Obedience is not a virtue

A choice

I want you to make a choice. The choice is between tyranny and anarchy.

If you chose tyranny the country will be run as a dictatorship, backed up by the armed forces. Laws will be made arbitrarily in the interests of those in power. There will be no checks and balances, no free press, no independent judicial system. All that is required of every citizen is unquestioning obedience. If you don’t break the law, then you won’t get into trouble. If you do then the consequences will be dire: there will be no excuses, no opportunity to explain, no questioning of the law, just swift and certain justice.

If you chose anarchy the state will disappear. You will be allowed to do whatever you desire, without responsibility, without legal consequences, and without restraint. Of course everyone else will be allowed to do whatever they desire too. Break into your home at night, take your possessions, whatever. And there will be no police force to protect you, no legal system, no laws: Just you verses the rest of the world.

It is not much of a choice is it? What do you choose?

I choose neither.

“But that’s cheating!” You cry, “You didn’t give me that choice.”

I did, you just didn’t see it.

This is because I offered you a false choice. I made it appear as though there were only two choices, both of them bad, when in fact there was a whole range of other choices in between.

“That’s still cheating.” You mutter.

It’s a linguistic trick. Sometimes called a false dilemma or the either-or fallacy. Wikipedia defines it as: ‘The presentation of a false choice which deliberates attempt to eliminate the middle ground on an issue.’

It’s a handy debating trick because it forces your interlocutor into making a choice they don’t want to make. When they concede that one is more desirable than the other then you claim victory without having to make a real argument.

Neat, but there is a downside, once the trick is spotted it looks pretty shabby.

Which brings me to the debate on obedience.

There is an argument currently raging, in the tiny world of edTwitter, about whether students should be obedient at school. This started because a newly established Free School have decided to make student obedience one of their central tenets. @heymisssmith drew attention to this, in her usual mischievous way, and within a few short hours a full twitter-storm was blowing.

I, rather regretfully now, joined in: regretfully, because behaviour is an emotive subject amongst teachers and one of the few that is truly divisive. I wrote a blog once about behaviour on the Guardian Network and got dog’s abuse from the commentators, one called me a Judas, as a consequence I generally keep my views on the subject to myself.

However, when I saw the new school was making a virtue of obedience, putting it front and centre on their website, I thought this needed discussing.

Obedience is strong word to use. Compliant would be less emotive, well-behaved more common. But obedient is loaded, deliberately provocative, even defiant. Is this what the leaders of school wanted? It has certainly created a lot of free publicity in the world of edTwitter.

Personally, I have nothing against free schools in principle, although I understand there can be problems. And, I have absolutely no feelings what so ever about the school in question, how can I, they haven’t even opened yet: certainly if you want a neo-trad education for your kids then this school is the place to send them.

However, I do have a problem with making student obedience a virtue and here is my argument: take or leave it, you always have a choice.

Binary opposites

The choice between obedience and disobedience is a false dilemma. As I explained earlier, those that try to frame the argument in this way are attempting to eliminate the middle ground and force those they disagree with into making a choice they don’t want to make. This is a shoddy ploy because it closes down the discussion and demonizes those that want to debate the issue.

Obedience and disobedience are not mutually exclusive terms in the way on and off are, or up and down, left and right, they are binary opposites: two ends of a spectrum, like boiling and freezing, saintly and evil, tyranny and anarchy. In between the two extremes are a whole range of other possibilities.

Sometimes these possibilities are neutral, like the ones between boiling and freezing – warm, tepid, chilly, icy etc – and sometimes they are not, like the ones between tyranny and anarchy – benevolent dictatorship, liberal democracy etc.

In my view, neither obedience nor disobedience are desirable outcomes in a place of learning. They are two extreme ends of a continuum, both unwanted possibilities. I believe we should avoid both and focus on the range of other more desirable and effective options that exist in between.

In fact, let’s start by all agreeing no sane person chooses disobedience as an option: no one wants kids running schools and no one wants anarchy.

Just as, I would hope, no one wants unquestioning, blind obedience, from children to adults.

We are, all of us somewhere in between the two. Some of us lean more towards one end than the other. Some more towards the discipline end of the spectrum, others more towards the freedom end. This seems perfectly reasonable to me.

So, let’s have no more of the false dichotomies, no more trying to polarize opinions, and no more shutting down the debate. Let’s move on and accept there are differences of emphasis, some differences of values and points of view, but, essentially, at the bottom of all this, is a general agreement we all want what is best for the students in our schools.

With this in mind, I propose we debate on the subject professionally, without silly points scoring and shoddy debating tricks. Please.

My problem with the term, obedience

It is problematic to make a virtue of obedience. Of course children must behave in ways that allow themselves and others to learn, and for teachers to teach. We all want that. But schools are places of learning, places for thinking, questioning, acquiring and applying knowledge, places for developing new skills, places for finding out about the world and for meeting people outside of our own families.

Obedience is not an end, it is not something we want to foster and develop, it is a final resort. To be used when all else fails, a kind of defcon 1: “If you want to stay here then you have to let others learn and your teachers teach.” Sadly, this happens. No one wants it, but it does happen.

However, this is the end of the line, not the beginning. We shouldn’t start out assuming our students are just waiting to tear the place apart and the only thing standing between school order and total chaos is a thin tweed line of teacher authority.

Hobbes famously argued humans are motivated entirely by selfish concerns (notably fear of death), and given half a chance would act upon these selfish concerns and take what they can. Therefore, those with power (the absolute monarchy, the only rational and desirable form of government) should ensure the masses are never given the chance. Hence, it is in everyone’s interest (but most of all those with power and property) to maintain order by punishing those that transgress.

Sound familiar?

Two things about Hobbes: First, he was writing in the 17th century in the aftermath of a terrible civil war, making an argument for the restoration of the monarchy. Second, he was writing about society as a whole, large groups of people, who have little or no connection with each other, not about smaller communities of people who share time and common goals, like families and classrooms.

Of course, you can build a school based on Hobbes’ ideas. And you can believe his pessimistic view of human nature if you like. I choose not to.

In my experience (other experiences are available) children are not looking to wreck their school, they are not itching to tear each apart, and they are not motivated entirely by selfish concerns. They are, actually, quite nice. They just want to be treated, like the rest of us with respect. They want to be heard and they want to have a say in their lives. Including their school lives. And why not?

Let me make clear, I’m not saying things don’t go wrong or that there should be no repercussions for anti-social behaviour. To argue this would be mad. I’m saying we should start by building classroom communities on the basis of trust and mutual respect, not unquestioning obedience to adult authority.

Obedience is for dogs. We should have higher aspirations for our students.

I advocate ‘co-operation’ as the term to use. I’ve used it for twenty years and my classrooms have never once descended into anarchy.

Co-operation puts the focus on understanding rather than obedience. Obedience only demands our students do as they are told (because we have more power than they do), co-operation requires students to understand why learning requires certain kinds of behaviour. For those of you who like Dweck, obedience develops a fixed mindset, while co-operation develops a growth mindset.

“What happens when children don’t co-operate?” Is a fair question. The answer is we stop co-operating with them. Why should we (as a community) put up with someone who refuses to let us learn? Disrupts our lessons? Shouts abuse? The answer is we shouldn’t. It’s a simple choice, the job at school is learning, everyone has a responsibility to help this happen. That’s what it means to co-operate.

“Aren’t you just splitting hairs?” Is another fair question. I’d say, no. The difference is subtle, but profound. Talking about co-operation with students makes the way authority works explicit. It opens up the reasons for rules and the benefits of being part of a community to scrutiny and discussion.

Not, however, for negotiation. This is a mistake I’ve heard people make. There are layers of responsibilities we are all subject to, including adults. Schools are not hippy communes where the inhabitants can make up the rules and do as they like. They are places of learning. That means any rules we create must bear this higher cause in mind. You mind call it the ‘prime directive’.

Making co-operation a virtue seems to me a much higher and more ambitious aim. Obedience is easy: just scare the blighters by shouting at them and threatening them with terrible consequences. Creating a community of like-minded people who co-operate and do their best because they want to learn, that is a lot harder and something genuinely worthwhile.

I’d send my kids to a school who put that on their website.

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