Now and then, someone will say something that crystallizes a thought you always had but never were quite able to put into words. Amitai Etzioni has done it for me (again) in a new study called "Self-Discipline, Schools and the Business Community."
What he says is this: The problem facing too many young people as they graduate into the labor market is neither poor reading, inadequate math skills, substandard English nor even that catch-all "functional illiteracy." The fundamental problem, which leads to all these others, is the lack of discipline -- "psychic underdevelopment," he calls it.
The unemployables, Etzioni believes, frequently are youngsters who, in their preschool years, have not been helped by their families to develop such attitudes as industriousness respect for rules and authority, and self-discipline. Schools, particularly those with too little discipline and structure, often make matters worse. "As a result," he believes, "many young people are unable, for psychic reasons, first to learn effectively in the schools, and then to function effectively in the adult world of work, community and citizenship. Thus, the root problem is not that millions of high school graduates have great difficulties in reading, writing, and 'rithmetic; these all-too-common deficiencies are consequences of insufficient self-discipline, of inadequate ability to mobilize self and to commit."
What he seems to be saying, after you cut through the researcher's compulsories, is what all of us used to know but too many have forgotten: that how you teach a child -- that is, the mix of ethics, morals, responsibility and other values that go into the educational approach -- is more important than the specific academic content. Learning to organize time, set priorities, honor rules and respect those in authority makes other learning possible.
This is what we used to believe when we talked about the Army making men of boys; it is what many of us now have in the back of our minds when we insist on more homework for our children; it is what most of us recall as important in our own childhoods: the sense of having responsibilities and being routinely relied on to carry them out.
And we were right, no matter that we have lately allowed ourselves to be sidetracked by such considerations as "cultural deprivation," IQ scores, the fear of nuclear annihilation and systemic racism. These false trails, Etzioni believes, may even lie behind the data showing that while reading ability among students has improved somewhat in recent years, problem-solving skills have declined.
"My hypothesis," says Etzioni, who is director of George Washington University's Center for Policy Research, "is that this development also shows lack of intellectual self-discipline. Interpretation and application, much more than basic reading skills, require following certain rules (check out all main options, avoid premature closure), and a measure of patience (control of impulse)."
As Etzioni makes clear, discipline alone won't solve all the problems that young people face. His point is that without discipline, nothing will.