Emerging Renaissance

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Letter to School Board

The following is a letter I sent to the administration of my former high school about eliminating the practice of spanking. Spanking is still legal in Alabama, as it is in 19 other states primarily in the southeastern US. The current bill in congress, while applying to public schools across the US, does not apply to private schools that do not receive funding from the federal government.

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is [Name], and I am a Briarwood graduate from the year 2007. I attended Briarwood for all of my schooling, from K-4 through the end of high school. Since graduating, I have spent some time studying psychology, both formally (through college classes) and informally (by reading a number of books and current journal articles, and by listening to interviews with experts in the field). Conflict resolution, both among adults and between adults and children, has been of particular interest to me.

I recently spoke with Dr. Mosbacker about alternatives to spanking, which I believe (and which research has shown) to be not only ineffective, but a counterproductive means of discipline. I was overjoyed to hear that the practice has been officially discontinued at the high school and junior high level, but I believe there is a good case to be made for change at the elementary level too.

Like any exercise of authority and power, spanking creates external incentives for a child to change his behavior. It may achieve compliance in the short run, but it does not promote genuine understanding of the difference between right and wrong [1]. A child who is spanked does not internalize a methodology for making healthy and sound decisions. He only learns to follow the dictates of authority in the moment [2]. Instead of spanking, teachers could model negotiation. They could explain why certain rules exist, and how they serve the interests of both the school and the child. Children want to cooperate. If they are given the chance to understand the purpose of a rule (and if the rule makes sense), then they are much more likely to participate in following the rules and encouraging others to follow them as well.

If a child is climbing on a fence, the teacher could threaten him with punishment, or she could say something like: “When I see you climbing on the fence, I feel afraid because you could fall off and hurt yourself, and I don’t want you to be hurt. Even if you are a good climber, other children who are not good climbers may see you climbing and want to copy you. I don’t want them to fall and get hurt either. I want you to have fun, but I have to watch the whole playground. I can’t make sure everyone else is playing safe and having fun if I have to spend all my time paying extra attention to you because you’re doing something dangerous.” She could go on to suggest alternative forms of play that don’t involve increased risk.

This approach may seem time-consuming—and at the beginning it is. But because it promotes understanding of the reasons behind the rule, the child can internalize the logic behind not only this particular rule, but perhaps other rules as well. Children want to know why things are the way they are—That’s why they’re always asking!

Negotiation begins when the teacher explains her perspective, but that’s only half the equation. It is equally important for the child to be heard, and to feel that his perspective is understood. Even if the rule doesn’t change, it can be enormously helpful for the child to have the experience of being listened to. If his thoughts and feelings matter, he is much more likely to feel that he has some investment in the school. Children aren’t alone in this. As adults we also feel more invested in our relationships when someone listens to us—our bosses, our neighbors, our spouses…And of course, there may be some chance that the rule is not serving its purpose (to keep the children safe and happy, to promote a secure and stimulating learning environment, etc.) and needs to be amended. Because children experience the teacher-student authority relationship from below rather than above, they may be able to see something that others have missed.

Spanking can also be physically dangerous. There is no safe way to hit a child, particularly a young child. Depending on where they are hit, bruising and even damage to bones and tendons can occur [3]. Even if one is attempting to hit a child in a “safe place” the child might move in the last moment so that he is struck in an unsafe place (such as the lower back, tailbone, or a major nerve, which for young children are still developing and are easily damaged). What if the child were to fall and hit his head or eye against the corner of a desk or table? A teacher may be two, or three, or even four times larger than a small child. What if the teacher overestimates his strength? What if a teacher gets carried away in the moment?

Certainly the school has policies that attempt to protect against extremities, such as recommending that teachers not “spank in anger,” and requiring that two adults be present during the procedure [4]. But the physical, emotional, and spiritual risks of spanking are not reduced by hitting “without anger.” In my experience at Briarwood the “rule of two” was never followed (I was spanked once and saw other children being spanked on at least four other occasions, and there was never a second adult present). There is no way to enforce this policy; children are unaware of it and therefore cannot report violations (or will not, if they fear additional punishment), and teachers may also be unaware of the rule, or they may not wish to enforce it on themselves.

Spanking can harm brain development. Even if no visible physical damage is done to the child’s body, being struck by an adult (or even being threatened with such aggression) causes the release of stress hormones in the brain, including cortisol. Overstimulation by adrenaline and cortisol, particularly during the rapid development that occurs at an early age, has been shown to cause brain damage, even significantly reducing the size of certain areas of the brain. Such brain damage can result in learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and an inability to empathize with others—resulting in aggressive or even violent behavior [5].

I really appreciate that you took the time to read my letter. Like you, I want the children who go through Briarwood Christian School to have a safe, happy, and productive time at school. I want teachers and the students they are responsible for to have the best relationship possible. I want school to be an experience that children look forward to, not just one they endure. Thank you for considering the ideas I put forward above. I hope they are useful in beginning (or continuing!) a dialogue about the best way to model love and respect between teachers and students.

I would be happy to speak further on this matter or to provide additional references to anyone who is interested. Thank you again for your time and consideration.

Class of 2007

[1] Alice Park, “The Long-Term Effects of Spanking” – TIME Magazine, May 3, 2010, available here

[2] See Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training, ch. 9-10

[3] Jordan Riak, “Plain Talk about Spanking,” available here

[4] See Briarwood’s policy, available on their website

[5] Alice Miller, “The Political Consequences of Child Abuse,” The Journal of Psychohistory, available here

August 23, 2010 Posted by | Education, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The End of the Ends-Means Dichotomy

Much ado has been made about ends and means. From university-level philosophy and political science classes to the mainstream media, the question is often asked: “Do the ends justify the means?” Historically, this question has been answered in one of two ways. Utilitarians and Consequentialists such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Niccolò Machiavelli have tended to justify or condemn human action based on its consequences. If the expected outcome is considered to be “good,” then the actions necessary to achieve it are good. On the other hand, deontological theorists such as Immanuel Kant have argued that some actions are right or wrong in principle, no matter the consequences.

Instead of constructing morality from the predicted consequences of human action, or attempting to derive principles of preferred behavior rationally or empirically, many religions try to base morality on assertions. The absolute “moral principles” of religion are not the kind of principles that tell doctors how to cure diseases, or that provide ecologists with a methodology for preserving threatened species. They are merely arguments from authority based on the supposed will of an alleged deity, in whose existence we are expected to believe because someone else says so.

Other philosophers have attempted to deal with the ends-means dichotomy without the teeth-gritting willpower of the argument from authority. Ayn Rand contends that the ends do not justify the means. In Rand’s view, the ends determine the means—human action is a “process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it” (“Causality Versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 98). Rand recognized the contradiction inherent in Consequentialism: just because the goal is virtuous, it in no way follows that any means which are believed to help achieve it will also be virtuous. The ends and the means must be consistent. Rand writes, “The end does not justify the means. No one’s rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others” (“The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion,’” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 256).

In the words of modern-day philosopher Stefan Molyneux, Consequentialism is an “argument from effect.” The problem with arguments from effect is that they require perfect knowledge of the results before any action can be taken. We could accomplish very little if we always had to base our actions on philosophically-derived, certain knowledge of the outcome. According to Molyneux, arguments from morality are much more powerful. We may not be able to perfectly predict the outcome of any action, but principles can guide our behavior even when we do not know the future.

An example may be helpful. If we are trying to decide whether a given government program—say welfare—is “good” or not, the argument from effect requires that we predict not only whether welfare programs will help particular individuals (which is very difficult, since some of welfare’s effects do not appear for years or even decades), but also whether welfare is a net benefit to all of society (compounding the initial problem millions of times over). Even if such a computation were possible, it would take lifetimes to complete.

By contrast, the argument from morality allows us to apply a principle (such as, “the initiation of violence is immoral”) to the question of whether welfare is “good.” Now all we have to do is determine whether the welfare programs in question involve the initiation of violence. In our analysis, we will eventually discover that government-run welfare programs are funded by the collection of taxes. Since taxes are taken from citizens against their will (coercively), and since government welfare programs require the collection of taxes, such welfare programs are only possible because of the coercion inherent in taxation. Government welfare programs are tainted by the violence of the taxes upon which they are based, and are therefore bad—even if their “expected outcome” is good.

Because of the complexities inherent in any system (but particularly in systems of human interaction), it is very difficult to predict the outcome of an action with certainty. The same forces that make weather patterns and economic trends so unpredictable are also at work in many other areas of our lives. We do not know whether treating a stranger with respect will result in a “good” outcome or a “bad” one, because we do not intimately know the details of his or her personality and history. We do not have any control over those things, but we do have control over how we behave in the interaction. Instead of guessing, we can choose to follow a principle.

If we wish to be positive change makers in the world, we have to understand that change is only made by pursuing actions consistent with our desired goals. Gandhi’s much-cited but rarely followed aphorism “Be the change you want to see in the world” captures this truth perfectly. We cannot achieve our goals by pursuing their opposites. Peace cannot be achieved through war. If we wish to see more virtue in the world, no amount of complaining, voting, or violence will get us there. We bring virtue to the world by making ourselves more virtuous—by bringing honesty and respect to our relationships with our children, parents, and friends first. As these virtues radiate through our social networks, we will find that we see the change in the world which we have committed to be.

Thus in practice, no distinction can be made between ends and means. We cannot be violent and expect the world to become peaceful. We cannot be uncaring and expect the world to become empathetic. The ends do not “justify” the means. The ends are the means. The ends which we envision today will be the means by which we seek to achieve new ends tomorrow. We achieve our goals by implementing strategies consistent with those goals. But each day, those strategies are also goals, and the steps for achieving them must be consistent as well. “Ends” and “means” are divided arbitrarily by a distinction without a difference. There are no “ends” or “means.” There is only human action, and we would do well to make the most of it.

January 7, 2010 Posted by | Philosophy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best of Freedomain Radio

The following is a list of my favorite podcasts from Stefan Molyneux’s Freedomain Radio, for those in search of his best material or a condensed stream:

The Best of Freedomain Radio

Note: “The Best of Freedomain Radio” has been changed from a POST to a PAGE. The new page can be accessed by clicking the link above, or by clicking here.

April 17, 2009 Posted by | Debating, Economics, Education, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments



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