'A military ethos will be self-destructive in the end, educationalists should create new ways to offer positive alternatives'

Posted on: 10 Apr 2018
Posted by: Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans, governor at Elmhurst Ballet School, argues against a military ethos in schools and states that externally imposed discipline, with the threat and infliction of punishment behind it, does not correlate to self-discipline.

I have known a great many highly intelligent young people over the years who have joined the CCF. The vast majority have loved it. The opportunities, many of them adventurous and ones it would be difficult to find elsewhere without paying a great deal of money, are hugely attractive to some young people. I have had recounted to me on a number of occasions, speeches delivered by visiting military dignitaries explaining the underlying principles that govern military life, by young people who have been enthused and motivated.

The military recruitment advertising underlines the same themes - wholesome, courageous adventure, team work, loyalty to a worthwhile cause.

I also know men and women who have of their own free choice and as adults, joined the Armed Forces as a career and many of them talk highly of their experiences and are confident, thoughtful people.

So why does the idea of extending military influence in schools, as suggested by the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson and supported by Telegraph journalist Charlie Peters, in order to instill a military discipline seem to me to be an unacceptable way forward for our country?

The basis of a military force is that in some circumstances violence and killing other people is right, indeed it is honourable and can be the greatest action a country or an individual can take. Although it is not spelt out to young people, behind all the glamour of the assault, flying and sailing courses, behind all the talk of peace keeping forces, the reality is that the state accepts violence as a legitimate political solution. I believe to bring about a change for the better in our society and indeed the world, this view has to be challenged and gradually changed not sanctioned, encouraged, sentimentalised and glamorised for easy consumption by highly impressionable young people.

If I had to list what personal characteristics are most likely to ensure a fulfilling life, self-discipline would be very high up there. But like any other single characteristic, on its own, it is not a moral force for good. Someone’s self-discipline can be directed to dangerous or immoral goals. Nevertheless, I want young people to become self-disciplined. I am not convinced that externally imposed discipline, with the threat and infliction of punishment behind it, correlates much to self- discipline. Indeed there is some evidence of the reverse. When military discipline is not longer imposed, groups of soldiers unleashed from it, have been known to committed dreadful atrocities. Children under authoritarian styles of school discipline, will tow the line when the punishment structure and authoritarian teachers are there but when not, they have not necessarily developed the personal value system that allows moral self-discipline to flourish.

There are other ways to encourage self-discipline but they are not quick fixes. Externally imposed discipline, like physical violence, can get speedy wins, hence its attraction to schools buffeted by children’s bad behaviour. But it can also encourage a moral laziness. If children can, from an early age, understand choice and consequence, discussed in a rational and calm way, those choices getting multiplied in number and complexity as they get older, they will grow to understand the nature of personal responsibility, be able to control their own emotions, speak and act calmly when hurt or angry – all signs of self-discipline.

In a society that has quite a sentimental view of childhood, it is easy to forget how dangerous young people are. If you take a historical or contemporary view of large scale violent actions that democracies would abhor, they are almost always carried out by young people. Knife crime, a very current issue, is not being used by the over 40s. That alone should put pressure on educationalists to create new ways to offer positive alternatives not reinforce an ethos that in the end will be self-destructive.

As for team work - there are the many delightful and rigorous opportunities already there in schools to promote team work, empathy for others, leading and listening – the sports teams, the music, the dance, the drama. These have their own adventures, their own need for courage and tough discipline.

If we want to improve the moral health of schools, let’s commit to expanding these life enhancing activities.

About Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans is a governor at Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham.