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Teaching and assessing character: Part 4

favicon Is “teaching character” just code for “teaching conservatism?”

That’s the argument advanced by detractors of Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth. Students with grit may know how to regulate themselves, delay gratification, and demonstrate perseverance, but they’re not always happy people, plus they buy into the conservative bootstraps metaphor of success.

Leading this charge is Alfie Kohn. Yes, he’s the guy who extols intrinsic motivation, the development of the whole child, and the extinction of homework. (I respect his work — but go back and forth on what I think about his views.)

A few years ago, he wrote an essay titled “Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within.” (You can also find it at Iserotope Extras!) Prof. Kohn is an excellent writer, and I like how he first defines his terms of self-discipline and self-control:

Self-discipline might be defined as marshalling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable, and self-control as using that same sort of willpower to prevent oneself from doing what is seen to be undesirable or to delay gratification.  In practice, these often function as two aspects of the same machinery of self-regulation.

Soon after that excellent introduction, Prof. Kohn organizes his opposition to self-discipline into three areas: psychological, philosophical, and political.

His psychological argument — that too much self-control is bad, just as too little is bad — is a good one. If a student is too self-disciplined, she is always looking toward the future and never enjoying the present. Prof. Kohn writes:

Dutiful students may be suffering from…the “tyranny of the should” — to the point that they no longer know what they really want, or who they really are.  So it is for teenagers who have mortgaged their present lives to the future:  noses to the grindstone, perseverant to a fault, stressed to the max.  High school is just preparation for college, and college consists of collecting credentials for whatever comes next.

Unfortunately for Prof. Kohn, most of the students I teach do not suffer from the above problem. Indeed, some may suffer from anxiety, but that anxiety does not usually come from an overabundance of academic self-control. It usually comes from trauma and a lack of self-discipline outside (and sometimes inside!) school.

His philosophical argument — that teaching self-discipline means you’re telling students to obey authority, no matter what — is stronger than his first. He quotes George Lakoff, who says that exhorting self-control comes from a conservative worldview. Young people, goes this theory, are bad and must learn to respect their elders. Prof. Kohn writes:

A commitment to self-discipline may reflect a tacit allegiance to philosophical conservatism with its predictable complaint that our society — or its youth — has forgotten the value of hard work, the importance of duty, the need to accept personal responsibility, and so on.

Here Prof. Kohn gets me thinking. Surely I don’t want to go down the path of placing too much pressure on the individual when I realize that many factors go into a student’s trajectory. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with a little personal responsibility.

After that strong philosophical argument, too bad Prof. Kohn loses me on the political one: that the real problem is how power gets negotiated in the classroom. Prof. Kohn has long criticized schools for their capitalistic structure and teachers for their conveyor-belt pedagogy. He wishes for a more open environment, where students construct their own knowledge and where young people do not need to exercise self-control:

Why does the teacher ask most of the questions in here – and unilaterally decide who gets to speak, and when? If the question is:  “What’s the best way to teach kids self-discipline so they’ll do their work?”, then the questionisn’t: “Are these assignments, which feel like ‘work,’ really worth doing?

Um, Prof. Kohn, though I like to be student-centered, if I chose not to “unilaterally decide who gets to speak,” there would be less learning. Simple as that. And while I may occasionally harbor some (jaded?) assumptions after 15 years of teaching, I think it’s safe to say that strong teacher presence is critical for student achievement, particularly in urban public schools.

Overall, though I disagree with Prof. Kohn’s article, I appreciate his thoughtful opposition to the teaching of self-discipline. It’s important, after all, not to follow a trend in education just because Ira Glass talked about it on This American Life.

But what’s clear to me is that self-control and self-discipline are worth teaching as long as the goals worth striving for are the student’s, not the teacher’s. If I’m doing a good job helping a student define and focus on her passion, and if I’m coaching her to get closer to her long-term aspirations, then I’m doing my job well. And if that’s “teaching character,” then it’s a good thing.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! favicon

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