An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2003 Conference of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society
at the University of South Carolina, Greensboro, SC, October 4th, 2003.

Permissible School Violence
Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.
Widener University

See related article,
"Hurt, Harm and Safety"


A primary cause of philosophical illness: a one-sided diet.
One nourishes one's thinking with only one kind of example.
--- L. Wittgenstein[1]

reedited 10/13/2020


Brief Summary of Paper

Is violence wrongdoing? Considerations Pro & Con

The Usefulness of Identifying Violence without Condemnation

Analyzing Violence: varieties of vigorous interaction

The Dangers and Benefits of Violence

Cloaking Impotence

Expanding the Carcerel


Appendix A: Violence in the Schools: An Opinion Survey

Appendix B: Activity Rankings Exercises

Appendix C Case Studies: Violence, Imposition, Wrongdoing

Brief Summary of Paper

In recent years, particularly in public education, due, I suspect, to the confusion of administrative expedience with morality, the term, violence, has acquired the connotation of wrongdoing. Educators, when queried, will readily and strongly assent to the follow propositions:

a. Schools are no place for violence.

b. Violence causes violence

c. Violent acts are morally wrong.

They react generally as strongly, but negatively to the following:

d. Some violence is acceptable.

e. Schools may permit a certain level of violence.

Despite these initial reactions, it takes not very much discussion -- which will be presented below-- to bring them around to understanding that propositions a, b and c are generally false and that d and e are true. To condemn violence as immoral, is like condemning spicy food as inedible.

Violence is morally neutral. It can be educative under certain circumstances. It is the critical characteristics of violence in the context of compulsory education that raise special moral concerns. But these can be, and are, generally, handled with care.

Educators find themselves increasingly deprofessionalized as zero-tolerance policies, concerns for outsider involvement, and lawsuit-avoidance behavior on the part of boards of education remove decision-making authority, particularly moral authority, from front-line practitioners.

Those who propagandize for Violence as Wrongdoing serve not so much gentility and rationality as disempowerment and subjugation.

Is Violence Wrongdoing? Considerations Pro & Con.

Let us pretend that we are able to dictate how the English language is to be used. In this state of Orwellian megalomania[2], as it were, we will further imagine that our fiats not only govern what people dare speak aloud, but also have an effect on other events in the World[3]. We are faced with a decision. Should we tell people that anything they deem to be "violence" they must also call "wrongdoing"? What is to be gained by such a rule as

If X is a case of violence, then X is a case of wrongdoing

and what do we lose with this conflation of violence to wrongdoing?

Certainly, in education and other areas there is a tendency to adopt such a rule. Here, for example, is a quote attributed to the Dalai Lama[4]:

If the motive is good, and there are no other possibilities, then seen most deeply it (violence) is nonviolence, because its aim is to help others.

This is a reconceptualization with potential major impact on our moral language: it seems to indicate that prima facie violence may be excusable because whether some act is "real violence" and presumably worthy of reproach, depends on the intent of the actor to be helpful and that actor's belief that alternative modes of action are lacking. It would seem then that acts that spring from sincerity and certain kinds of ignorance cannot be violent. Consequently all sorts of physical assault, even warfare, may fall into the "nonviolent" category. Is there something to be gained by this way of talking?

Among educators I have found that the following statements tend to be agreed with strongly: (numbered as in Appendix A)

1. Schools are no place for violence.

4. The Law forbids violence in schools.

6. Violent acts are morally wrong.

10. Violence is wrongdoing.

Educators also tend to disagree strongly with the following

3. Some violence can be permitted in schools.

8. Some violence is acceptable.

Yet there is ample evidence that not everything described as violent is also describable as wrongdoing, not even in school. What seems to be at work with the examples immediately above is what Wittgenstein calls "a one-sided diet of only one kind of example." When we leave the schooling context, violent non-human events are easily conceded not to be wrongdoing (see Appendix B). For example, a hurricane, though more violent than a thunderstorm, is not thereby more of a wrongdoing. Similarly, a blizzard is not an example of wrongdoing because it is more violent than a snowfall. Neither is a tsunami, though more violent, more immoral than a wave; nor a crash, than a bump; nor an earthquake, than a tremor.

School activities can be ranked in terms of vigorousness of interaction with correspondingly increasing risk of physical injury; to most people's minds, in order of violence involved. Members of the football or lacrosse teams are subject to more violence than are members of the chess club, or the student council. Those companies who provide insurance policies for the students recognize this with appropriately varying premiums. Yet, I have had educators tell me: "I don't consider football violence." This is not a thoughtful response on their part.

The bias towards seeing violence as necessarily wrong remains strong, even among those who do find the martial arts, for example, acceptable. Examining the case examples given in Appendix C, proponents of the violence-is-wrongdoing theory, familiar with such sparring, will nonetheless classify case 1 as non-violent:

1. Sparring at karate, Jack blocks Sam's kick to his stomach and delivers a hard punch to the side of Sam's headgear.

Yet case 9 is often seen as violent because it involves an action not permitted by the rules of boxing:

9. Jack, while boxing with Sam, knees him in the groin.

But to suppose that such an action would become non-violent by merely changing the rules to allow it betrays a peculiarly legalistic moral sensitivity that ignores crucial ethical concerns.

The Usefulness of Identifying Violence without Condemnation

Knowing that something is, or can be, violent allows us as educators to take the appropriate precautions: for example,

a. in planning events, by postponing or by rerouting in cases of violent weather;

b. in sports, by sorting participants by weight, or by skill levels, by providing body armor, increased supervision, stricter rules, and by paying the higher insurance premiums to offset the likely increased costs of medical care;

c. in dance or drama, by providing more space for execution, by requiring a higher degree of skill and physical conditioning before allowing participation, or by stricter supervision if weapons are involved (remember Hamlet, or Macbeth?);

d. most important, from a ethical point of view, by making sure that participation in violent activities is voluntary on the part of the students and permitted by their parents.

The "I don't consider them violent" rationalization probably springs from the violence-is-always-wrongdoing-ideology. And it dismisses elements important to our moral judgment for the sake of administrative convenience: anything permitted in school is therefore not violent; since anything violent would not be permitted in school. But only think of the objections that might be raised if students, willy-nilly, were compelled to play football, irrespective of their height and weight, to fulfill a physical education requirement. Certainly, the physical contact and the potential for injury, along with the compulsory participation, would be relevant to evaluating the morality of the activity.

Let us extend this argument with a thought experiment: suppose we invent two new games. The first game, call it "Fress," is like chess in every aspect except that one must be dressed in a football uniform and play it out on the football field. Certainly, no one would say that Fress is more violent than chess, solely because of the uniforms or the location of the game. The other game, call it "Sootball" is like football in every aspect except that no padding or body armor is worn, and it is played in the chess club room, which is otherwise used as a classroom. Sootball is not likely to be permitted in most schools. Football-like actions, tackling, blocking, "hitting" as coaches like to call it, performed in a classroom would indisputably be seen as violent. The critical factors cannot be the uniforms or the location of play, since Fress did not become violent by requiring uniforms or change of venue. If Sootball is violent, then so is football. But, lest anyone mistake the point of my argument, the violence involved need not make football, or any other violent activity, a wrongdoing.

Analyzing Violence: varieties of vigorous interaction

I propose the phrase vigorous interaction as a first approximation of a description of interactions that less analytically inclined persons might characterize as violent. [5] We can then

1) investigate at what point of vigorousness an interaction becomes violent; and

2) under which circumstances how much interactional vigor is permissible, and by appeal to what standards.

There are benign actions that clearly have a high level of interactional vigor and may even cause pain, such as leading an aerobics class, or massage, or even karate sparring. We can imagine an extensive analysis that ranges from low levels of interactional vigor, say, aerobics to rough play, through wrestling and up to torture and killing. Are they violent? And if so, are they justifiable?


Text Box:  
figure 1

For a rough illustration of how an analysis of vigorous interaction might proceed, figure 1 sets up the vigor of the interaction as one dimension while, for example, willingness of the participants is given as the second dimension. (Risk of physical damage, amount of pain inflicted, or other criteria could be used instead of willingness.)

We might distinguish between items at the same level of vigorous interaction by considering the willingness of the participant. Figure 1 illustrates how important the willingness of the participants is for distinguishing sparring from assault. Note that even if participants are unwilling, as in the case of vaccination, condemnation may not be called for.

Our analysis must not be prejudiced by our terminology. Not all vigorous interactions are condemnable, even if violent. Just think of some circus acts or any number of common sports and games, e.g. touch-football, or buck-buck. (Nor need an interaction, if condemnable, be violent, e.g. theft, humiliation, lying.) While violence is often imprudent, because it risks wider undesirable consequences, it is not, solely because of its imprudence, immoral. For example, wrestling in a concrete schoolyard is imprudent because the opponents risk severe injuries on the hard surface. It is not immoral, however, even if violent, as we can see by removing the contest to a gymnasium mat. But if one of the parties has been bullied into the conflict, then it is immoral, even if done on pillows.

The problem of dealing with violence in the public schools is this: it is far easier to obtain consensus in a community on what is imprudent, because risky, than on what is immoral. Thus public schools tend to treat imprudent violence as a moral dereliction and to overlook, for example, bullying where severe harm is not likely.

It is no accident that in the public mind to be an educator is to be effete. The public schools have long promulgated a 19th Century caricature of "feminine" behavior as the general student ideal: docility, cheerfulness, and forbearance are among its characteristics. Matters of "refined taste" are mischaracterized as ethical issues. Thus in the schools we find resistance to observing morally critical distinctions between rough play, mock fighting, sexually exploratory conflict, intimidation, coercion, or assault. These distinctions are administratively too fine-grained and morally too subtle to enjoy a wide consensus on their particulars

The Dangers and Benefits of Violence

War is not the continuation of policy by other means. The world would be a simpler place to understand if this dictum of Clausewitz's were true. -- John Keegan[6]

Violent physical activities have a tendency to overcome the individual engaged in them whether as participant or interested observer. Adrenalin obliterates pain and rationality, except among the most highly trained. Fights break out among players on the field or on the court -- but much less often, I would wager, than among spectators whose vicarious participation does not expose them to the discipline of the participants nor the authority of their coaches or referees. One need only observe the spectacles of soccer riots, World Federation Wresting and the Jerry Springer Show as examples of this.

Many school activities are violent or have aspects of violence in them. To say, "I don't consider them violent," is not only egoistic, but opens the door for the peculiarly "soft" forms of oppression and cruelty that are not uncommonly found in school, bullying, intimidation, and insensitivity to the needs of less assertive or "other than 'normal'" individuals.[7]

Violence is morally neutral. It can even be educative under certain circumstances where care is taken not to allow it to become an end in itself. It is violence in the context of compulsory education that raises special moral concerns. But these can be, and are, generally, handled with care, even if perfunctorily.

Discipline is the issue. Since, in our culture, no one need participate in martial arts training except as they choose to do so, I find good martial arts training to be among the most effective means of inculcating ethical behavior, since one must stand up to the double temptation of fleeing pain and inflicting it gratuitously. Physically vigorous activities, even violent ones, provide maturation opportunities via inurement, or what some have called, "psychological hormesis." An article in Scientific American of September of this year[8] defines hormesis as adaptation to stress. Small doses of toxic chemicals, or radiation, can have a salutary effect on the organism, rather then a damaging effect as formerly believed. I suspect that the martial arts, and activities such as Outward Bound, Scouting, and the various roughhousing games played by children all work toward developing a tolerance to the low levels of discomfort commonly encountered throughout life.

Cloaking Impotence

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover our impotence. -- Mohandas K. Gandhi[9]

I can only prefer violence to cowardice. -- Mohandas K. Gandhi[10]

Those who propagandize for Violence as Wrongdoing may serve -- if even, inadvertently --not so much gentility and rationality as disempowerment and subjugation.

John Wilson and Barbara Cowell present some research they conducted on teacher conceptions of authority and report that "...for the kind of tender-minded and idealistic liberals of whom teachers and (still more) educators are largely representative, the mere idea of actually holding power produced serious feelings of guilt."[11]

To wit, the authors ask a teacher about dealing with bullying:

" 'If the only way you could, in practice, stop one child bullying and torturing another was to make him frightened of you and your power, would you make him frightened?' 'Oh no, I couldn't do that, you shouldn't make anyone frightened, it's wrong.' 'But if that were the only way - I mean, if you did not have time to do it by love and influence and the force of example?' 'Well, I just couldn't, I just couldn't live with myself if I did.' 'But doesn't bullying make you very angry?' 'Very, but that's all the more reason to control myself.' 'So you'd just let the bullying go on?' 'Well, I suppose I'd have to. Perhaps I could tell the little child to keep out of the big one's way.'"(ibid.[11])

I fear this teacher's opinions are far from unique. One wonders where he received his moral education. How does one come to believe that frightening someone is such a moral evil that it overrides one's duty to protect those in one's charge. What can this teacher's students think of him when they discover he will not protect them? What must the bully think?

While I was headmaster of a private high school near Philadelphia in 1985, I had to arrange some form of physical education for the 25 or so female students in the school in order to keep our State licensure. I polled the girls as to what kind of physical education they would like to have. One suggested karate or judo and the others, enthused by the suggestion, agreed.

I found a young woman in her late twenties who was about 5'6" tall and who weighed about 100 lbs. She had several high degree belts in the martial arts. I was most impressed how she dominated substantially bigger males during sparring sessions. Approached privately they assured me that they were not holding back; she was indeed a formidable opponent.

I asked if she would teach at my school. She agreed. I announced our acquisition to the girls at school. They were ecstatic.

Then the trouble began. Two mothers, prominent in the Home & School Association, visited me to voice their opposition to having their daughters taught to become violent people. I told them that they were not being taught to be violent but, rather, how to handle violence so they needn't be violent or suffer violence. In any case, participation would be voluntary. They could refuse to have their daughters attend classes. I would arrange to give them credit for attending a spa after school.

They replied that they didn't want to be the persons to deny their daughters what they wanted; rather, I should cancel the instruction so that their daughters couldn't attend.

I refused. There were twenty-three other girls who wanted the instruction besides their two unfortunate daughters and the other parents were not objecting.

Within two days I got four other phone calls from parents insisting that their daughters not be subjected to such unfeminine activity. I told them that the only way for them to keep their daughters out of it was to forbid them to participate. That they would not do. The spa was not an option they would force on their darlings.

It came to a head at my next school board meeting. The dominant mothers were also friends of some of the board members and were present for the spectacle. There was to be no discussion. A majority of the board members decided they would authorize no paychecks for anyone teaching a female student a martial art. End of argument.

I told the board and the parents who had attended to protest my plans that I understood their position: they wanted to raise daughters who could be raped like ladies.

Expanding the Carcerel

Those least conditioned to handle violence are most likely to be intimidated by the threat of if. The unknown negative always looms bigger in the imagination than in reality and is much more effective in the long run in controlling behavior than is actual, particularly physical, punishment.[12] Spousal abuse is common among those classes concerned raise their daughters as ladies and to "let boys be boys." But gender equality is not the answer if that is taken to mean to raise boys as well as girls like little ladies.[13]

Michel Foucault[14] argues in Discipline and Punish that ceasing to exercise torture and public execution on the criminally accused by state authorities should not be mistaken as a gain for humaneness and concern for the dignity of the punished. Rather, the point of making punishment both uniform[15] -- incarceration for almost every crime -- and hidden was to avoid provoking rebellion in a populace which has grown increasingly less willing to concede wisdom, justice and competence to those in power. In Foucault's carcerel,-- those institutions concerned with the behavioral control of recalcitrant populations -- political expediency and administrative convenience tend to override considerations of morality. But just consider how public schools, with their recalcitrant populations, i.e. normal children, have adapted to political expediency -- No Child Left Behind, Standards Testing, School Rankings-- and administrative convenience, 7:30 AM school days, circuitous one-hour bus rides to school for kindergartners, Zero-tolerance policies. I fear that the ideology of Violence is Wrongdoing is a maneuver to distract us from seeing how the public school system fits into and expands the Great American Carcerel.


[1] Cf. Eine Hauptursache philosophischer Krankheiten -- einseitige Diät: man nährt sein Denken mit nur einer Art von Beispielen.. (my translation) §593 Philosophische Untersuchungen (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a.Main, 1967) p.189.

[2] Does such linguistic fiat work to change thought? How one is to understand the point, in Orwell's 1984, of "War is Peace, " or "Love is Hate" without prior understanding of what war, peace, love and hate means?

[3] Precisely in the manner, I suppose, that referring to people as visually impaired rather than blind changes their lives.

[4] Kathryn Petras & Ross Petras, The Whole World Book of Quotations (Reading: Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1994)p. 294.

[5] A version of this appears in "School Violence, Punishment and Justice" educational Horizons Winter 1994. 86 - 94. See,

[6] Keegan, John A History of Warfare New York: Vintage 1994. p.3.

[7] See my Educational Studies, Fall 1991, review of John Wilson & Barbara Cowell Children and Discipline. A Teacher's Guide. (London: Cassell, 1990) available at Wilsonreview.html

[8] Renner, Rebecca "Nietzsche's Toxicology" Scientific American Sept 2003 pp. 28-30.

[9] Non-Violence in Peace and War, cited in Rhoda Thomas Tripp (compiler). The International Thesaurus of Quotations. (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p.675

[10] Cited in Petras & Petras, p. 52.

[11] Wilson & Cowell, op cit. P. 91

[12] See the effects of uncertainty in Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic and Amos Tversky (eds.) Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) p. 320

[13] My personal preference is expressed by the song lyric, "Every boy in this land grows to be his own man; every girl in this land grows to be her own woman."

[14] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage, 1979)

[15] The gradations of torture Foucault describes are much more in line with the maxim that the punishment should fit the crime than are the interchangeable conditions of incarceration. Op.cit. 9-10.


Appendix A: Violence in the Schools: An Opinion Survey

©2001 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.


Respond to each of the statements given below according to the following scale

1. Schools are no place for violence.

2. Violence causes violence.

3. Some violence can be permitted in schools.

4. The Law forbids violence in schools.

5. Unlike 50 years ago, schools now tolerate violent behavior.

6. Violent acts are morally wrong.

7. Cruelty is always violent.

8. Some violence is acceptable.

9. Violence likely causes criminality.

10. Violence is wrongdoing.

Appendix B: Activity Rankings Exercises

A. Directions: From the set of words given on the right , select items that when matched with the list on the left, reflect the relationships shown in first two examples of the left box.

1. wind - gale

2. snowfall - blizzard

3. bump - _____________________________

4. wave - ______________________________

5. tremor - _____________________________

6. sleet - ______________________________

7. drizzle - _____________________________

8. rainstorm - ___________________________









On what basis are these non-human events paired? How would you describe the transition from left to right item? What are some common ways of describing them?


B. Following the pattern of the first two examples below, number the following possible school activities on a scale from one to five with 1, lowest; and 5, highest.

Chess club ____1___

Football _____5____

Table tennis _______

Riflery _____

Wrestling _________

Baseball __________

Reading ______

Rehearsing Hamlet's duel with Laertes _____

Baking a cake ___1____

Playing dodgeball _____

Field Hockey ______

Performing Sharks vs Jets dance from West Side Story ______

Fencing _______

Touch football _______

What do these examples indicate about the place of violent activity in schools?


Appendix C Case Studies: Violence, Imposition, Wrongdoing

Directions: Respond to each characterization of the statements given below according to the following scale

How would you characterize Jack's action in each of the following cases?





1. Sparring at karate, Jack blocks Sam's kick to his stomach and delivers a hard punch to the side of Sam's headgear.


2. Sam takes little Billy's Walkman from him and runs away. Jack wrestles Sam to the ground, permitting Billy to recover his radio.


3. "Please watch my seat while I get a soda," says Jack to Sam seated nearby.


4. Jack, grabbing Sam by the throat, tells him to hand over his wallet.


5. Jack shoots Sam dead for not paying attention to him.


6. For the fourth month in a row, Jack fails to pay his share of the rent, forcing Sam, his roommate, to make up the difference.


7. Jack, having promised to pay for Sam's Walkman should he lose it, loses the radio and refuses to pay.


8. Jack hands Sam his book.


9. Jack, while boxing with Sam, knees him in the groin.


10.Jack "drops in " on Sam just as Sam is preparing dinner.


For more examples of this sort see Teaching Case Analysis to Achieve Philosophical Consensus