Social Process

Chapter 14: Discipline

Charles Horton Cooley

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THAT American life, at least in times of peace, lacks external discipline is grossly apparent. There is a widespread want of that demeanor ordered by the sense of some higher whole, which gives purpose, alertness, and dignity to personal behavior. Our society is full of people, of all ages and classes, who have more liberty, in the sense of unrestriction, than they know how to use. Having emancipated themselves from restraint and lacking worthy ideals of what to do next, they spend themselves in crude and inept behavior, not definitely harmful, perhaps, but disgusting from the state of mind it displays.

I am inclined to think there is something deceptive about this apparent laxity, and that the American compares well in real self-control with the individual of more orderly societies. I feel quite sure from my own observation that Germans, for example, young and old, give way to unruly impulses more readily than Americans; indeed a German scholar, resident in America, has fixed upon self-possession as our most distinctive trait.[1] What we lack is external decorum and the marshalling of individual self-controls into definite and visible forms of service. American life is slipshod rather than anarchic.

Evidently what we need, what the whole world needs, is the growth of a free type of discipline, based on emula-

(145) -tion in service rather than on coercion and mechanism. This, if you can get it, is more truly disciplinary than anything external; it takes hold of the individual by his higher impulses, and leads him to identify his very self with the whole he serves. One great task laid upon us is to justify democracy by proving that it has a constructive and disciplinary energy and is by no means the mere individualism and spiritual disorder that its enemies have charged.

I should say that of two societies suffering equally, one from too little external discipline, and the other from too much, the former was in a more hopeful condition. It is, other things equal, more adaptable, in an earlier and more plastic stage of development. If the people are not lacking in constructive power you may expect them to develop as much discipline as they need. But a well-developed formalism, on the other hand, is a mature, rigid thing, not likely to transform itself into freedom by a gradual process, capable of reform only through revolution.

A free discipline is based upon a purpose; that is, the individual must have an object which means so much to him that he will control and guide his wayward impulses in its interest. Of the power of patriotism to do this, in times of national stress and awakening, we have seen memorable examples. It would be superficial, however, to imagine that it can be secured by compulsory military training in times when the people are not convinced of the imminence of military danger. The disciplinary value of such training in Europe has been due to the fact that the people, on the whole, have believed in it, regarding it as the instrument of patriotic defense against

(146) the attack which they were taught to look upon as always impending. I should say that only in so far as our future situation is similar, can military preparation play a vital part in it. If the world becomes peaceful, then peaceful service must be the motive of discipline, though it may well include a training capable of being turned to military use.

We get discipline from the activities that take hold of us because they are real and functional. There is much of it in school, if the teaching and atmosphere are such that the scholars put themselves into the work. The home life also supplies it, in so far as it awakens a similar spirit; and one underlying reason for the partial decay of discipline among us is the fact that the family has so largely ceased to have active and definite functions, requiring the co-operation of all the members, and so impressing upon them a spirit of loyalty and service. It is for this reason that we so commonly see a better discipline in the hard-working families of the farming and laboring classes than among people whose life is less strenuous.

There is no more effective means of discipline, in its province, than organized play, mainly because it is voluntary and joyous, so that the individual is eager to put himself into it, while at the same time it requires perseverance and team-work. The chief objection to it, as we have it in America, is the spectacular character it often has, the multitude looking on with a vicarious and sterile excitement at the performance of the few who alone get the discipline., which is itself impaired by the excessive publicity.

Women most commonly get their serious discipline from the care of the household and children, and we see 

( 147) girls who have grown up frivolously in well-to-do families transformed by the responsibilities that follow marriage. For young men bread-winning work is a great disciplinary agent. The struggle to "make good" in trade, business, or profession, and establish one's right to the respect of his fellows and to a home and family of his own, provides an object, commonly somewhat difficult to attain, for the sake of which one must learn steadfastness and self-control This economic discipline is, on the whole, an admirable thing in its way, and might be greatly extended and improved by a more regular and adequate training, in the schools and after, and by the development of occupational groups. At the best, however, a discipline based merely on the purpose to make an income and position must be of a somewhat narrow character, not necessarily leading up to any compelling sense of loyalty to the community, the state, or mankind. The problem of discipline and the problem of ideals are much the same. If we can awaken in ourselves a social and socially religious spirit and ideal, our discipline will come by the endeavor to give this spirit and ideal expression.

Our great lack, as regards higher discipline, has been that we have had no habitual and moving vision of our State. There has been a great deal of a vague kind of patriotism, but it has generally lacked specific ideal, purpose, and form. The ingrained habit of regarding government as a minor part of life, a necessary evil, and the. pursuit of second-rate men, has diverted the spiritual energies of our people from public channels, not only impairing our national life and discrediting democracy, but leaving the individual without that sense of public

(148) function which his own character requires. The religious ardor which men willingly give to their country when they feel their identity with it is the noblest basis for discipline, and it remains for us to find a means of arousing this other than the gross and obsolescent one of threatened war. We need, along with the growth of freedom and enlightenment, a growing vision of the nation as the incarnation of our ideal, as an upbuilder of great enterprises, as a friend and benefactor of other nations, and as an honorable contestant in an international struggle for leadership in industry, science, art, and every sort of higher service. This might, perhaps, be made the motive for some sort of universal service and training in connection with the schools, which should be as peaceful in spirit as the times permit, though capable of taking a warlike direction if necessary. What a state like Germany has done by the aid of militarism and bureaucracy, yet with a large measure of success, we ought to do in our own way, and do much better.

Our discipline needs to be as diverse as our society. A well-organized plan of life should embrace a system of disciplinary groups corresponding to the chief aspects of human endeavor, each one surrounding the individual with an atmosphere of emulation and with ideals of a particular sort. Democracy should not mean uniformity, but the fullest measure of differentiation, a development everywhere of special spirits-in communities, in occupations, in culture groups, in distinctive personalities.

The ideal discipline for democracy, I think, is one that trusts unreservedly to the democratic principle. It should begin in the family by making the life as intimate and co-operative as possible, so that the children may get the

( 149) group feeling and become accustomed to act in view of group purposes and ideals. Their training should come through service, self-respect, and example, with as little coercion as possible. In the schools, of all grades, control through self-government and public opinion will probably more and more take the place of mechanism and punishment, and the same plan will be applied to corrective institutions. In the field of play spontaneous groups under wholesome influences-boys' and girls' clubs, Boy Scouts, and the like-are capable of an extension which shall bring the whole youth of the land under the sway of their admirable discipline. And so in colleges; it seems to me that we can better get what we want, in the way of health, bearing, self-control, and capacity to meet military and other requirements, if we work mainly through influence, example, and voluntary forms of organization. Except in times of urgent crisis the sentiment of students will resent compulsion and render it more or less ineffective.

It is the same in public life, in economic relations, and in every kind of organization. We shall, in general, get a better discipline by trusting democracy more rather than less, provided this trust is not merely passive but includes a vigorous use of educative methods. Even now, if the test of discipline is self-control, and the power to function responsibly in behalf of any purpose the group may adopt, I question whether we have not shown ourselves as well disciplined as any people. In so far as we have honestly and thoroughly applied the democratic idea it has not failed us.


  1. Kuno Francke in the Atlantic Monthly, November, 1914.

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