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Chapter Seven

The Mechanistic School Of Discipline

      There are two things I want to discuss about the Mechanistic School of Discipline: its content and its perspective. The content can be covered in just a few paragraphs, but the mechanistic perspective will take more explaining. It is this perspective that I try to apply in all phases of teaching and not just in discipline, although it is most clearly seen in discipline.

      In content, the Mechanistic School is a synthesis. It includes the Hedonistic School, the Bad-guy School, and the Good-guy School, but not in equal proportions. I will say that the Mechanistic School is forty percent Hedonistic School, ten percent Good-guy School, five percent Bad-guy School, and forty-five percent logistics.

      The Hedonistic School is the broad base that underlies the Mechanistic School and makes it workable. A public school is after all a system of coercion. People don’t automatically study quietly or listen attentively. There are more interesting things to do than that. They do these things mainly because they know there are consequences to be faced if they do not do them. In a well-run school these things may appear perfectly natural; there may be little evidence of coercion. But the coercion must be there, if only in the background. If it were not, the great majority of students would simply leave their books and go home, or go fishing, or go to the pool hail, or have a snowball fight, or go for a hike down the railroad tracks, or any of a thousand other things.

      The Good-guy School is present in the Mechanistic School simply because it is indeed possible to evoke an interest in a subject matter, and a certain amount of effort can be elicited in this way. The Bad-guy School is present in the Mechanistic School simply because it is sensible for a teacher to keep a little distance between himself and his students. But neither the Good-guy nor the Bad-guy School should be carried too far.

      That still leaves forty-five percent of the Mechanistic School, and this remainder I will put under the name of logistics. By itself the Hedonistic School says nothing about games. It says nothing about getting around a student’s hedge. It says nothing about getting more than one notch up on a class. An effective teacher must know an antithesis to every game he is faced with. In the chapter on games I tried to give an antithesis to each game, and throughout the book I have tried to show ways of preventing games. This is logistics. A teacher must know his resources - his aggressiveness, his authority, his discretionary powers - and know how to use them. This again is logistics. A teacher must further know what his students will respond positively to. He must know about motivation in other words. This too is logistics, though I have not discussed it in this book simply because it is a separate subject in itself. In short then, logistics simply means having knowledge of what goes on in a classroom and being able to apply that knowledge.

      That is all there is to the content of the Mechanistic School. I will now turn to the mechanistic perspective. “Mechanistic,” in this context, means that people are machines and should be treated as such. If a machine needs oil you give it oil. If the machine needs gas you give it gas. You don’t worry about whether the machine “deserves” oil or gas; you are concerned only with results. In order to fix a machine, you try to find out what’s wrong with it; how it is supposed to work; and what is preventing it from working as it should. If you can’t understand its workings you still may be able to fix it by observing how different things affect it. Either way you have to observe the machine objectively. You don’t get too far by trying to “relate” to it.

      A machine cannot profane a person, though it can certainly frustrate him. A machine cannot be punished, unless maybe in a poetic or literary sense. Though we may occasionally strike a machine in anger, we do not generally think we are thereby “getting even.” A machine has no face to lose, and a person cannot lose face to a machine. Therefore a machine can be treated objectively, without human emotions getting in the way. The mechanistic perspective simply says that we should be able to look at human behavior objectively without human emotions getting in the way.

      Of course this is not to say that humans are nothing more than machines. They are very special machines. They are biological machines. And they are even more than that: they are social machines. They have drives of ego expansion and face defense, drives of sociability and bonding, drives of security, sex, and others. Therefore the mechanistic perspective that is appropriate for humans is not identical to the mechanistic perspective that is appropriate for physical machines. However there are similarities, and these similarities are important. The most important similarity is that both physical and social machines act in accordance with recognizable patterns. I have tried to describe these patterns in previous chapters.

      The Hedonistic School is mechanistic to quite an extent, and the main trouble with the Hedonistic School is that it doesn’t go far enough in logistics. The Good-guy School and the Bad-guy School are both somewhat mechanistic in that they seek to elicit a certain response from the students, and this response can be observed with at least some degree of objectivity. However, both of these schools are mainly non-mechanistic because they start out with the predetermined moral judgments that man is “naturally” good or bad. Therefore these schools of discipline are inflexible. The Desert School is the least mechanistic of all, for it is dogmatic and doesn’t objectively observe cause and effect.

      In both mechanics and society there is a tendency to view malfunction as something more real and in need of more explanation than normal operation. “Why won’t the car go?” we ask. A more important question is, “Why in the world should the car go?” The driver thinks it should go just to get him to work. The mechanic, on the other hand, who takes a more mechanistic perspective toward the car, knows it should go because gas from the tank is ignited in a combustion chamber and the resulting explosion makes the piston go down, which turns the crankshaft, which turns the transmission gears, which turns the driveshaft, and so on. Once we knew why the car should go, then we are in a better position to know why the car doesn’t go. In the same way, to ask, “What causes crime?” is to ask the wrong question. Instead we need to ask, “How is it that people manage to live together in cooperation?” Instead of asking, “Why does Johnny misbehave?” we should ask, “Why in the world should Johnny behave?”

      So what do we know of the human machine? Can we predict its behavior? Yes, though not to the extent that we would like. We can certainly predict that children will be selfish and shortsighted until they are civilized. We can also predict that they will seek out social relationships and be responsive to praise and blame. We can predict that they will expand their egos and defend their faces, that they will want to learn but only on their own terms, that they will like candy and hate going to the dentist, and many other things. Do we know what the human machine needs for smooth operation? Yes again, though with perhaps even less assurance and more reservations. We know that children need strong guidance if they are to stay out of trouble. We know that they must be taught concepts of fair play, duty, justice, and honor. And we know that they must be given dignity and the opportunity to expand their egos by merit. The mechanistic perspective says simply that we should put this knowledge to work.

      Very often we do not put this knowledge to work. We often act on our human responses which are not always consistent with the mechanistic perspective. We act on emotion rather than reason. I will give a few illustrations of how normal human responses can get in the way of effective teaching.

      Defense of face is probably the most common complication in handling discipline problems. A machine cannot profane a person. If my car stops and the gas gauge says empty, I know what to do. I do not need to maintain my ego boundaries between me and my car. I do not need to get even with my car. But what happens when a student misbehaves in my classroom? Can I then be as rational? Teachers protect their faces just because they are human. When a student misbehaves it is easy for the teacher to take it as a personal affront. The very strong drive of ego defense tells him to take corrective action, and the natural thing to do is to retaliate against the offender in some way. This retaliation will be rationalized of course, and much of the rationale may be valid. As I have said before, the Hedonistic School of Discipline is valid, and the primary check on over-expanding egos is the counter-aggression of others. Therefore punishment of some sort is indeed appropriate.

      However, the mechanistic perspective says there is more to it than that. The mechanistic perspective says to forget about face, at least for the moment, and just look at the situation. What went wrong with the student-machine? Is it engaging in blatantly aggressive ego expansion? Then the best cure is counter-aggression. Proceed with the display of aggression or other punishment. Is the offense done for material gain? Then simply deny the offender that gain in accordance with the hedonistic principle. Is the student guilty only of a pseudo-offense? Then change things so that he is not in a situation that makes transgression inevitable. Is he gaming? Then apply the antithesis of the game.

      Having set aside face for a moment, in the interests of objectivity, it is now important to bring face back into consideration. Face is an important part of the human machine. No human is capable of disregarding his own face continually, unless he is psychotic. Teaching must be made safe for the teacher’s face. If it were not, if teaching required that the teacher continually lose face, then there would soon be no more teachers.

      Face is indeed real, as real as the page you are reading, and it is quite possible to see it in this light. Face should be considered as something peculiar to human machines that has no parallel to other machines - as something that is real enough to motivate behavior, and as something that is real enough to cause endless complications in human life. It is not hard to see considerations of face in the behavior of others, and, with a little bit of effort, it is also possible to see considerations of face in one’s own behavior. It is possible to detach oneself from one’s face and see the situation objectively, as if face were something outside of oneself, just as it is quite possible to look at one’s sore thumb as if it were outside of oneself.

      If I had a little boy who was kicking my car and scratching the paint, I’d give him a good whack on his bottom to stop his actions. If I had a little boy who was sticking out his tongue at my neighbor, I’d do the same. Is my neighbor’s ego any less real than the paint on my car? No, it is not. I wouldn’t want my child to damage either one. If I had a kid sticking out his tongue at me, I’d still apply the same correction but not, if I meet my ideals, in retribution for my damaged ego, but instead to control the behavior of the child. In the same way, when a student insults me in the classroom I should punish him in order to delete the undesirable action, but not to “get even” with him.

      Retaliation for an offended ego may take the same form as punishment for an offense, or it may not. Retaliation is very likely to take a form that only adds to the problem. For example, when a student tells a teacher, “I hope you don’t come back next year,” it’s pretty hard for the teacher not to be offended. The natural reaction is to reply in kind, to return the insult, to say something like, “Well, don’t worry about that, This is the last place I plan to be next year!” But is this a constructive thing to say? It may hurt the discourteous student and thereby satisfy the teacher’s wounded ego, but it is not a straightforward punishment. Rather it is just a move in a game, a game started by the student, and one which will only elicit another move by the student. Teachers are supposed to stop such gaming, not join in it. They are supposed to prevent escalation of conflict, not promote it. A straightforward punishment would be a reprimand, something to the effect of, “Gloria, that’s not a polite thing to say! Mind your manners!” This type of response may not end the matter, but it is much less likely to continue the game than will the retaliatory response. It is also possible that nothing will be of any help, and the incident might as well be overlooked. It is not wise for a teacher to let his ego be damaged very often, but sometimes it is unavoidable. The important thing is not to promote an escalation of conflict. This is the least that can be expected if the teacher makes any claim at all to professionalism.

      Aggressiveness and inhibitions, as I discussed in chapter three, are human responses that can get in the way of objectivity. Like face, aggression does not have a parallel among machines. But also like face, it can be treated in a mechanistic manner, as something that exists and must be reckoned with. Aggression can cause trouble by either being used too much or too little.

      Aggressiveness is an ability, not a drive, but it is an ability that is spontaneously used in the service of drives. Thus a teacher of little skill or insight, but of high aggressiveness, will tend to use aggression indiscriminately. With most discipline problems, a display of aggression will get results. Therefore some teachers of high aggressiveness rely on it too much and never acquire any great degree of skill in teaching. They may be competent, even conscientious, teachers, but they will not be the best teachers. They are not finely tuned to students’ resentments and frustrations, because students will repress their feelings rather than cause trouble. They are not aware of whether the students are gaining satisfaction of accomplishment from their work or are merely putting in their time. They are not careful to make good use of the students’ time. I do not mean to imply that all teachers of high aggressiveness use aggression indiscriminately. The point is only that at times aggressiveness can get in the way of effective teaching.

      Inhibitions cause considerably more problems than aggressiveness. Remember that aggressiveness is simply the relative lack of confrontation inhibitions, and thus inhibitions are much more real than aggressiveness. It is quite possible, even easy, for a person of high aggressiveness to be objective, that is, to take a mechanistic perspective if he so chooses. It is not at all so easy for a person of very low aggressiveness to be objective. Confrontation inhibitions are a form of fear, and fear is a very powerful emotion. These inhibitions get in the way of effective teaching because they make it very hard to do what should be done. More than once I have procrastinated in challenging a student’s misbehavior, or have put off calling up a parent, or have let a liner push over the line, or have let a debater win his point simply because I am not a highly aggressive person and I don’t want to do battle with anyone.

      The mechanistic perspective says simply to use aggression as a tool, to use aggression when it will be of benefit, not to blindly follow one’s emotions of the moment. For the highly aggressive person, this means to use aggression discriminately and to be extra careful in knowing what is going on in the classroom. For the person of low aggressiveness, it means to learn to fake aggression convincingly (which I admit I’ve never been able to do), and to arrange things so that a high amount of aggression is not needed everyday.

      Mutual obligations among people are another set of human responses that can get in the way of the mechanistic perspective. Any society is held together by obligations. Obligations are an integral part of human bonding. Many of these obligations are carefully codified and verbalized, such as my obligation to make a car payment each month for a certain number of months. Other obligations are so vague and diffused that they are hard to deal with. They are easily abused. Most ritual obligations are like this, especially the ritual fictions of trust and approval. Classroom gamesters are skilled at enforcing the teacher’s obligations while abusing their own obligations shamelessly. The game of debate, for example, depends on invoking the teacher’s obligation to reply to any statement or question of a student. This obligation comes from the basic obligation one has to acknowledge other members of his society.

      The mechanistic perspective says to put these obligations in perspective, as something that is real, even important, but not sacred, and not beyond the realm of investigation and understanding. Effective discipline often requires breaking some of these obligations. When I refuse to debate, I am denying my obligation to respond to the student. If the student cannot take a tactful hint, then I have to flatly profane him by refusing him a reply.

      The obligation to be fair is an obligation that can cause no end of trouble. Therefore it is worthwhile to look at fairness from a mechanistic perspective. I put an “A” on Joe’s report card and a “D” on John’s report card. Is that fair? Of course not! But I didn’t mean it to be fair. I don’t give a grade to be fair, I give it for feedback, for motivation, for communication to whomever might be interested in Joe’s or John’s algebra abilities. These two students come into my class with different abilities. Is that fair? No, life is not fair. Joe hardly works at algebra and learns it easily. John works hard to earn his “D.” I am requiring a lot more from John than from Joe. Is that fair? Yet when John is frustrated with his work and acts up a little, I try to overlook it if I can. If Joe shows the same behavior I reprimand him. Is that fair? Because algebra is hard for him, John gets twenty times as much personal help from me on his assignments than does Joe. Is that fair? Mary comes to class in the latest styles while Joan has to make do with hand-me-downs. Is that fair? Everett was blessed with athletic ability and makes the team, while Irving sits on the sidelines. Is that fair?

      Fairness is mostly a fiction. It is an ideal that we must aspire to as much as possible, but it is an ideal impossible to approach very closely. What actually counts, and what usually goes under the name of fairness, is consistency to a set of rules that are agreed upon and that are designed to give the appropriate acknowledgment to all involved. In a simple card game we make a claim to fairness if all follow the same rules. Obviously the players come to the game with different abilities and therefore have unequal chances of winning. Yet even with such unfairness we can enjoy the game. It is a workable game and we support the fiction of fairness, whether it is a reality or not. In fact, if we were to make it so each person has an absolutely equal chance of winning, then the game would lose its appeal. We want some skill involved, even though we know skill is not fairly distributed among all people.

      A set of rules is seen as fair if it provides appropriate acknowledgment for each person. Is it fair that a student is punished for coming to class late but a teacher can be late occasionally with impunity? I don’t know whether it is fair or not. What matters is that our society considers it appropriate that rank has some privileges, that a teacher has a higher rank than his students, and that students are not to gripe about it. What is considered as unfair is failure to give appropriate acknowledgment to a particular individual or group. If John is punished for coming to class late but Joe is not, then John feels that his rank is not being acknowledged. This is perceived as being unfair.

      Fairness is concerned with acknowledgment. The declaration that “all men are created equal” is another way of saying that “all egos shall be given appropriate acknowledgment.” This is not a “self-evident truth” by any means. It is rather a postulate on which to build a society. It is true only to the extent that we can make it so.

      The amount and kind of acknowledgment which is due to each member of a society is set by culture, tradition, popular consent, and power politics. Therefore ideas of fairness change. A few centuries ago it was considered quite fair that a lord received the first fruits of the serfs’ labors. After all, he was highborn and the serfs were lowborn. In another time and place it was considered only reasonable that men were given the vote and women were not. Until quite recently, it was considered entirely proper that generals had their boots shined by privates. Today we consider it fair that an intelligent person will make far more money during his lifetime than will an unintelligent person. We consider it reasonable that children should inherit the wealth of their parents, though the children did not lift a finger to earn it. We consider it quite fair that a coach holds tryouts and awards places on the team on the basis of ability. Some of these ideas of fairness may change in the future.

      Fairness is mostly a fiction because there are so many ways to look at fairness. How, then, is a teacher to know what to do? Many times a teacher does not know what to do. Some conflicts are inevitable. Students, just like almost everyone else, will cry foul whenever they can see some advantage in doing so. However, there is a general agreement in any society about what fairness means. Usually teachers need only to apply the precepts of fairness that they have learned from their earliest childhood. These precepts may not be one hundred percent agreeable to all concerned, but they are agreed upon enough to be enforceable. Occasionally a teacher will find himself in a situation in which his ideas of fairness are simply different in some respect from community standards. There is no easy solution as to what to do in such a situation.

      The important thing is not whether the system under which we operate is fair or not, for it is not. The important thing is whether or not there is a better system available. There are many attempts to improve things so that life is more fair. For example, coaches know that athletic ability is not fairly distributed. Therefore we have an A-team and a B-team so that everyone has a chance to play. Many teachers often provide a way for less able students to raise their grade by doing extra projects. We have also considered dumping the grading system altogether, and I suppose the coach has considered the idea of making basketball noncompetitive. Unfortunately such measures would make it impossible for those who have talents to get any credit for developing those talents. This might be only “fair” in some sense of the word, but it is certainly undesirable in other respects.

      Once we decide we are being as fair as we can be under the given circumstances, then it is important not to be manipulated by gaming students who would rather debate than work. Things will never be entirely fair in this world, and children learn this when they are very young. With some students it is sensible to agree that a particular situation is not entirely fair, but that there is simply no way to be absolutely fair. With less thoughtful and more belligerent students, it may be best to stoutly maintain that we are being absolutely fair and that’s all there is to it.

      Fairness is important in the fiction, not in the fact. Applied to discipline, this means that the same crime does not necessarily deserve the same punishment when committed by different people. This viewpoint is normally accepted by students, providing there is some apparent reason for the discrepancy in punishments. For example, Susie comes up and tells me she forgot to bring her book to school. I tell her to share with Jean and I don’t give it another thought. Roger gets a gleam in his eye and comes up and tells me the same thing. I tell him, “That’s too bad, Roger, but I’m not going to have you messing around all hour. Now you get your head down on your desk and I better not hear a peep out of you all hour!” At first this sounds terribly unfair, and perhaps it is. However it is sensible, knowing that Susie will not abuse a privilege and Roger will. I must have the authority to enforce my actions. Of course I must also have the skill and decency to explain my actions, and I must maintain the fiction of fairness. Thus I would tell Roger, “Yesterday it was your homework you lost, and the day before you were throwing paper wads. These things pile up, you know.” Usually at this stage of the game Roger will suddenly remember, “Wait a minute. I think I remember where I left my book. Yup, here it is.”

      When a teacher is only one notch above his class, the fiction of fairness is hard to maintain. When the teacher is two notches above his class, it is surprising how little students care about fairness. Fairness is much more often a useful subject for a game of debate than for a real issue. In the prison school I expected that the whole class would show resentment when I had to punish one student, but this did not turn out to be the case. On only one occasion that I can remember did one inmate want to debate fairness when I punished another. We ran a tight school, so everyone knew that debate was unproductive. It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the inmates repressed their resentment and that discipline was so harsh that they had no recourse even when an actual injustice was done. I don’t believe this was the case though. The inmates knew how to repress their emotions all right, for prison life is not always smooth; however they would show signs when they felt resentment. I saw it often enough when an inmate was mad at a guard or another teacher. Resentment was not shown when I “wrote up” another inmate simply because resentment was not there. Resentment was not there because I was as fair as I could be, and because I was careful to stay two notches up on the students.

      Obligations, such as the obligation to he fair or the obligation to show trust and approval, can be abused by students because most teachers are decent and sociable people. They take their obligations to their fellow man seriously. Obligations are an integral part of human bonding and bonds are formed whenever human beings interact in a positive, or even neutral, way. Since students and teachers interact extensively together, it is not surprising that bonds develop between them, and that the obligations produced by these bonds become very real. In order to prevent abuse of these obligations, it might seem sensible to limit bond development, or to refuse to let a bond develop in the first place. Something like this must be done now and then in other areas of life, such as when foster parents are careful not to get too attached to a child who will be with them only temporarily. Teachers, social workers, and many others remain disinterested to some extent just because they know there are dangers in getting too wrapped up in their job. I don’t think it is necessary or desirable to deny bonds completely in order to apply the mechanistic perspective. It is perfectly possible to recognize one’s likes and dislikes, even one’s prejudices, and still be objective. The important thing is that one should not be a slave, blindly taken in by one’s feelings.

      The mechanistic perspective may be objectionable to some. It may at first appear dehumanizing. I don’t think this need be the case though. That the mechanistic perspective can be made to coexist with other more humanistic perspectives is easily seen by the parallel with medicine. Every doctor knows that the human body is a machine. He cures the ills of that machine in a mechanistic way. He knows how to treat injury and disease because he has an extensive knowledge of how the body works. He gained that knowledge by studying the research of thousands of other doctors and scientists who approached medicine in a mechanistic way, and by mechanistically dissecting cadavers in medical school. Yet for all this knowledge of the body as a machine, we still expect a doctor to be a decent human being.

      The human body is a machine and the mechanistic perspective will continue to be used in medicine. The behavior of humans also works mechanistically, but behavior also works in special ways not paralleled in physical machines. The mechanistic perspective can take all this into account. It is as valid for studying behavior as it is for studying bodies. In no way does it deny the idea that both body and behavior are special kinds of machines, and in no way does it mean that either body or behavior should be treated only mechanistically.

      Having spent considerable time discussing the mechanistic perspective, I will now return and summarize the important points of the Mechanistic School of Discipline. The Mechanistic School is basically a hedonistic school. It says that humans do respond to rewards and punishments, and therefore rewards and punishments must be available to teachers. This means that the legitimacy of punishment must be acknowledged by the school and the community. Teachers who look down their noses at a colleague who punishes a student, or administrators who make a teacher feel guilty when he sends a student to the office, are doing no one a favor. In addition to acknowledging the need for punishment in principle, it is also necessary that the school acknowledge the legitimacy of particular punishments. Any particular punishment is open to the charge of being ineffective or irrelevant. A school must be willing to defend whatever forms of punishment it decides on, without claiming that such punishments are perfect or will produce miracles.

      The Mechanistic School recognizes that authority is necessary for teaching. It recognizes that a certain amount of this authority must be discretionary. It recognizes that fairness is important, but not the most important factor in maintaining discipline.

      The Mechanistic School realizes the importance of logistics. It realizes that students will respond well to some teaching approaches and poorly to others. There is a lot more to teaching than just telling. The Mechanistic School further realizes that there are ways to reduce the opportunity for misbehavior by students, and that effective teaching will greatly reduce the motivation for students to misbehave.

      And finally the Mechanistic School of Discipline recognizes that there are very strong drives that make students do other than what the teacher desires. These drives are real and must be taken into account in any approach to teaching.