Discipline vs. Control

One of our RiverTree moms raised a question with me the other day, one that is very important to understanding RiverTree's and Ambleside's approach to education and why it is different. She asked, how can we maintain high behavioral expectations for our students without descending into legalism? It is a very good question; one to which many Christian schools have not yet found a satisfactory answer.

Arrival at a good answer, I believe, depends upon how one views the role of the school as it pertains to behavior. It is the role of the school to maintain control of students behavior so that the instillation of knowledge might go forward? Or, is it to help a student to grow in self-control and discipline as an integral part of the education itself? Although these two possible answers might seem similar, there is a world of difference between them. The school that approaches its relationship with students as one of control, will inevitably resort to a complex and overly thorough code of rules to which students are held accountable. This code, while perhaps well thought through, becomes the primary tool of control. Because control is a means to an end in these schools, the code becomes it's justified by its utility; we need rules of behavioral control, because we can't let the children be disruptive to the work of education. That is to say, the code exists for the convenience of the adults. From the student's perspective it will, therefore, seem arbitrary and oppressive. A student who asks "why" to any of the myriad of rules will be answered with some version of the response "because it is a rule, and you must follow the rules." In short, a legalistic system.

By contrast, a school that seeks to instill discipline in the students is taking a much different approach. For under this way of thinking, the purpose is not just to maintain good order so that the business of education may go forward, rather it is to help the students to grow and mature. That is, such a school seeks to help the student gain greater control over himself and gain more and more habits of good behavior, each of which becomes an asset upon which he can draw later in life. Student behavior is seen as a manifestation of his or her character and it is the proper role of the school to help children develop good and godly character. Schools that take this second approach find that they do not need a complex code of rules because their goal is not rule-following, but rather maturity. And the students do not chafe under such a method nearly so much because they can (usually) sense that the teachers have their benefit in mind. Correction of student by a teacher is a manifestation of love. It makes all the difference in the world.

Charlotte Mason writes profoundly about this in School Education under the topic of docility and authority which she says are natural conditions, divinely ordained. It is important to note that the meaning of "docility" has changed a bit since she used it. What she means is that it is good and in accordance with our God-given nature that each of us exist within a structure of authority and in peaceful submission to authority. She also goes into great length on the difference between authority and autocracy. You can read her whole argument starting here.