The philosophical foundations of discipline

By Brett I. Kier | Monday, 27 July 2015

What is clear in reviewing the different theorists of classroom discipline is that for the most part they are all addressing different aspects of human behavior for the ultimate purpose of creating a positive learning environment, which is why a strong argument can be made that each theorist is simply highlighting a different side of an infinitely-sided die. This is in part due to the schizophrenic nature of educational theory in general, but also speaks to the historical moment we are currently experiencing, where the individual and collective socio-cultural and economic realities are driving a great deal of the shift in students’ behavior. Because human behavior is to a large extent environmentally mediated, it is not surprising to see constant shifts in philosophy and approach about what are the most effective ways to create a cooperative learning environment.

Over the years, classroom discipline has been influenced in a number of ways by various theorists, creating a hodgepodge of philosophical approaches that all seem to agree on at least one fundamental point: classical education based on the trivium and quadrivium is an anachronism, where the focus was once on the content instead of the student. The perspective in vogue today is often articulated in the axiom, “We teach students first, content second.” Accordingly, the vast majority of the theorists today have in one way or another contributed to a better understanding of how to address students’ needs. Among the most noteworthy 20th century researchers and their theories are Glasser’s non-coercive “reality therapy”, Dreikurs “democracy and belonging”, the Canters’ “assertive discipline”, Jones’ “active involvement”, Albert’s “cooperative discipline”, Borba’s “moral intelligence”, and Kohn’s “communities of learners”, all of whom offer valuable insights and strategies into classroom management. What is conspicuously missing, however, from all of the theorists mentioned above, are the implications and realities of the quantum mechanics of behavior. This may be in part due to the heavy influence of scientific management in the classroom since its peak in the 1910s, and later rebirth as technocracy in the modern era.

In 1801, Thomas Young conducted an experiment that would later be referred to as the “double-slit experiment.” The essential finding of Young’s experiment, which has been repeated many times, is that the act of observation alone will change the physical properties of an object – the so-called particle/wave paradox. What this implies about the nature of reality itself is that it is at once objective and subjective, meaning that our systems of belief, expectations, intentions, and prejudices shape what we experience on an entirely unconscious and sub-conscious level. Far from simply being a pedantic observation about arcane mysteries of the universe, this fact can serve as our greatest ally in understanding the a priori frame we place around others – in this case students. Are students perceived as generally uncooperative, resistant, or ungrateful; or are they believed to be curious, compassionate, and loving? If we embrace the deep truth that we, to a significant degree, have the power to create behavior simply by our preconceived notions and expectations, then we could go much further down the road towards surrendering the myth of control in the classroom, thus the adage, “True strength comes from vulnerability.” Thus, out of a universe of infinite possibility can spring forth one’s reality, which is shaped by intention, expectation, and choice. What I will propose is just such a reality that I will refer to as radical autonomy.

All ideologies and pedagogical paradigms exist on a continuous cyclical spectrum of possibility and change. Their relationship with one another is based to some degree on their points of philosophical intersection or departure. These intersections and departures occur at points of agreement and disagreement on process or product, or perhaps both. Below is an explication of a disciplinary approach whose process and product embody a paradigm based on the concept of radical autonomy. In this context, radical is understood to mean the fundamental and essential aspects of the human psyche, the source of consciousness, and the intersection between body and mind – the soul. Radical autonomy it is at once a practice and the result of a practice. It is a process and a product. It is a state of spiritual awareness that paradoxically connects the whole of the universe. It is the interdependent nature of autonomy on the individual and collective level which serves to fill the teacher and the student with a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose; as the traditional Subject-Object relations that occur amongst people which share different levels of freedom, agency, and ability to exercise power begin to fall away like background noise, becoming the faint whispers of fear-based awareness which clings to a desire for control. The antecedents of radical autonomy, and therefore the path towards its realization lie in the development and cultivation of agency, self-mastery, and a skeptical view of authority.

First, agency is the belief and ability to confidently act on one’s own behalf free of coercion, sometimes referred to as self-efficacy. One implication of agency is that one understands and has the ability to navigate the material world with a clear understanding of its rules, social mores, and political realities. It should be understood that true agency lies in the mastering and following rules in order to learn to break or change them. Next, self-mastery is the true source of compassion towards others, and is embodied in the practice of the Japanese concept of kaizen, which means to engage in constant incremental improvement, in this case for the purpose of developing self-awareness. Self-awareness leads to self-mastery, which is self-love. Love of self is how we come to love others, and dictates our capacity to express the latter. Lastly, a skeptical stance towards authority is a crucial aspect of achieving agency and practicing self-mastery. Paraphrasing the Buddha, “Don’t believe anything people tell you just because they are in a position of ostensible authority, for you must constantly interrogate your systems of belief through the lens of common sense.” What then is the relationship between radical autonomy and discipline?

There is a great deal of personal responsibility inherent in the requirements of practicing radical autonomy, which in turn requires a great deal of self-discipline. Discipline is a kind of psychological and behavioral memory that emanates from consistent training; much like muscle memory is developed to create physical habits. Individual and collective discipline in a classroom setting requires a sense of belonging, assertiveness, active involvement, cooperation, morality, and a sense of community. Each educational theorist merely proposes a particular focus on one side of the die, but all are necessary in order to capture the ethos of any one student or classroom of students. Ultimately the practice and experience of radical autonomy begins with the self. To truly grasp the universal nature of who we are, we must travel deep within the self. That is where we come face to face with the Self. This confrontation between ego and spirit is what Saint John of the Cross described as the dark night of the soul. Embracing the ego is the path towards freeing ourselves from it. We must lose ourselves in order to find our Self. This is perhaps an attempt to find what was lost in childhood, a sense of pregnant possibility. For it can be said that the great expectations of adulthood are the shadows of a child’s wonder. We would do well to remember that. It is up to us to make sure that the bright light of possibility and wonder does not fade into the darkness of pragmatism and fear. We must sublimate this deep ocean of nascent imagination into its purest expression… love.



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