school chairs

Several years ago a friend of mine, head of the Education Department at a Southern university, came reeling back from a visit to New York City schools, eyes glazed. It seems that she had seen two things while on her trip that still haunted her memory. First she discovered teachers up there who were actually conducting their classes from cages like trained parakeets. At the beginning of the period, these instructors would be escorted into their empty classrooms by uniformed policemen and locked into metal enclosures which were bolted to the floor. Then and only then would the students be released into the room like lions into the Circus Maximus. At the end of the period—which must have flown by like an hour in the park—the students would file out the door, no doubt snarling as they went, and afterwards the policemen would return and unlock the cages.

But for my friend the worst was yet to come. While accompanying the principal from one part of the building to another, she saw a clutch of students gathered in the hall, stamping and shouting obscenities. Leaving her for a moment, the principal went to find out what was going on; and as he pushed his way through the crowd, she saw the cause of the ruckus: a male and a female student were lying on the marbized floor, engaged in sexual intercourse. As soon as the principal realized what was happening, he returned to her side. “It’s better not to interfere,” he said. “I’d have broken it up if they’d been fighting.”

As you read these words a letter of denial is already on its way from some indignant and well-meaning soul, but I can assure you that both of these things happened on one Southerner’s brief visit to the New York public schools. And there’s no reason to believe from the manner in which the principal behaved that anything out of the ordinary had occurred that day.

In a sense these incidents are symbolic of what is wrong with American education, indeed American society as a whole; and there’s really no point in talking about improving curricula or raising SAT scores until we address ourselves to the basic problem of discipline in a world gone mad.

In one sense the problem of physical violence is easier to address than public fornication. Even liberals and free-market conservatives agree with the rest of us that no student has the right to maim a teacher, (though you might have to wrench that admission out of two or three federal judges). But as soon as you begin to suggest remedies for such conduct you run into what Robert Penn Warren has called “the bully-boys of virtue.” All sorts of acronym groups object to corporal punishment, expulsion, and other forms of enforced discipline and the federal courts too often have tended to back them up. It’s no exaggeration to say that prudent teachers and administrators are often as worried about lawsuits as they are about their physical safety and on occasion choose to risk injury rather than litigation.

The concept of “student rights” has taken its place beside the other fashionable “rights,” all of them marching shoulder to shoulder, singing hymns, lighting candles, trampling over elderly clergymen, drunk on the idea of freedom. And indeed it is the appeal to freedom which justifies all things in our society, from the murder of unborn babies to paying exorbitant prices at 7-11 stores.

But what Americans don’t understand—because they’re no longer educated to think—is the old philosophical distinction between “initial freedom” and “terminal freedom,” both of which have their value, one of which is merely a precondition of the other. Initial freedom is that absence of external strictures which permits you to make choices and to take independent action. It’s the kind of freedom a boy longs for when he stares out the window at the fish pond on a spring day. Terminal freedom is subtler in concept and perhaps more important. It is the freedom to actualize your potential as a human being, the ability to accomplish what you want or ought to do. I am not terminally free to jog around the block more than once, no matter how much I’d like to. Frank Shorter, on the other hand, is free to run the Boston Marathon and to do so without dropping dead.

Now it should be immediately obvious that for any act to have moral worth it must be performed by someone who enjoys initial freedom, otherwise it’s simply an unwilling response to some external demand. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that to enjoy true terminal freedom, one must surrender initial freedom, and indeed the former usually thrives in inverse proportion to the latter. Frank Shorter can run the Boston Marathon only because he has surrendered thousands and thousands of free hours to the rigors of a training regimen. Likewise, the boy who wants to go fishing must, alas, attend school instead—that is, if he’s ever going to read; and since he’s too young to know what’s best for him, society takes away his initial freedom in his own behalf.

Understood in this context we can see exactly what is happening to our schools today—in the name of one kind of freedom we are destroying forever our children’s opportunity to enjoy that other, higher kind, the sort of freedom which is referred to in the phrase “liberal education.” When we allow them the freedom to skip school, to shout and make obscene gestures in class, to talk back to their teachers, and even to assault them physically, we are condemning them to the final tyranny of their own narrow and ignorant souls. We must take the teachers out of their cages and, if need be, put the students into them, hands bound behind their backs, handkerchiefs in their mouths, a hickory stick brandished over their heads. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, but that’s what true freedom is all about.

As for those two coupling on the floor in the hallway, they pose an even subtler challenge to those of us who would restore order and decency to society. Because even when we’ve recovered some understanding of true freedom, we still may not be able to combat the argument that sexual conduct is perfectly permissible, as long as it doesn’t endanger a third person. I can think of no pragmatic or constitutional appeal that would make sense to a couple of kids overcome by what used to be called “lust.” The question ultimately involves metaphysics at the very least, better theology; and we all know what an awful spoilsport God is.

This essay was first published in Southern Partisan magazine in 1984.

Thomas Landess

Thomas H. Landess (1931-2012) was an author, essayist, and political commentator who taught literature and creative writing for 24 years.

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