Policymakers often talk about stopping unwanted behavior. They propose different solutions. Considering crime, many claim that we need to get tough on it since crime harms society. Often those solutions involve increasing minimum sentences or engaging in “zero tolerance” for unwanted acts. That proposed correction has permeated society deeply, trickling down to the institution of education where similar language is also employed within grade schools. Over time, it seems that procedures to deal with identified “ills of society” become more explicit. What remains murky, however, is what exactly these procedures are: discipline or punishment.
You might think I am conflating two different issues and that what happens in schools and what happens in society are often separate. It might be suggested that one is a place where children receive academic and social formation. The other, one might say, is the “real world” where adults (though not necessarily children) are responsible for themselves. To that end, errors in the institution of school ought to be met with discipline whereas errors made within the greater realm of society are met with punishment.
While I think that we should differentiate between discipline and punishment, I find the above distinction between the ways errors in school and greater society are dealt with scary. In fact, I would suggest that schools are reflections of society. Having worked and attended schools for the better part of my life, I would also suggest that, like society in general, they are places where the line that divides discipline from punishment is often eroded.
Yet it is important that discipline be held separate from punishment. They are, in fact, not the same thing, nor are they functions of one another. They are separate processes with different objectives, which I have alluded to previously.
Let’s make the distinction plain to see. Discipline is a rebuke which is meant to encourage a change in the behavior of the person who committed the error. Discipline is a process that attempts to reintegrate that person into society by showing them what they have done wrong and how to avoid that behavior in the future.
For example, in a first grade classroom, little Sally beats little Johnny over the head with a rolled up newspaper. I, as the teacher, set Sally aside and explain to her that her behavior is unacceptable. I ask her to consider how she would feel if someone did that to her. I teach her how to ask for forgiveness from little Johnny. That would be a disciplinary process. It is designed to reintegrate her into society and to make the following static as minimal as possible. Granted schools don’t always engage in this process, and punish instead, but the point is that they ought to. Schools and society should always seek to integrate people back into society.
You might ask, “what if little Sally enjoys beating little Johnny over the head and does not care about your reasoning?” The answer is to subject her to a process whereby she learns that if she engages in that behavior, she will have reduced access to other, legitimate, things that she enjoys. She must also be taught why the behavior is unacceptable because simple deprivation of freedom would be punishment. The key element is teaching little Sally how members of society interact responsibly.
If folks are excluded, any positive contribution they might be able to make is also excluded. Now, you might think that a school yard example is one that cannot possibly work in greater society. However, the research and implementation of restorative justice exemplifies this notion of discipline by following some of the same steps outlined above.
Punishment, instead, is a formal censure which is designed to castigate the person who committed the error. It is an exclusionary process. It makes no attempt to reintegrate that person into society, instead relying on the censured person to understand the censure and change his or her behavior in order to avoid it in the future. In some cases, when the punishment is indefinite, such as life in prison, or terminal, such as execution, punishment seeks to permanently exclude the person from society, not affording any opportunity for self-improvement whatsoever.
This distinction illustrates that discipline is socially constructive. It assumes that people, fundamentally, are worthwhile cogs in the machinery of society. Indefinite and terminal punishments are completely the reverse. Finite punishments, perhaps, can be considered neutral in terms of determining a person’s worthiness to society past the end of their punishment. Finite punishment certainly doesn’t always push into the direction of ceasing their unwanted behavior. Sometimes people may attempt to improve their methods of concealing the censured behavior, thus sustaining their unwanted affect upon society.
The distinction between discipline and punishment marks a distinction that indicates a threshold of giving up on people. Giving up on people is synonymous with giving up on society. Even those who advocate for the primacy of the individual have to recognize that the vast majority of humanity is comprised of fundamentally social creatures. Accordingly, policymakers ought to act in a manner that strengthen, rather than weaken, the fabric of society. That being said, let’s look at schools briefly.
Schools are places where the fabric of society is woven. They are training grounds for young people in terms of learning how to act in and interact with society. When kids screw up in school, they should be corrected. Schools ought to encourage kids to act in a socially acceptable way. Schools should do whatever they can to achieve that goal. Discipline is a important part of education as it encourages people to become functioning members of society. After all, as we often like to say, children are the future. Whether or not schools succeed or actually try to discipline (rather than simply punish) children is another question all together. Nonetheless, we expect schools to educate children and part of that is guiding them to becoming acceptable members of society.
Sometimes schools expel students. If this occurs, and the student is not relocated to another school, the student ceases to be a student. Expulsion acts as a terminal punishment. Expelled students are no longer part of the institution that allows them learn how to become accepted members of society. When a school permanently excludes a person from its grounds, then it tells that person they are not only not welcome, but they are incapable of being part of society. It writes them off. It gives up on that person. That, in short, is the effect of a terminal punishment – people are told that they are not and cannot be part of society. In the criminal justice system, they are furthermore prevented from even attempting to reintegrate into society.
Finite punishments are not much better. In practice they stigmatize individuals often making it extremely difficult develop social capital. Punished children often are branded as “troublemakers” or “hopeless.” They may even fail to understand why they are being punished. They may lack any incentive to change their behavior because they are never given a glimpse to potential benefits.
Moving from schools back into the real world, punishment effects those convicted similarly. Convicts struggle to find and maintain the elements which they need to be accepted members of society: work and housing. As a result, finite punishments, by being exclusionary are qualitatively different from what might be called discipline, as they make no effort to reintegrate the castigated person back into society.
The point of all of this is simple. We all too often focus on how to punish. That is an act which weakens society. It removes people from it and discards any potential human capital that can be gained from their presence. Instead, we need to focus on how to discipline. In doing so, we would reset our priorities for the better – developing a stronger society which can benefit from each member.