Fri | Jun 22, 2018

Peter Espeut | Why is discipline a bad word for some?

Published:Friday | June 23, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Do we need more discipline in Jamaica or less? Or do we need to promote the idea that people should not be constrained by rules and regulations, especially when they are young?

Annie Rose Kitchin, whose letter to The Gleaner, titled 'Hair police stuck in Dark Ages', was published Wednesday, June 21, 2017, seems to be of the latter view. "Why is it considered either necessary or valuable to decree the length at which young people can wear their hair?" she wrote. "Why should young people not be able to wear the styles that are currently fashionable? ... Are the powers that be so afraid of young people, their creativity, their energy and strength, their readiness to go in new and different directions, that they feel obliged to suppress their personalities and turn them all into ciphers?"

In her letter, she refers to the incident at Vauxhall High School, which was not a question of a student wearing a current hairstyle, but the fact that the male student refused to cut his hair to conform with the neatness of the school's dress code, even when he was given the money to do so. I suppose should unkempt hair become a hairstyle, Ms Kitchin would support the whole school not cutting their hair!

But I recall the svelte and attractive Ms Kitchin in the 1970s when she was a teacher at St Hugh's High School: always tastefully dressed, with not a hair or thread out of place. Why would she not want today's students to follow her good example?

Schools are tasked not only with education in subjects like science and mathematics, but also with socialising their students to fit them for the world of work. It is the responsibility of the school to set reasonable rules for dress, deportment, punctuality, social conduct, study habits and work ethics - and to assist students to adhere to them - for when they graduate, they will not succeed in the workplace (or at higher education) without them.




This is what most people refer to as discipline. Discipline guides the behaviour of children, and sets limits to help them learn to take care of themselves, other people, and the world around them. Lack of self-discipline might lead a person who loves food to become obese, or someone who enjoys alcohol to become drunk, or lead to teenage pregnancy.

Discipline is the suppression of base desires and is usually understood to be synonymous with self-control and self-restraint. Discipline is when one uses reason to determine the best course of action regardless of one's desires, which may be the opposite.

And that is what education is all about: the promotion of rational thought, discipline, self-control, and self-restraint.

Annie Rose Kitchin does not seem to have a problem with discipline when it comes to school uniforms: her problem is with rules about hair. A person's haircut and hairstyle, she says, are matters of "personal identity", which is "an issue for parents and their children". By implication, I suppose, the school uniform is not.

When parents decide to send their children to a particular institution, they will be identified with that school because they wear its uniform. Why does Ms Kitchin not argue that the clothes they wear is also a matter of "personal identity"? She is inconsistent here.

In Jamaica, schoolchildren wear uniforms because this creates a level playing field. If children could wear whatever they wanted to school, those whose parents have deep pockets will be very fashionably dressed, and the children of the poor will be at a disadvantage. Besides, many workplaces prescribe uniforms for their staff, and students had better get used to wearing uniforms.

The same thing goes for haircuts and hairstyles. Weaves and wigs, and colouring and styling, can be expensive, and if there were no rules, the poor would be put at a disadvantage.

This business about freedom for children to wear stylish hair and clothes to school is a middle-class and libertarian preoccupation, which will only embarrass poor children, place financial stress on their parents, and make graduates unsuitable for the workplace.

With growing problems of crime, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy, Jamaica right now needs more discipline in the classroom, rather than less.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to