Disciplinae Scholae

school birching discipline from 1900

Something about the historical context of this school birching artwork reminded me of a notion that’s always puzzled me. In the real world (I’m not talking about our kinky fun times now) why do authoritarians talk about imposing “discipline” on people when the trait you actually get from consistent punishment for infractions of rule sets is “compliance” or “obedience”? Discipline, rightly understood, is a virtue of self-control and individual initiative; by contrast, obedience is a survival skill of the powerless. (The difference: discipline is useful for accomplishing a person’s own goals, while obedience is entirely about what other people want.) When the Victorians (to pick just one bad example) claimed that school punishment or military floggings instilled discipline, were they knowingly telling a euphemistic lie to pretty up the fact that they were just beating obedience into powerless people? Or were they actually confused about what they were doing and accomplishing?

  1. s.k.g commented on October 12th, 2011:

    I think what they meant was group discipline. A group of obedient soldiers or naughty schoolgirls led by a strong disciplinarian will achieve group’s (disciplinarian’s) goals. Soldiers will do as told and won’t run, schoolgirls will finish summa cum laude, marry and give birth to new soldiers and schoolgirls. On individual level this is obedience, on group level – discipline. And Victorian society was a very large group divided to lesser groupings, so it need discipline and obedience on a very large scale. Contemporary western society consists of individuals who have to work out their own individual discipline, which is much harder actually. But such society is very young (since sixties, I suppose) and personally I doubt it’ll last very long. Canes and kink aside, no longer than the next World War, famine, plague or alien invasion.

  2. Collum commented on October 13th, 2011:

    The word discipline has more than one meaning. According to Merriam-Webster one of these meanings is “control gained by enforcing obedience or order”.

  3. Brian commented on October 14th, 2011:

    Also, whether or not it is actually true, there is a fairly common belief that punishment enforced obedience will eventually lead to self-discipline, if only because “doing the right thing” will become a habit.

  4. Michael commented on October 14th, 2011:

    Well, no, not rightly understood. The root of discipline is in learning through suffering…it comes from Latin words that mean to grab the head (grabbed by experience) and point it the right way. Later (about 600 years ago) it came also to mean knowledge, virtue, etc.

    So, what you are really asking is whether discipline meaning #1 can cause discipline meaning #2.

    Also, obedience is pretty awesome if you think life can be more than a zero sum game…if you’re ever interested there’s a huge body of literature and philosophical writing about it and authority co-existing harmoniously that has accumulated for millenia in several venerated cultures.

  5. SpankBoss commented on October 15th, 2011:

    “So, what you are really asking is whether discipline meaning #1 can cause discipline meaning #2.”

    Actually, no I’m not. I’m expressing a rather firm opinion that it cannot — that control obtained through pain and fear, exercised to achieve the desires of the controller, cannot fairly be characterized as a virtue of the person being controlled.

    Can it be useful to the person on the handle end of the knout? Sure. Can it be useful to the social goals of that person? Sure. Compliance and obedience are very handy to everybody but the person having these traits beaten into them. Whole societies have been based around this procedure. But that doesn’t necessarily make the “it’s for your own good” justification any more plausible.

  6. Michael commented on October 16th, 2011:

    Okay, but originally you said:

    “why do authoritarians talk about imposing “discipline” on people when the trait you actually get from consistent punishment for infractions of rule sets is “compliance” or “obedience”?”

    To which I replied that discipline was actually defined in such a way so was used completely properly when one talks about “imposing discipline” and gets compliance or obedience as a result. Whether it is a good idea to impose discipline in real life is a different question!

  7. SpankBoss commented on October 17th, 2011:

    Micheal, you seem to be missing all the subtexts in the authoritarian narratives. They tend to expressly or implicitly deny (typically) that they are after control for control’s sake; it’s always “for your own good” rather than “because it’s what we want you to do and we have the stick so suck it”.

    I’ll grant for argument’s sake that such authoritarians may also believe that what they want (control, and whatever they do with it) is good for society as a whole –almost everybody believes that! But we aren’t talking about “society as a whole” and neither were they; this discussion could never happen if the individuals being punished had interests that were perfectly aligned with “the greater good”. So it doesn’t really answer the question. Were they lying about what they were doing, or just philosophically muddled?

  8. Michael commented on October 18th, 2011:

    I agree with what you’re saying but I’m just here to go on about the meaning and origin of the word discipline. :)

  9. SpankBoss commented on October 18th, 2011:

    Hah, fair enough!

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