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Human Nature of Teaching III: Teaching as Act of Aggression

Coercive teaching is always an act of aggression.

Teaching is a word that has something of a halo around it. We tend to think of it as altruistic. But then there's this: I'll teach you a lesson you'll never forget, you little #@s#*&ˆ!

Not long ago, teaching children was more or less synonymous with beating children.

There was a time in our history when teaching children was pretty much synonymous with beating them. Most of what the Bible, for example, has to say about teaching children concerns beating. Here are some lines from Proverbs:

  • "Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod and deliver his soul from hell." (Proverbs 22:13-14)
  • "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." (Proverbs 22:15)
  • "Blows that hurt cleanse away evil, as do stripes the inner depths of the heart." (Proverbs 20:30)
  • "He that spares his rod hates his son, but he that loves him chastens him." (Proverbs 13:24)

My guess is that the Biblical authors understood that children would learn on their own, without teaching, most of the skills and information they needed to know, but wouldn't learn obedience on their own—at least not obedience of the unquestioned, subservient sort that Biblical and societal injunctions demanded. So obedience had to be taught, and punishment was the means for teaching it.

The church-run schools of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, which served as the models for subsequent state-run compulsory schools, were clearly meant to be correctional institutions (see "A Brief History of Education"). They were built on the assumption that children are natural sinners. To save their souls and turn them into good servants, children had to be taught to suppress their willfulness and obey their superiors.

The explicitly stated purpose of many of those schools was to teach the fear of God, and, as a corollary, to teach the fear of teachers, fathers, and other earthly lords and masters. As I noted in an earlier post, one German schoolmaster proudly kept a record of all the beatings he administered in 51 years of teaching: "911,527 blows with a rod, 124,010 blows with a cane, 20,989 taps with a ruler, 136,715 blows with the hand, 10,235 blows to the mouth, 7,905 boxes on the ear, and 1,118,800 blows on the head."

Perhaps that schoolmaster, like the author of Proverbs, would contend that all those beatings were altruistic. Perhaps they were administered purely for the good of the children, not to satisfy a sadistic craving. Perhaps each blow was preceded, quite genuinely, with the statement, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you; it's entirely for your good." Hmmm...

Obedience is the main lesson in schooling

Even today, obedience is the main lesson in schooling, and punishment is the main vehicle for teaching it.

What about the teaching that goes on in modern schools? Surely we have made progress. Or have we?

The lessons in schools are still mostly about obedience. Children must obey the school rules, which they have no voice in creating, and must obey all of the "requests" (which are really demands) made by their teachers. They must do their assignments, all in accordance with the teachers' precise directions on how and when to do them, whether or not the assignments seem reasonable or worthwhile. The children who get into trouble in school today are still the ones who don't obey. In fact, today's children must spend far greater portions of their lives obeying schoolteachers than did children of any time in the past. We rarely admit it, but teaching in schools today is at least as much about breaking children's wills and getting them to follow the teacher's will as it was in times past. In fact, if children are too willful in school today, we drug them.

Beating is no longer the choice mode of punishment in schools (though corporal punishment is still permitted in 20 US states). Now the primary tool of school coercion is the grade. Teachers, parents, and society in general drill into children's heads the idea that high grades are essential to success in life. You need at least minimal grades to pass from one level to the next in school and eventually get out of it. You need higher grades to get into college. You need the highest grades to get into any of the "best" colleges; and many kids are made to feel that if they don't get into one of those "best" colleges they will be lifetime failures, disappointments to all who know them. I've known kids who would far rather get a beating than a B. Brutality of punishment is in the eye of the punished.

Hmm... Are we really more humane in our methods of schooling now than we were when beatings were the norm? Perhaps we feel better about administering grades than beatings, but do the kids feel better? Our method of punishment in school today seems to create more anxiety, more depression, more anger, more cynicism, and more cheating than did the beatings of times past. You got the beating and it was over; but grades and the anxiety they create never end, at least not as long as you are in school. Hey, I'm not for going back to beatings. I'm for chucking out the whole system, as those of you who've read my previous posts know.

Any coercive teaching is an act of aggression

Now, to the question posed in the title of this essay: When is teaching an act of aggression? My answer is that any coercive teaching is an act of aggression. Any teaching that is not wanted by the student, but is forced on the student, is an act of aggression. Any educational use of rewards or punishments to make students learn is an act of aggression.

Why do I say that use of rewards, not just use of punishments, is an act of aggression? Because rewards are rewards only if they can be withheld, and their withholding is no different from punishment. Is a "B" for "good performance" a reward or a punishment? For the student who feels she "desperately needs" an A, it's punishment. A trophy is a reward for the one who gets it, but punishment for the one who doesn't. Some psychologists have long argued, quite simplistically, that reward is good and punishment is bad as motivation in teaching, but, the truth is, reward and punishment are two sides of the same coin. You can't use one without the other. The carrot is reward for the one who gets it but punishment for the one who doesn't; the stick is punishment for the one who gets it but reward for the one who doesn't.

Let me be clear in stating that I am not against all uses of punishments and rewards. Every society in one way or another punishes people who violate the serious rules of that society.

I'm not against punishment for crimes. Even hunter-gathers, who are so reluctant to use violence (see my last post), have ways of punishing people who violate the core rules of their society. If a hunter-gatherer adult engages in some taboo act—such as trying to boss other people around, having sex with a first-degree relative or with someone else's spouse, refusing to share food, or striking a child—the whole social group may, in concert, punish that person. The first round of punishment involves ridicule. The group will talk loudly, in belittling terms, about the person, or they may make up and sing songs designed to shame the person; and the ridicule will continue until the appropriate apologies are made and the behavior is corrected. If ridicule doesn't work, the next step is shunning. People will act as if the offending person no longer exists.

That is severe punishment, and it almost always brings the offender around. Either that, or it causes him to leave the band and try his luck with another. Ridicule and shunning are clearly acts of aggression (even if they are not acts of violence), but they are justifiable acts of aggression, aimed at correcting truly antisocial behavior.

What I am against is the use of punishment and rewards as part of teaching children skills and knowledge or teaching them to follow arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with social justice. A child who truly hurts another person or violates some serious social rule may need to be punished for it. That's entirely different from punishing a child for not doing what the teacher asked or for not feeling like doing arithmetic today or this year.

Punishment is so fully and intimately woven into the fabric of our schooling system that it's impossible for most people to see how to separate education from punishment. They can be separated only by the radical step of allowing children to take charge of their own education. When that happens, teaching only occurs at the request of the student, and only occurs to the degree that the student wants it. Most people in our society think that can't work, but we know it works for children in hunter-gatherer societies (see this essay), and we know it works for children in our society who attend Sudbury model schools or engage in the kind of homeschooling that goes by the name of unschooling (see this essay).

Punishment is inevitable when you feel your job is to make a child learn something that the child doesn't want to learn. A teacher whose continued employment depends on making her students pass a state-mandated test full of questions that are of no interest to the students has to use coercive means.

Punishment begets anger

The use of punishment in teaching may make the teacher feel anger toward the child, as well as make the child feel anger toward the teacher.

You might argue, as the author of Proverbs might, that punishing is not an act of aggression if the punisher believes it is a benign act and does not feel aggressive, or angry, while doing it. I suppose you could say, in that case, that it is aggression from the viewpoint of the one being punished but not from that of the one giving the punishment. But here's something to think about. Is it even possible, generally, to administer punishment without feeling anger toward the one being punished?

In my early days as a researcher, I conducted some experiments on learning under conditions of stress, which involved giving "moderately painful" electric shocks to rats. I convinced myself that giving those shocks, for the purpose of making scientific discoveries, was a benign act. But then, as I carried out the experiments, I noticed something strange: The act of shocking those rats made me feel angry toward the rats! When I did experiments with rats that did not involve punishment, I generally liked the rats, but when I shocked the poor beasts, I felt anger toward them. Anger toward them, not toward me, the person who perhaps deserved the anger.

And then, when I began teaching in college, I started to notice the same thing happening. I found myself feeling anger toward the students who got low grades in my courses. Why? They hadn't done anything to hurt me. And then I began to notice that it wasn't just me. My colleagues also seemed to feel and in various ways express anger at the students to whom they were giving low grades. The low grades came from poor test performances, not from any sort of offensive behavior toward us teachers, so why should they generate anger in us?

There are various ways of explaining this, but my guess is that it has to do with the way we are wired. Punishment and anger are entwined in our nervous systems. Throughout our evolution as primates, we administered punishment primarily if not entirely to those who made us angry. We punished those who hurt us; we punished sexual rivals; we punished those who seemed to be trying to usurp our position in the dominance hierarchy. Something in my nervous system says that if I am punishing those rats or students (with shocks or Ds), then I must be really mad at them. If there's no real reason why I should be mad at them, then, through some unconscious process, I make something up. I'm not saying that this always happens, but it seems to be a pretty strong tendency.

I suspect that this effect—in which low grades engender anger in the grader as well as in the student—occurs more often than most teachers are prepared to admit. I suspect that is part of the reason why teachers burn out. I suspect it is one of the causes of the adversarial relationship that so often occurs between teachers and students at all levels of our educational system.

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