accomplishments; they are cognitive feats which are achieved through much struggle and repeated practice. They can be learned by most people without formal instruction, however, because the normal child is surrounded by examples and receives rapid feedback on mistakes, either because his words are not understood or because he falls flat on his face.

Even these most universal of human accomplishments cannot be described as natural. To be human is to learn from others, to depend upon others, to submit to the authoritative example of others within a community, in order to grow and mature.

This is even more true when we come to formal academic instruction, which opens new vistas to the mind which are outside immediate experience. Reading and writing are not universal accomplishments; they are more artificial than speaking and walking; that is to say, they are more uniquely human. Writing with an alphabet which represents the sounds of speech is quite a recent invention in the whole span of human history. It is a remarkably flexible and useful one, which opens up vast new possibilities for knowledge and understanding. But in order to acquire it, formal instruction is required. Children may prefer to run around and play with mud and sticks. They should certainly have time for doing such things. But they will never learn to read and write by doing them. To learn to read and write, they must submit to authority and work hard under the guidance of instructors.

The traditional teacher recognises the importance of formal instruction, but also recognises its limits. He makes a clear distinction between work and play. Work requires self-discipline and effort. There is a place for play, once work has been completed. But they must not be muddled with each other, or neither one will be properly appreciated.

The traditional teacher works intensively to transmit the knowledge which the child requires to be inducted into the adult community. He sees in the child a human being who is not yet fully formed, and accepts the responsibility of forming the mind of that child by introducing him to the great human accomplishments in literature, history, science and mathematics.


Life is so much simpler when one recognises that hard work is needed to accomplish anything of value. Hard work can then be embraced wholeheartedly, and this leads to a deeper happiness than mere diversion or entertainment can ever bring.

A traditional understanding of education means that both teacher and pupil know that they are doing something serious and important, on which the continuation of human civilisation depends. Everything they are doing has a purpose, and it is a purpose which goes beyond mere individual gratification, and raises every person to real human dignity, as a member of a community who makes a contribution to its present health and its future existence.