Power in Schooling Practice:
The Educational Dilemmas

©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

updated 12/25/11

Obscuring the unpleasant

An educator never says what he himself thinks, but only that which he thinks it is good for those whom he is educating to hear. ----- Nietzsche The Will to Power 1

Nietzsche reminds us of what many educational theorists forget: the conduct of teachers -- at every level -- is constrained by norms. One may not do just anything that occurs to one as a teaching strategm, even if, by some stretch of the imagination, it may be rationalized as a bestowal of knowledge.

In The Moral Dimensions of Teaching,2 Gary Fenstermacher argues that educators should not look to medicine or the law as models of a profession3. The reasons he gives are

a. these professions mystify ; i.e. physicians and lawyers "lock up" or mystify their knowledge. "Good" teachers cannot do this. "Eventually, the good teacher must also give most of his or her knowledge of teaching away to learners, in the hopes that they will be teachers of themselves;"

b. physicians and lawyers insist on social distance from those they serve, i.e. they "seem to delight" in maintaining social distance, not becoming too personally involved with their clients. Effective teachers would be ill-served by such a practice;

c. physicians and lawyers demand no reciprocity of effort, i.e. unlike teachers, they expect their clients to be passive non-contributors to the processes they are engaged in. However teachers require their students to make a contribution of effort to their learning.

Fenstermacher substantially mischaracterizes what teachers do. His focus seems to be exclusively on teaching the self-motivated learner -- as his "reciprocity of effort" condition indicates. Secondly, he assumes that the way one "teaches oneself' is best modeled after the way one has been taught by others, as though, for example, we learned our native tongue by conjugating verbs.

But teachers often have to deal with students who are far from self-motivated, especially as concerns school subjects. They often have to deal with students who lack very basic social skills, whose concern for others may rank far below their most whimsical impulses, or, even, whose emotional upheaval has transported them far beyond any rational constraint.

A teacher is not merely a bestower of knowledge, but also a participant in a struggle to develop in students (seldom merely a single student) a sense of social responsibility, even morality. Students come to school in various stages of development and the teacher's skills at social control -- often prerequisite to their further intellectual development -- might not be enhanced if the teacher revealed to the students the strategms by which conflicts were forestalled, competing claims reconciled and violations adjudicated.

Arguments to the contrary must strike most practicing teachers as naive4. I am reminded of a teacher who -- quite a few years back, now -- told me how he took Neil Postman's Teaching as a Subversive Activity into the school where he worked and read portions of it to his class. The result? "I was the first victim of their subversion!" he lamented.

Why do doctors mystify their clients and maintain their social distance? Fenstermacher insinuates some less than noble reason. However, one rationale is quite clear5. Doctors and lawyers mystify and maintain social distance from their clients because they engage in practices which might otherwise undermine their social status. Exploring body orifices and examining excreta hardly count as lofty undertakings. Without mystique, without distance, doctors would be, at best, violators of human dignity -- more likely, some kind of lowly servant6. Imagine a patient's reaction if a doctor were to snicker or crack a ribald joke during a physical examination! Even blushing or embarrassment on the part of an examining physician might be taken as a signal of violation, a lack of "professionalism." Lawyers, too, officers of the Court, high priests in the Temple of Jurisprudence, veil their often tawdry means-ends oriented activities with mystification and social distance. Truth is seldom the prize sought after in a legal proceeding. Teachers are willy-nilly in very much the same situation, pressed between their concerns for nurturance and enlightenment on the one hand, and the social necessities of coercion on the other.

The Case of the Dirty Diapers: a Paradigm

In his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr7 poses the following conundrum:

If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?
It is refreshing to encounter such an argument presented in the almost canonical modus ponens form. It makes a rebuttal simple: coercion is not necessarily socially unjust. This point can be demonstrated with an anecdote serendipitously appropriate to the rigor of Niebuhr's "logic"

Kathy and Jack were visiting with their 14-month old daughter, Cindy, brought as a playmate for 15-month old Becky, who lived there. Their hosts, Edna and Sam, noticed that Cindy was squirming and finally had begun to whine. Edna commented on this and was dismayed that Kathy ignored her. "I do think she needs changing," Edna insisted. "You can take her into the next room and use the table." Neither parent moved. Indeed, Jack continued with an anecdote about one of the many colleges, only the most expensive and prestigious, that he and Kathy had dropped in and out of.

"Would you suspect me of being a pervert if I offered to change Cindy?" asked Sam, who was getting quite perturbed. "I change Becky all the time." "I'll do it!" said Kathy, "But I really hate the mess. Why do kids have to do it in their pants?" Jack, liberated spouse that he was, droned on, ignoring the interaction.

The women went with Cindy into the next room. Her cries of discomfort intensified. Edna's exclamation could be distinctly heard, "My God, she's really got a bad rash! Have you been to a doctor with her? No, don't just re-diaper her! Wash her first! Here, I'll do it!"

Cindy began to scream. "Stop!" yelled Kathy. "You're hurting her. Mind your own business! I'm taking her home!" Kathy emerged from the room with a screaming Cindy over her arm and walked out the front door. Jack shrugged, smiled lamely and followed.

Edna telephoned Cindy's grandmother and told her that if someone were not gotten to take care of Cindy, she, Edna, was going to call whatever authorities were necessary and register a complaint of child abuse. Cindy's grandmother saw to it that Cindy was attended to until Cindy, some years later, was toilet-trained.

This situation is paradigmatic of the kind of conflict that educators encounter on a daily basis. It is not merely a matter of caring for individuals, but adjudicating among competing claims when caring for one takes, or should take priority, over caring for another 8. This raises some difficult problems that are only exacerbated by personal tastes -- often confused with a moral position -- that eschew dealing with what is uncomfortable, upsetting, and messy.

One might point out that there are some clear priorities in the diaper anecdote. The long-term health of the child takes precedence over its momentary discomfort during the treatment of its ailment. Both of these are far more important than the distaste suffered by the neglectful parents or the "inhospitality" shown by the hosts in insisting the parents take care of their ailing child. Consequently, one might be willing to concede, coercion is justified to the extent that higher-order priorities are being sacrificed to lower: avoiding harm is more important than avoiding hurt.

But there are even harder cases to deal with.


Teaching, Caring and Power

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
In their book, Children and Discipline: A teacher's guide, John Wilson and Barbara Cowley present research they conducted on teacher conceptions of authority. They comment 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." 10

Wilson provides the text of an interview with a British teacher about how he would deal with bullying and whether he would exercise power to stop it.

" ...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.'" 11
It seems that this teacher has succumbed to a common confusion of, at best, aesthetic with ethical criteria. He has confused

a. "I feel uncomfortable exercising power in my relations with others so I will refrain from doing so." (a kind of "emotive" aestheticism) with

b. "It is an exercise of my duty of care to protect children from harm, so I must protect this child from bullying, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable." with

c. "Frightening children, no matter what the justification, is harming them and is therefore prohibited by the duty of care which I bear as a teacher."

Educators, in general, have a legally recognized duty of care. This is drummed into them in their certification coursework and daily in the schools that employ them. They are told that they may be guilty of a tort if they fail through negligence to fulfill their duty of care12.

But this only leaves them hanging. The practical question is seldom, "What ought I do to fulfill my duty of care to this individual child?" Rather, the question is how to fulfill duties of care when such duties may be in conflict, as Wilson's and Cowley's bullying example illustrates. On issues such as these their training, their employment, indeed, the professional literature is, in general, remarkably silent.

Repudiating Bullying. What is That?

For example, whose duty is it to deal with bullying in the schools? Dan Olweus in his study, Aggression in the Schools, makes the obvious suggestion so far as repudiating bullying goes:

...adults... must assume the main responsibility for stressing such a repudiation. This requires a certain amount of courage on the part of the adults, especially since all suggestions of even a slightly controlling character have come to seem so unfashionable... However, to fail to stop these activities implies a tacit confirmation -- an attitude that seems very inhumane.13
What this means practically, is less clearly spelled out14. Olweus, however, is concerned about the confusion that mistakes all kinds of coercion with authoritarianism. He remarks
In some quarters, suggestions of even a slightly controlling character seem to be regarded as manifestations of "authoritarianism." To some extent, this may be due to the frequently cited studies by Kurt Lewin and his associates ... on the effects of leadership styles. The authoritarian leader in the Lewin experiments was not only controlling; he as also characterized by a cold, hostile, and critical attitude. However, control may be combined with a friendly and supportive attitude.... Thus there is no reason to make control synonymous with the negatively loaded concept of authoritarianism. And there is, in fact a good deal of research indicating that determined and warm control exerted by parents is likely to contribute to the development of a number of socially valued qualities, such as independence and high self-esteem. ... I would like to suggest in passing that the conclusions derived from these early studies by Lewin and his associates be regarded with great skepticism... In my view, they are beset with so many methodological weaknesses that it is doubtful that they permit any conclusions at all.15
Supporting this confusion of coercion with authoritarianism is an attitude -- a "theory"? -- not infrequently encountered even among those who sport some philosophical sophistication. Advocates of this "theory" insist that violence is always injustice. Although this conflation is supported by neither dictionary definition or common usage, it is often unproductive to try to argue the point against those strongly committed to it.

Thus to an advocate committed to the violence-is-injustice "theory" a clear case of self-defense will be described as "non-violent" no matter that the obvious villain ends up with his brains blown out. Rather than belabor the point, one might ask whether the "advocate" will concede that football on his theory is non-violent, since all players are voluntary, even eager, participants. If so, such a concession indicates no major philosophical consequences will follow from indulging the conflation of violence to injustice. However, the prejudice is probably still there that tends to link coercion with authoritarianism.

If we attempt to extend the notion of duty of care and place it in the context of an injunction to "celebrate diversity" or "support multiculturalism" -- both now fashionable in American schooling at all levels -- a new dimension of problems arises. Let us turn our attention now to sexual assault and the problematic definition of behavior in varying cultural contexts.


The Dilemmas of Multiculturalism

"I can dress as sexy as I want to and go where I want to and still say no" - Georgie Ann. Hearts Afire.16
A recent motion picture, The Accused, dramatizes the case of a young woman who went into a pool hall in a Portuguese-ethnic neighborhood and was subsequently compelled by a group of men there to have sexual intercourse. The woman accused the men of rape. She argued that she had resisted and told them she was not willing to engage in actual intercourse. The men involved offered the defense that she "asked for it", by "dressing provocatively", coming alone into the pool hall and flirting with some of them. They plea-bargained successfully for a reduced charge of assault.

Interestingly enough, the movie completely neutralizes the cultural context of the action, presenting the neighborhood in which it occurred as working-class Anglo-Saxon (or, possibly, Irish-) American. The action depicted in the film is clear. The woman's behavior is clearly provocative beyond the bounds of what many - in both Latin- and Central European- derived American subcultures - would consider respectable behavior.

At a critical juncture in the film, at which point the protagonist is dancing with one of the men, the other women present take offense at the protagonist's "seductive" behavior, stand up and exit the room, leaving her "to her desserts." 17 When, somewhat later, she attempts to disengage and leave, the man she was dancing with grabs her. The other men constrain her from defending herself. She is raped.

Georgie Ann's statement from the TV series Hearts Afire alludes to the case depicted in the movie. Such statements indicate a profound inconsistency of attitude in the United States about the relationship between individual rights and sub-group mores. What rights of concession does one have over one's body? What rights should one have? What counts as a ritual of concession in a given context? What should count? Does "no" always mean "no"? To what extent is the characterization of behavior determined by the situation rather than the intent? Or vice versa?

In most public discussion these questions are not infrequently muddled by officially sanctioned hyperbole about multiculturalism. But to what extent is multiculturalism compatible with a more general concept of individual rights that has been developing, say, in feminist or in meta-cultural theory? Can the schools celebrate various cultural definitions of self and at the same time insist on one particular conception of self-control?

These dilemmas have a direct effect on practical considerations. At an Eastern college, the administration, consciously extending the notion of "duty of care", has taken it upon itself for the last seven years to immediately adjudicate all claims of severe assault, including sexual assault, pending their disposition in the courts. The intent is to protect and support those who are most likely to continue to be victimized by the presence of an accused assailant. All entering students are required to attend indoctrination sessions on the campus code and are presented with a college-defined list of severe offenses and warned of the consequences of their violation. If a reasonable belief can be supported that someone has committed a severe assault or a sexual assault, the accused assailant is removed from campus and faces expulsion. This action is taken independently of any external civil or criminal proceeding against the alleged assailant.

A recent case provides a clear example of the conflict of multicultural vs. meta-cultural theory. A young man has been expelled for date rape. His accuser admits she invited him to sleep with her in her bed, the lateness of the hour being sufficient grounds not to insist he wend his way across campus to his own apartment. But, the victim insists, they had an agreement that there would be no sex, only sleep.

From the college's point of view, the case is clear. A violation of the clearly defined, indoctrinated Code of Conduct has occurred. The alleged assailant has been expelled and the college expects its decision will stand up to court challenge. However, the college also expects that criminal proceedings against the young man for rape will not sustain the complaint. Even the victim's own parents believe her action was foolish in the extreme. College lawyers expect the courts will find her invitation to have been a mitigating provocation.

Child Abuse vs. Discipline

The rape vs. provocation issue is a dramatic one. More likely a dilemma in most schools is the problem of distinguishing between what a culture defines as discipline vs. what others may take to be child abuse.

In the other America of ghettoes and shanty towns, that generally poverty-stricken, really-out-of-necessity-multicultural America, many prostitute themselves not only for drug money, but just to get enough to eat. They live on the street. Shake-down is a way of life. Weapons are common18 Everyone knows someone who has been killed. When parents try to raise their children "decently" within the scope of the very meager resources they command, these same parents are often branded as "abusers" by those relatively affluent Americans whose only connection with the inner city ghetto is professional.19 Among this professional class, social workers, school teachers, psychologists, the "dirty-diaper" syndrome prevails, only it is they who cannot abide the attempts of ghetto parents to deal with the dirt.

Despite pronouncements "celebrating diversity", a decidedly ethnocentric boundary marks the divide between discipline and child abuse: the use of corporal punishment. Philosophically considered, physical importunity requires no more nor less justification than the "professionally preferred" psychological or pharmacological techniques of behavior control. Here, again, a matter of taste is confused with morality.


The Ethnicity of Schooling Traditions

Our final consideration of power in the practice of schooling will be those practices which have traditionally defined the nature of education in some of our most celebrated schools. Most schools have traditions which identify campus elites 20 and sanction their predation of specified classes of victims. Commonly recognized elite groups are athletes, particularly football players, "Greeks" from particular fraternities or sororities and, depending on the particular school, members of secret societies or even students in particular departments.

Now the very point of status difference is to provide a rationale for differentially distributing the benefits and costs of a social organization among its members. Relative to high status individuals, lower status persons absorb more of the costs and fewer of the benefits. Power within the organization usually functions to maintain status differentials, sometimes even to the point of permitting restricted predation of higher status groups on the lower, as popular movies about "jocks" humiliating "nerds" commonly depict.

Anthropologist Fredrik Barth 21 specifies three conditions under which ethnic groups develop and define themselves:

a. a dominant culture is present with the power to maintain conditions whereby other groups of people
b. are stereotyped
c. are constrained to certain roles that function complementarily in the general culture.
Barth argues that ethnic distinctions are born out of conflict: the above conditions are necessary for the maintenance of ethnic distinctions. Clearly, on Barth's view, schooling elites define an kind of ethnic milieu.22

Consider now that in public schools at least it is considered not only desirable to "celebrate" and maintain diversity, but to promote as desirable goals the very conditions that undermine the maintenance of ethnic distinctions, e.g. the non-exclusive distribution of power, the destruction of stereotyping, and equal opportunity to all persons to any role in society. Add to this potpourri of contradictions the likelihood that the distaste for overt use of power exists not only as a "dirty-diaper" syndrome among educators but extends across the majority of professions.23

The picture this complex of considerations conjures up is no happy one. We have an educational system with little basis for rational action, hamstringing itself with illusions of multiculturalism untenable by virtue of the traditional mission of public education in a democratic society. Worse yet, we have a society of individuals generally unwilling to get beyond its distaste to utilize the power necessary to get anything done. This leaves the field of rational action open only to those who are willing to permit ethnic domination, or who do not care about the traditional missions of public education, or who do not find the exercise of power distasteful, or any combination of these.

The ultimate educational dilemma thus becomes clear. We cannot use schools to pursue a society of individuals who at the same time are:

1. broadly rational,

2. committed to democratic principles, and

3. non-trivially ethnically different.

Thus, we can expect that public education will tend to develop individuals who are either idiot savants, separatists, or authoritarians, or on the other hand, broadly rational, democratic, assimilationists. Perhaps the general confusion that abounds on these issues is the mechanism which enables us to ignore the uncomfortable choices to be faced.

What is harm? What is merely hurt?

Better whipt, than Damn'd --- Cotton Mather

The crux of the matter is that there is little consensus about what it is that harms individuals as opposed to merely hurting them. A doctor's stitching up a wound may hurt, but that hurt, in and of itself, would not likely bring us to concede that the wounded person was being harmed. However, Cindy's being left with a soiled diaper hurt her less at any given moment than a necessary cleaning up would; but, in the long run, it would harm her more. 24

Do various forms of punishment -- even corporal punishment -- merely hurt; or do they harm? Answering this question requires not only empirical evidence -- seldom proferred --, but delineation of a theory of a fully-developed ideal individual. The kinds of treatments that might bring into being a Maslovian self-actualizer may be quite different from those that support the development of a social democrat., or a critical philosopher. Disputes over the use and abuse of power in education are symptoms of a deeper disagreements on human potential and societal need. It is far from obvious that whatever compromise on these theoretical issues can be achieved can be translated into consistent educational practice.



1 Quoted in Rhoda Thomas Tripp (compiler). The International Thesaurus of Quotations. (New York: Harper & Row, 1970) p.629.

2 John I. Goodlad, Roger Soder, Kenneth Sirotnik (eds.) The Moral Dimensions of Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990)

3 Gary D. Fenstermacher, "Some Moral Considerations on Teaching as a Profession" in Goodlad, et.al.. pp.130-154

4 Such naiveté assumes that information is normally innocently exchanged and that its control has no strategic value. However, see James G. March Decisions and Organizations. (New York: Blackwell, 1988) p.6.

5 Doctors sometimes report a need to maintain distance to protect themselves emotionally when patients worsen or die. Lawyers might well find similar justification, since they too lose cases.

6 It has been little over a hundred years since doctors have risen to the status they enjoy at present. Doctors were previously mere "sawbones", "leeches", "butchers", "medicine men", "blood-letters", and "pill-pushers."

7 Moral Man and Immoral Society 1932. Cited in Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven Paperback (New York: Norton, 1991) p.377

8 Similar points are developed extensively in Kenneth Strike, "The Legal and Moral Responsibility of Teachers" in Goodlad, et. al. pp. 214-219

9 Non-Violence in Peace and War, cited in Tripp, p.675

10 John Wilson and Barbara Cowell Children and Discipline A teacher's guide (London: Cassell, 1990.) p.91

11 ibid.

12 Cf. William D. Valente, Law in the Schools, (Columbus: Merrill, 1980) pp. 349-353.

13 Dan Olweus, Aggression in the Schools (New York: Wiley, 1978) p.185

14 Olweus dismisses as counterindicated by evidence the concern that the school's identifying children as bullies for special treatment will "stigmatize" them in later life. See pages 185 and 186.

15 Olweus, p.183, footnote 1.

16 CBS Monday, Nov. 16, 1992. 8:30-9:00 PM

17 In many ethnic groups the ritual withdrawal of women from the company of men is a signal that something "inappropriate to mixed company" is about to occur: "Boys are about to be boys."

18 See "20% in High Schools Found to Carry Weapons" New York Times , 10/11/1991

19 See David Gonzalez, "To Save a Child, Parents Become Her Jailers" New York Times , 9/20/91 p. A1. or George James, "Burned and Beaten Girl, 8, Found in Bronx Apartment." New York Times, 9/30/91, p. B3

20 See Chapter 7, "The Prep Crucible" in Peter W. Cookson, Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell, Preparing for Power. America's Elite Boarding Schools. (New York: Basic Books, 1985)

21 Fredrik Barth, "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries" pp. 198-227 in Adam Kuper (ed.) Process and Form in social life; the selected essays of Fredrik Barth (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981)

22 For similar argument, see Tony Becher, Academic Tribes & Territories:: the Cultures of the Disciplines Open University Press.(Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis, 1989) Becher argues that a basis for collegiality is preserved because different academic tribes have structurally different knowledge domains. This may be true at the university level, but it is difficult to see how domination can be avoided on these grounds in lower levels of schooling.

23 See Abraham Zaleznik, " Power and Politics in Organizational Life," in Harvard Business Review: On Human Relations. (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1979) pp. 375-396.

24 See E.G. Rozycki (2004) "Hurt, Harm & Safety"

See also, Student Voice