The Origins of Self-Discipline in American Learning Systems
In his article, “Why Self-Discipline is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within,” Alfie Kohn poses the question in reference to learning systems: “Why do we find ourselves so infatuated with self-discipline and self-control?” The answer, he says, may involve basic values that pervade our culture. What must be true about children–and people in general–if self-discipline and self-control are necessary to make oneself do something worth doing, in a learning system or otherwise?
The infatuation with self-discipline in learning systems has a long and murky history. Kohn cites David Brooks, a conservative newspaper columnist: “In Lincoln’s day, to achieve maturity was to succeed in the conquest of the self. Human beings were born with sin, inflected with dark passions and satanic temptations. The transition to adulthood consisted of achieving mastery over them. You can read commencement addresses from the 19th and early 20th centuries in which the speakers would talk about the beast within and the need for iron character to subdue it. Schoolhouse readers emphasized self-discipline. The whole character-building model was sin-centric.”
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