Wednesday, December 09, 2009


Discipline is one of those words that can mean almost anything.

A few years ago, Gregg Easterbrook mentioned that when a football commentator wants to chide a team but doesn't know what else to say, he usually falls back on 'discipline.' If only the team were more disciplined, the theory goes, all would be well. The obvious flaw in that, other than vagueness, is what it takes for granted. Even a well-executed play won't save you if it's the wrong play. (Readers of a certain age may remember the Steve Martin bit about his brief football coaching career: "I liked to punt on first down.")

In higher ed, 'discipline' usually refers to an area of inquiry that has its own internal hierarchy, mechanisms for the production and distribution of prestige, and unwritten rules for what 'counts' and what doesn't. If you find yourself out of sync with what your discipline considers interesting at the time, you will likely suffer career damage. An economist who reads too much sociology, or vice versa, will pay the price. In certain protected settings, it's possible to be 'interdisciplinary,' but usually only if you have some other source of cachet.

Of course, those of us who did our time with Foucault have another set of connotations for 'discipline,' some more applicable than others.

The comments on this piece in IHE got me thinking about the football version of discipline as applied to higher ed. The piece is about a conference of higher ed lobbyists in Florida, at which the message delivered to colleges was "Stop Asking for Money!" (I'd imagine that lobbyists' lives would, indeed, be easier if we did that.) In the comments, several readers go back and forth on who needs more 'discipline,' the public sector or the private.

I'll admit that it's tempting to imagine some of Foucault's 'discipline' applied to lobbyists or investment bankers. But the whole question just strikes me as misplaced.

'Discipline' in the football sense has to do with sticking to a plan. It's sort of like willpower. Its lack is to be explained by moral weakness, or a character flaw. It conveniently locates the source of the problem in someone else -- the one who needs discipline -- and lends itself to the search for a tough-minded Manly Man coach to Make Hard Choices and Cut the Crap.

Which is to say, it misses the point completely.

If the failings of higher education were merely the result of personality flaws, then all we'd have to do is swap out a few bad people for a few good ones and all would be well. In fact, if the 'discipline' theory held any weight at all, we'd expect to see some institutions doing incredibly well on costs and others not.

Nope. Even conceding the usual range of human failings -- no argument there -- the problems are too widespread, uniform, and consistent to be explained with anything as evanescent as willpower. Bad outcomes aren't only caused by bad people. Just because you've been painted into a corner doesn't mean there's an evil painter out there. The problem isn't a lack of willpower in executing a plan. The problem is the plan. The problem is structural.

As long as high schools require less math to graduate than we require to start, we'll have a remediation problem. As long as we denominate learning in 'hours,' we'll have a productivity problem, and therefore a cost problem. This is true regardless of intention, dedication, or 'discipline.' We've avoided the structural issues for decades now, instead either raising costs to stratospheric levels or squeezing labor costs to previously-unimaginable extremes, all the while blaming individuals for lacking discipline.

Enough. That narrative has outlived its usefulness. It has survived because it's easy, and intuitive, and emotionally satisfying. But it's false. We can't win by punting on first down, no matter how good the punter.