Progress and Punishment

What should teachers do when students misbehave? This might seem like a simple nuts-and-bolts question, but for generations it has triggered culture-war debates. Conservatives often insist that children need traditional punishments; progressives warn that those punishments only make behavior worse and that harsh discipline tends to land heaviest on minority kids.

Are we ready yet?

Are we ready yet?

In the recent issue of Mother Jones, Katherine Reynolds Lewis reviews the disciplinary work of psychologist Ross Greene. Like other progressives over the course of the last century, Lewis argues that traditional forms of school discipline are utterly wrong-headed.

As Lewis reports,

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

Teachers using Greene’s approach build positive relationships with misbehaving kids. Instead of offering a set of rewards and punishments, teachers try to let students explain and vent their negative feelings.

According to Lewis, the system works. Reluctant teachers (and prison guards) have been brought around by the dramatic positive results.



Historically, not everyone has been so smitten with these sorts of interventions. As I argue in my recent book, conservative school activists in the 20th century insisted that Greene-style reforms were hopeless. Not only did they fail, conservatives thought, such progressive claptrap fundamentally misunderstood the nature of humanity and education.

As Max Rafferty put it in 1968, children need to be understood on their own terms:

a child is not a little man. He is a being in transition and a lot closer to the raw simplicities of the primeval jungle than any of us will ever be again or than we like to think we ever were. Childhood may be mystic, as Victor Herbert said, but it’s often very far from merry.

For one thing, the child lives in a world where both time and space are vastly different from ours. A year to a child may easily be a week to us. A bungalow to us six-footers is a skyscraper to him, a wooded grove the limitless forests of Xanadu.

He is notably impatient where we have learned patience. He is openly and candidly selfish where we have been pressured by the needs of society to conceal our own self-interest. He is direct where we are devious, simple where we prefer to be complicated.

In response to earlier generations of Greene-style disciplinarians, Rafferty responded,

There speaks the progressive educationist. Adjust to your environment at any cost. Don’t try to change things. After all, nothing is really ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’


What’s wrong with teaching the kid that fighting in school is wrong?

Why not outlaw profanity and bring back the good old soap-in-the-mouth bit for youngsters who can’t keep a clean tongue in their heads? The school exists to make Johnny a better boy.

In an earlier work, Rafferty blasted the progressive assumptions of Greene-style approach to discipline.

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler. . . . Prior to 1930 school discipline was built around corporal punishment. It always had been. Education had walked and in hand with the hickory stick apparently since time began, and virtually every teacher who ever lived took this state of affairs for granted.

School, you see, was not considered ‘fun’ in those days. It was a mighty serious business and was conducted that way. At any rate, once the two premises are accepted that (1) boys won’t behave in schools unless compelled to do so and (2) boys must be made to behave so that they can learn things that are essential for them to know, then the whole paraphernalia of corporal punishment falls into proper perspective. . . . Things have changed of late in the field of discipline, and more than somewhat. They started to change at home first, back in the twenties and thirties. The prime mover in their change was the new psychology, which was widely publicized and which caused parents seriously to doubt their proper role vis-à-vis their children for the first time in the recorded history of the human race. . . . The result was the emergence of the least-repressed and worst-behaved generation of youngsters the world had ever seen. The psychologists had been right in one respect. Junior certainly had no repressions. He could have used a few.

In Lewis’s telling, Rafferty’s brand of traditionalism flies out the window when teachers and parents see the positive results of progressive discipline. I’m not so sure. After all, as Rafferty’s work from the 1960s shows, Greene’s brand of progressive reform has been around since the 1920s. It didn’t convince conservative skeptics then and I don’t think it will now.

The questions go deeper than just classroom efficiency. Some traditionalists, IMHO, will continue to believe that old-fashioned forms of discipline—yes, including corporal punishment—are not just more effective, but more closely connected to the true nature of childhood.

Leave a comment


  1. Mark Germano

     /  July 12, 2015

    To me, it seems that there is a belief that punishment, and corporal punishment especially, is the only way to instill discipline in youngsters. That can’t possibly be the case.

    But, at the same time, I don’t believe a quick smack on the rear to get my kid’s attention and make her think twice about choking out her sister is going to cause life-long damage.

    • That’s the sensible balanced view most people ought to come to, but for some reason we seem to publicly articulate only the polarized extremes.

      @Adam – You seem to be implying that the “traditional” or classical view is not psychologically or biologically justifiable. I don’t think that’s true, if the classical view is defined as one that sees the “self” or “character” as something to be formed or impressed on people through discipline rather than an innate quality that can be expected to develop on its own in the absence of any remotely authoritarian discipline. It’s also a relevant point of interest (one we never seem to acknowledge) that we are quite comfortable with a state that is chronically at war and defined by its monopolization of violence. We accept laws and their enforcement through fear of legalized violence, yet mainstream attitudes toward disciplining and educating children skew in a highly pacifist direction while purporting to “prepare them for the real world.”

      Developmental psychology tells us what we know from experience: young children are sociopaths before they understand the boundaries of self and other, as well as cause and effect. Intense selfishness has to be socialized against and obviously remains a basic problem for adults. That’s not to say people aren’t naturally cooperative and likely to avoid or resolve aggression peacefully on their own; I think they generally are as long as fear, anger, and violence have not muddied the waters. And that is precisely the situation of the “real world” for many if not most children.

      The hard cases for teachers are the unexplainable outliers and traumatized or otherwise troubled kids who lack resources for self-regulation. If a child is acting out at school because of harsh treatment there or somewhere else, the last thing they need is a punitive response, a new contest of wills. At the same time, overly passive approaches can be just as bad and even worse for the classroom, and if they work by leaning heavily on medicalization where kids are labelled and then dosed with drugs, that hardly seems better.

      • Dan, That’s not what I was aiming for. Though I do think we humans are more chemical than moral, in this post I was more interested in exploring the progressive assumptions of Lewis’s piece. She tends to assume–and to assume that her progressive readers will assume–that traditional attitudes are inherently flawed, simply qua traditional attitude. Even the title of her piece (“What If Everything We Knew About School Discipline Was Wrong” or something like that) shows the way many of us progressives yearn to believe that new discoveries will fix age-old problems. In this case, as you point out, the care and nurture of human young has always presented a heart-breaking quandary. We progressives tend to be suckers for any reputable “science” that can show us how to solve an insolvable problem like that.

      • Good point!

  2. Thanks for the article. I’m a children’s entertainer and motivational storyteller. While doing research on bullying in schools I surprisingly discovered that Corporal Punishment is legal in 19 states (public schools) and 28 states (private and public). I wrote about it on my blog and created a YouTube video to let everyone know that there’s a new bill that can help kids: H.R. 2268 Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2015. I saw a government statistic that the bill has only a 1% chance of getting passed – maybe because few people know about it. Would you watch the video and share the info? Thank you! Cara Zara / Here’s a link to the blog and video:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: