Friday, March 26, 2010


Isn't odd that the first definition for the word "discipline" in Merriam-Webster is punishment? And that the second definition for the verb involves "self-control?"

Somewhere on its path from its obsolete definition as "instruction," discipline has become a word that carries negative connotations. Children who misbehave are disciplined. (Isn't that an odd sentence?)

Our college-student son Ben observed that all through elementary school and high school students are encouraged to keep quiet in class, and then when they get to college they are encouraged to speak out--to participate in class discussions. Maintaining "discipline" in a grade school classroom has everything to do with separating order from chaos, so students can give the impression of being "disciplined" by being quiet in class. That doesn't mean that the are actually learning anything. It just means that at some point they have learned that being quiet in class will not get them into trouble. Perhaps that is one reason that getting college students to participate in class discussions seems, at times, to be as difficult as pulling teeth.

I think that most people desire to have some kind of discipline in their lives, but our odd and constantly-changing culture gives us conflicting cues concerning where to "find" it. Some people seek out discipline in religion, which very often results in various forms of restriction, depending on the religion. Some religions offer eternal punishment in exchange for not following the rules. Some people seek out the hierarchical world of the military to instill discipline in their lives. It often works well on the physical level (you need to be fit, follow rules, and do what you are told to do). Technical jobs also require discipline, and working with people who are careful in their work will help apprentices learn to be disciplined in their work. When it comes to fixing a car properly, keeping quiet is not what it takes to accomplish the job.

We need discipline in order to organize our lives, but, since it's a "dirty" word, we give it all sorts of other names. Time management is a "gentle" name that seems to work for many people. Organizing our time effectively takes discipline. Making "to-do" lists to organize the chaos of our lives (and a life without discipline is chaotic) and writing books about organization has become a whole industry. The rewards of time management are many, but I believe the biggest reward for practicing time management is the development of discipline.

Since my middle teens, my life has been organized around practicing. It is something that I do every day, and it is a time when I can use discipline to build technique, learn music, and grow as an expressive musician. When I tell people that I practice technique for an hour every day, they marvel at my self-discipline. It is not self-discipline that makes it possible for me to practice technique, it is practicing technique that allows me to have more self-discipline (not to mention better intonation, cleaner articulation, and a better sound).

Isn't it odd that, according to Merriam-Webster, self-discipline seems to have had its first English use as a noun in 1838? Perhaps there was no need for the term before 1838 (a big year in publishing and in telecommunications). Perhaps before 1838 (and the development of the distractions that now permeate our daily lives) self-discipline was just something that people needed to have in order to accomplish the tasks set before them, and it didn't need to have a name.


Anonymous said...

"In recent weeks, state education funding woes have triggered a tsunami of pink slips to thousands upon thousands of teachers and support staff in school districts statewide, with about 9,800 announced layoffs of teachers so far. Another 1,600 retiring teachers won't be replaced." From the Chicago Sun-Times, 27 March 2010. Is this fiscal discipline, or fiscal punishment, and if the later, where will Illinois get more money? From cancelling more music programs? It seems very, very likely, given Naperville firings last monthy and the string programs' cancellations.

Elaine Fine said...

The state of Illinois is a mess right now, and the future is very dim for music education students (especially string players) who used to rely on successful string programs like the one in Naperville for potential jobs.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. All the people in the Illinois educational system, students and teachers from elementary school through college, have to pay for the follies (and, perhaps lack of discipline) of the people who allowed the state to get in real financial trouble.

Again, it is the word "discipline" as "punishment" that is taking away from the "discipline" of teaching and learning.

Anonymous said...

"The people who allowed the state to get in real financial trouble" are our politicians. All of them, it seems, and of both parties. Now what? Will music in the schools be dumped completely to pay pensions for people not teaching at all and upper class politicians with fat pensions? It is a sad day for art.

Elaine Fine said...

Politicians, and the people who benefit from the "workings" of politicians. It has been going on for a long time here, and both parties are, indeed responsible. I read a bumper sticker once that said "Illinois--where our governors make our license plates." And the Illinois teachers' union endorsed our last one, the one with the big hair.

Zach said...

I hesitate to bring French post-structuralism into this, but Foucault might have a lot to say on this topic. ("Discipline and Punish")

Very interesting thoughts and discussion.

Anonymous said...

Foucault? Governmentality don't explain the massive ineptness of political leadership which has brought such debt as we see in government today. If the notion of neo-liberalism is really about a limited state, limited by individualism and self-regulating elements within a society being created, I'd say the politics which has brought the state, its municipalities and school districts into unsustainable debt is neither self-regulating nor representative a neo-liberal, and therefore limited state. Rather, the abuse of debt until it has become an avalanche seems the opposite. Where's the sense in fancy philosophic words, when the bill comes due. Pay or go broke. Where does Foucault fits into this?