When Initiative and Discipline Clash in the Classroom

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Model students don't challenge their teacher's authority, even when they should, the author writes. They have too much to lose. Above, an empty classroom at a school in Berlin on March 11. Stefanie Loos/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Anything Peaceful site.

A girl in your class can't breathe. She clearly needs help. The teacher tells you to stay seated. What do you do?

I would have stayed seated. At least, that's what I would have done when I was 15, the age of Texas middle schooler Anthony Ruelas.

You hear the girl wheezing and gagging, but the teacher refuses to let the students leave their seats. She has emailed the school nurse and is waiting to hear back. Do you still stay put, hoping the nurse's office doesn't use overly aggressive spam filters?

How about when, several minutes later, the girl falls out of her chair?

I'd like to think I would have shown Anthony's courage and character. I'd love to claim that I’d have defied the teacher's authority and carried my afflicted classmate to the nurse's office.

I even like to imagine myself saying what Anthony did as he took action: "F— that! We ain’t got time to wait for no email from the nurse."

But at his age, I suspect I would have stayed obediently planted in my desk-chair, like the rest of the kids, admiring and maybe envying the boy who risked getting in trouble in order to save a girl in distress.

And he did get in trouble. Gateway Middle School suspended him for two days, for what Reason's Robby Soave calls "the unspeakable crime of escorting an asthmatic classmate to the nurse’s office."

“I was like what?” Anthony later told a reporter. “I’m suspended for this? Like, I was trying to help her.”

When school officials informed Anthony's mother of his suspension, it seems they failed to mention the asthmatic classmate. She reports that when her son tried to explain to her what had happened, “I wasn’t trying to hear it. I was like, 'No, they already told me what happened—you walked out of class.'"

To be fair to his mom, this wasn't Anthony's first suspension. And we have to wonder if past discipline problems have anything to do with his still being in 8th grade at age 15. But maybe that's the point: Model students don't challenge their teacher's authority, even when they should. They have too much to lose.

Asked if he'd make the same decision again, Anthony replied, "Most definitely!"

Are his obedient classmates as sanguine about their behavior?

A Question of Discipline

When I was Anthony's age, there was an ABC Afterschool Special called The Wave, based on an experiment conducted by a high school history teacher in 1967. Ron Jones had found it difficult to explain to his students how the German people could have acquiesced to—even cooperated with—Hitler's National Socialists.

Jones decided to spend one class period demonstrating the appeal of fascism, though he didn't use the F-word at first. He took his class of about 25 students (who were all about Anthony's age) and introduced them to some old-fashioned discipline. For one period, he had them practice marching in and out of the classroom in formation. At their desks, they had to sit straight and smile. It turns out the students liked it.

When Jones came to class the next day, he found them all sitting at their desks with perfect posture and broad smiles. Jones says he hadn't planned to extend the experiment past the first day, but now it had a momentum of its own.

An article at the San Francisco Chronicle tells what happened next:

By the end of day two, participating students had developed a secret hallway salute, which caused enough campus curiosity that by day three there were 200 students or more, including kids who had heard about it at rival high schools Palo Alto and Gunn, jamming his classroom to be part of the [movement]. …

Jones raised the stakes by telling his students that [they were] part of a national movement. They were "the vanguard, the soldiers of the future" and they would hold a rally on day five to meet their national leader in a televised speech.

At the rally, Jones showed a packed auditorium images of Adolf Hitler.

"This is where we are going,” he told them. “We're no better and no worse than the Germans we've been studying. This is our future unless we understand the need for freedom."

The Dangers of Obedience

I’m not calling Anthony's teacher a Nazi. Rather, she and the officials who suspended him for his heroic actions are privileging discipline over humanity, and the more they succeed in instilling those values in Anthony’s classmates, the more vulnerable those kids will be to opportunistic authority figures later in life.

When I was 15, my history teacher showed that after-school special in class, and it haunted me. I kept asking myself if I would have resisted “the wave” or let myself be swept up in the fervor, the camaraderie, the release from personal responsibility.

I had the same soul-searching reaction when I later learned of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiment, also from the 1960s, in which the test subjects didn't know they were the ones being tested. They thought they were lab assistants in a study of the effects of negative reinforcement. What Milgram was actually testing, as he wrote for Harper's magazine in "The Perils of Obedience," was

how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.

In his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, Milgram added,

A reader's initial reaction to the experiment may be to wonder why anyone in his right mind would administer even the first shocks? Would he not simply refuse and walk out of the laboratory? But the fact is that no one ever does.

I suspect Anthony would have walked out.

But Milgram's test subjects were Yale students. They wouldn't have been at a top Ivy if they'd had Anthony's history of "discipline problems."

I’m grateful to the teachers who introduced me to these stories. Jones and Milgram were still fresh in their memories—just as the German experiment in totalitarianism had been fresh in the minds of Stanley Milgram and Ron Jones when they showed the world the dangers of blind obedience.

I'm sure there are public school teachers who want to encourage independence and personal responsibility, teachers who share with the rest of us a sense of outrage at suspending a boy for disobeying the mindless and potentially life-threatening instructions of his teacher.

But the system is against them. "In public schools," as Soave puts it, "pointless rules trump innocent intentions every time."

Fortunately for Anthony, he may not have to choose between doing good and doing well, because his mother is considering homeschooling. Now that she understands why he "walked out of class," she says that her son is a hero, and she's reluctant to send him back into a system that doesn’t appreciate him.

“He may not follow instructions all the time,” she says, “but he does have a great heart.”

B.K. Marcus is editor of the Freeman.