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.


…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.


Learning by Discipline

What should schools do with students who behave badly?  Who assault other students?  Who treat teachers disrespectfully?

A new announcement about school discipline from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder might drive some conservative pundits to distraction.  Discipline, the two leading officials of the Obama Administration announced yesterday, must be more sensitive to student background and more responsive to individual situations.  Blanket zero-tolerance policies, they proclaimed, lead to worse school discipline, not better.

Those zero-tolerance policies, however, grew out of a groundswell of popular conservative opinion throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Conservative commentators and activists long complained that schools treated students too gingerly.  Good old-fashioned discipline, some conservative writers insisted, would help return schools to their proper role.  Instead of being places where polite students and teachers cower and wince at the domineering swagger of loud-mouthed punks, schools should be calm and orderly places where infractions of the rules are not tolerated.

Some studies have demonstrated the central importance of a reinvigorated school discipline to many conservative parents in the 1980s.  One Stanford study[1] of two new fundamentalist schools in the 1970s and 1980s found that leaders put bad discipline in public schools as one of their top reasons for opening their own school, right up there with “secular humanism,” “evolution teaching,” and the fact that “kids weren’t learning.”  In a fundamentalist school that opened in September 1974 with a grand total of eleven students, one teacher informed the Stanford researcher that most parents assumed that the fundamentalist school was “solving discipline problems the public schools could not.”

Another study, this one from Temple University in Philadelphia,[2] found that parents listed poor discipline as one of their top reasons for abandoning public schools in favor of private Christian ones.  Nearly 65% of switching parents listed “discipline” as a leading reason for changing schools.  By way of comparison, just over 68% of parents listed “secular humanism” as a primary reason for their switch.

It may come as no surprise that some conservative parents choose Christian schools out of fear of disorderly public schools.  Leading conservative religious writers throughout the 1980s insisted that public schools had utterly abandoned all attempt at imposing discipline.  Jerry Combee, for example, warned readers in a 1979 book,

Without Biblical discipline the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn.

Similarly, in his 1983 book The Battle for The Public Schools, blockbuster fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye insisted that one of the vital reforms that could save education was a return of traditional discipline.  As LaHaye put it, “We must return discipline, authority, and respect to public schools”

In 1986, conservative Texas school watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler asked readers, “Why has discipline become so bad that policemen must patrol the halls of many schools?”  The Gablers’ answer was simple:

We were taught that if you plant potatoes, you get potatoes.  If you plant rebellion and immorality in children’s minds by teaching them that only they can decide what is right and wrong, that parents are old-fashioned, and that the Judeo-Christian Bible is a book of fairy tales, then what can you expect?  Garbage in—garbage out!

These conservative critiques of the sorry nature of school discipline were not limited to conservatives of a primarily religious background.  After his turn as Education Secretary under Ronald Reagan, William J. Bennett lamented the sorry state of school discipline.  In his 1994 book Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, Bennett cited a fraudulent but evocative historical comparison:

In 1940, teachers identified talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in the halls; cutting in line; dress code infractions; and littering [as “top problems”].  When asked the same question in 1990, teachers identified drug abuse; alcohol abuse; pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; and assault.

Due at least in part to this widespread sense that American public schools had reached a nadir of weak discipline, many states and school districts imposed variants of “zero-tolerance” policies.  According to these policies, student infractions would be met with an escalating series of ever-harsher punishments, including out-of-school suspensions and reports to police.  Politicians could claim that they were taking action to ensure a no-nonsense disciplinary attitude in America’s schools.

Yesterday’s announcement by Arne Duncan and Eric Holder represents the Obama administration’s repudiation of that zero-tolerance approach.  Though “zero-tolerance” may sound good, Duncan told an assembled crowd at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, “Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehavior.”  According to the Baltimore Sun, Duncan described a new federal approach that would de-emphasize suspensions and put more emphasis on creating nurturing in-school environments.  Attorney General Holder agreed.  Principals, not police, should be responsible for school discipline, Holder insisted.

Will conservatives care about this shift in school disciplinary policies?  If history is any guide, I’m guessing that conservatives will paint this new policy as yet another soft-headed, over-complicated liberal approach to a simple problem.  Folks such as Eric Holder and Arne Duncan may worry that zero-tolerance policies unfairly target racial minorities, but I’ll be surprised if conservative educational activists don’t complain that such social-science talk only obscures a far more obvious point.

If students misbehave in school, conservatives will likely insist, they should not be allowed to be in school.

[1] Peter Stephen Lewis, “Private Education and the Subcultures of Dissent: Alternative/Free Schools (1965-1975) and ChristianFundamentalistSchools (1965-1990),” PhD dissertation, StanfordUniversity, 1991.

[2] Martha E. MacCullough, “Factors Which Led Christian School Parents to LeavePublic   School,” Ed.D. dissertation, TempleUniversity, 1984.