Crime and Punishment

I don’t often agree with free-marketeer Michael Petrilli, but this time he’s exactly right. When pragmatic issues such as school discipline become culture-war footballs, students are always the losers. What we need instead are policies that put students first. Alas, the history of educational culture wars makes me pessimistic that we can replace polemics with pragmatics.

Petrilli recently lamented the unhelpful back-and-forth over the issue of school discipline. The Obama administration supported the idea that racial disparities in punishments could be cause for federal intervention. Trump’s administration, in chest-thumping contrast, rejected the notion.

 

As Petrilli rightly noted, schools need something different. They need policies that recognize the cruel injustices of racially loaded punishments while still creating safe schools. Petrilli hoped even

In this age of base politics . . . communities nationwide can reject such cynical approaches and craft school discipline policies that can bring us together rather than drive us apart.

That would be nice, but as I found in my research into the history of educational conservatism, school discipline has always been about more than pragmatic problem solving. Planting a flag for harsher school punishments has always been a hallmark of American conservatism.

Consider the flood of pro-discipline conservative outrage that confronted Pasadena’s superintendent in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The new superintendent, Willard Goslin, became the whipping-boy for a host of perceived problems with “progressive” education. As one furious conservative critic wrote in the local paper in 1949,

But pity the poor teacher!  After all, it is his job to pamper the pupils (in progressive schools), and it is worth his job if he tried any old-fashioned discipline.  Problem children are not only tolerated but pushed right along ‘to get rid of them’—out into society, for others to worry about.

Better-known conservative pundits have also always taken pot-shots at non-traditional ideas of school discipline. Max Rafferty, a nationally syndicated columnist and one-time state superintendent of public education in California, had nothing but scorn and contumely for new-fangled ideas about punishment.

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…he didn’t win.

In one 1964 column, Rafferty lambasted new ideas of school discipline in his typically colorful language. As he put it,

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.

In every decade, in every educational situation, school discipline has always been an us-or-them culture-war issue. Progressives have always lamented the racially loaded and ineffective traditions of whipping and my-way-or-the-highway teaching. Conservatives have always been sure that new-fangled ideas about child-rearing tragically misunderstood real human nature. As Rafferty explained in 1964,

The psychologists had been right in one respect.  Junior certainly had no repressions.  He could have used a few.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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