Education Isn't Punishment

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A while ago (June 5, to be exact), NPR's All Things Considered had a piece on punishing kids in school by making them learn Robert Frost. It was intended partly as a way to make the kids learn more. They included several responses to the policy. One response caught my interest. It said that such a policy ends up agreeing with all the high school dropouts that education is bad. After all, it can't be a punishment unless it's bad. The problem with this punishment is that education isn't punishment.

This is a common enough view, and it has interesting implications for theories of punishment. In particular, it seems to undermine restorative, rehabilitative models of punishment. It doesn't undermine the view that we should seek to restore and rehabilitate criminals. It does undermine the view that we should call it punishment when we do so. It seems to me that the main assumption lying behind this slogan is that education isn't punishment, because education isn't retribution.

Given some of the stuff Wink is working on, I thought this was an interesting presentation of a popular intuition about punishment that runs counter to how he's trying to think about punishment.


My gut reaction when I first read this was, "Reading Robert Frost is not punishment!" But obviously that gives away the fact that the idea of punishment for me is almost inextricably linking with a retributive system. If it were called discipline instead, I think I would not have reacted at all but rather mused that reading Robert Frost would be great to enhance the well-roundedness of students. The line (or simply arbitrary distinction) between discipline and punishment might be of use as well; discipline, I think, is not so widely considered negative.

The other factor here is that learning Robert Frost may well be genuinely painful for people who are unable to appreciate him. So you might work this in even as a retributive punishment if all it takes for retribution to occur is that it's painful.

Even if you call it discipline, it'll still drive the kids away from it. Unless you've got a student body of masochists, no one will willingly do something that's disciplinary on their own, for fun.

I can't see discipline being intended for fun, but the method of discipline might easily turn out to be fun and something the person might choose on their own. For instance, some people would consider it torture to be prevented from seeing another person for a week. I'd consider it a nice vacation to do that once in a while. If someone used it to discipline me, I wouldn't be a masochist for enjoying the time to myself and the time to get work done without responsibilities, even if there are elements of it that I wouldn't want, other things being equal. Jesus used to send himself willingly to go sit in the corner, not as punishment but perhaps as a way to refocus himself and get his thoughts in order, certainly as a way to disconnect from the crowds and reconnect with God. Yet the same action is used for discipline all the time by parents and teachers. When Homer Simpson receives the ironic punishment of having to wolf down donuts repeatedly without stopping, he continues to enjoy it even after a ridiculous amount of donuts. So if you happen to enjoy it, that doesn't prevent it from being discipline or even intended punishment. It just means it wasn't effective.

This might be the teacher in me coming out, but I definitely disagree with the idea that discipline is not something that one would do on one's own (otherwise the phrase "self-discipline" would be self-refuting). Discipline in my mind is simply an activity (generally directed from teacher to pupil) that focuses an individual on acquiring the skills or traits necessary for some task or calling. The reason disciplinary measures are necessary in a classroom is because disruptive behaviors, etc., distract from the purpose of the classroom: to cultivate learners. (Consequently, I think that idea has become greatly watered down so that the task of the average classroom is realistically something more like making sure students learn information X about a given subject rather than instilling the sorts of values that make them into authentic learners. Good teachers seem to do the latter while also accomplishing the former.)

As for whether discipline is prone to drive kids away, that may be true if the teacher is unable to communicate the reason for doing such a thing. I think plenty of teachers are able to make that point by their demeanor in the classroom and by modeling the type of behavior that should be expecting (by example and by praise of students who demonstrate the right traits). Whether or not using the poetry of Robert Frost to accomplish this is another matter altogether.

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