Reproduction of a poster that appears
in the movie “Brazil,” purchasable here
in the movie “Brazil,” purchasable here
In America, if you commit a crime, the state can jail your friends and neighbors. In America, the state can punish an entire group whenever it is too hard to sort out the innocent from the guilty. In America, you have to monitor your neighbors’ conduct, and you can be punished if you fail to report their crimes. In America, it is your duty to pressure your fellow citizens into obeying the authorities, even if you have no say in what the authorities demand. In America, you must always be willing to sacrifice your freedom in the name of law and order.
Any school that taught those false statements in a civics class would be guilty of gross educational malpractice. I worry, though, that my kids’ school is teaching them every day, in the way it handles discipline. In its zeal to enforce behavioral rules, the school is willing to punish the innocent along with the guilty, and to coerce the kids into serving as informants on one another.
Take the lunchroom. As I described here, our school is engaged in a baffling War on Lunchroom Noise, even though both parents and kids report that the lunchroom is not all that noisy, and even though no one even bothers to close the door to the room during lunch, and even though the gym classes held in the same room are significantly noisier. To achieve this dubious goal of a needlessly quiet lunchroom, the lunchroom attendants make a special point of telling the kids that their whole table (of up to sixteen kids) will be punished – by having to eat in silence – if any of them are too noisy, and so they had all better pay attention to how their table-mates are behaving. If the room gets “too noisy,” the person in charge tells the kids to raise their hands if their “neighbors” are talking.
Similarly, if the school catches a child bullying another child, it doesn’t stop at disciplining the bully. Now, apparently, the school has taken to disciplining kids who happened to see the bullying and did not report it. In such a case, the school sends an incident report to the bystander’s parents, telling them to sign it and return it to the school.
Last year, as I described here, a teacher told a roomful of kids to search each other’s desks and backpacks to find an eraser that had supposedly been stolen from the teacher’s desk.
Why would a school choose to model values and practices that are so contrary to those that our country stands for?
Collective punishment – that is, punishing an entire group for the actions of a few – has a long, ugly history. In the American criminal justice system, its use would be unconstitutional. Its use during armed conflict is a war crime under the Geneva Convention. The International Committee of the Red Cross, in its commentary on the Convention, explains that collective punishment defies “the most elementary principles of humanity,” and that collective punishment and related measures “strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice.”
Requiring people to police each other’s conduct, and to report each other’s offenses to the authorities, also raises serious concerns about individual civil liberties. The general rule in America is that citizens have no legal duty to report crimes that they witness. Though such a duty would certainly have some positive effects, American law has generally rejected it, and for good reasons. Such a duty would greatly expand the power of the state over the individual. By requiring everyone to mind everyone else’s business, such a duty would make every citizen an involuntary agent of the police, and would give the state a pretext to arrest any number of otherwise law-abiding citizens. The practice evokes images of the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy era. Like collective punishment, it is one of the hallmarks of a police state.
It makes sense for the school to encourage kids to report bullying, but the school shouldn’t punish kids for not reporting other kids. Better to cultivate kids’ empathy for the victims of bullying than to depend on their fear of being punished. (When it comes to discipline, it sometimes seems like our school knows of only two ways to engage with children: carrot and stick.) As for the lunchroom, it seems like the school is going out of its way to teach these authoritarian values. The “problem” of lunchroom noise is one invented by the school; the kids in surrounding classrooms aren’t bothered by it, as the school basically acknowledges by leaving the lunchroom door open. And besides, is it really that hard to figure out which kids in the lunchroom are the noisy ones, without enlisting the other kids to become informants?
The school preaches that kids should resist peer pressure. But with these practices, it employs and encourages peer pressure as a tactic to enforce compliance with school rules.
Do the school personnel think that their treatment of the kids has no effect on what the kids will come to see as normal and acceptable? That what they model has no effect on what the kids learn? Or is it that they don’t care what the kids are learning, as long as they’re quiet and following the rules?