May 28, 2024

Of Youth and Discipline

The NY Times Board wrote today:

The Government Accountability Office exposed a national outrage earlier this month in a report that found thousands of allegations of abuse and neglect at treatment programs that sell military-style discipline as a way to set delinquent youngsters straight — sometimes known as boot camps.

The GAO report, unveiled at congressional hearings chaired by Rep. George Miller, Democrat of California, cited case after case in which employees at these largely unregulated camps endangered the lives of teenagers left in their care.

The report focused on the harrowing deaths of ten teenagers, including 15-year-old Roberto Reyes, whose case has now been referred to the FBI for closer investigation. 

No criminal charges were filed against the program, its owners or any of its staff. The FBI should take this case seriously. Beyond that, federal and state legislators need to bring these often dangerous programs under closer regulatory control.

The GAO’s report is fascinating reading – highly recommended. 

It’s hard to argue with the idea that camps in the business of dealing with and trying to reform teenaged miscreants should employ qualified personnel, follow safety procedures, and be accountable for their results.

Is another government program the way to do that?  Or would transparency into the camps’ operations and outcomes be a more effective way for consumers to make decisions about where to send their delinquents for remediation?

It’s not like any of the kids who end up in these camps do so by accident.  They’re sent there by parents who don’t have the will or ability to or the interest in dealing with their offspring any longer.  It seems to me that these decisions, if they must be made, should be made with full knowledge of where the child is going, with whom, and what the standards of treatment will be.

Boot camps probably aren’t going away any time soon.  Too much demand exists.  Parents don’t want to send their kids there – they must feel that they have to.  Why is that?  Bad, reckless, even criminal, behavior, obviously.

Bernhard Bueb, the former headmaster of Germany’s elite Schloss Salem boarding school, says, “Children and young people have the right to be disciplined.”

True, and parents have the right – and the duty – to discipline their young. 

Boot camps are hardly the ideal expression of this authority.  Rather, they represent the radical end of the family discipline road, a parent’s last gasp chance at redeeming a child whose behavior is leading him or her toward prison or worse.

Why do kids end up in such situations?  The question is particularly vexing in prosperous countries in which even the poor have advantages not available in many parts of the world.

Bueb, who ran Schloss Salem for over 30 years, thinks the reason is a systemic failure caused by the removal of discipline from the lives of most children.

Fox News recently published an interview with Bueb that should be required reading for educators and parents alike:

Father Jonathan: Dr. Bueb, you started as headmaster of the Salem boarding school in 1974. What were things like at the time?

Dr. Bueb: When I started, we were going through an extreme revolution of the youth. Until 1968, young people were quite normal. Everything was about order and discipline, perhaps a bit excessive, I admit. But then, as a reaction, the authority of teachers and parents was abolished. When I started in 1974, the school had no idea of where to go. People were uncertain about what is the right way to educate children. Even the conservatives decided that liberalism was the best way to educate.

Father Jonathan: What do you mean by “liberalism”, in relation to education?

Dr. Bueb: I mean “laissez faire,” don’t interfere, discuss everything with the kids. The big thing back then — and still today — was to be against “anti-authoritarian” education. And I agree that we shouldn’t be authoritarian, but what they meant was that you shouldn’t practice authority as a father, mother or teacher. “Just let them grow,” they would say. These people were pupils of Rousseau … they were followers of the Enlightenment. They insisted young people should use their own brains, but I would say how will young kids find the way to use their brains if they are not taught? These people thought educators should give kids freedom at a very early age.

Father Jonathan: And what exactly did they mean by giving kids “freedom”?

Dr. Bueb: They meant independence. Don’t interfere. Don’t ever compel kids to do anything. Then their good natures will help them find the way.

Father Jonathan: It sounds like you disagree with that philosophy?

Dr. Bueb: Well I saw in my own school, and all over the country, adults just got tired. Kids got used to arguing about everything. They had to discuss why they should have to empty the garbage or help in the kitchen. This is still the problem in Germany. And the result is teachers can’t cope any longer.

Father Jonathan: If the system has not been working, why have they followed it for so long?

Dr. Bueb: They said it was a recall of national-socialism. Authority, obedience must go. But the problem is not authority and discipline. It is when you exercise them without love. Now there is a general movement toward more discipline, more order. 95 percent of people in practical education are in favor of my proposals. I mean, the teachers and the kids have no problem with going back to being more strict. It is the 5 percent of people who only dedicate themselves to academic theory who are against it.

Father Jonathan: In the United States we have similar challenges. In a study released by U.S. News and World Report a few years back, the biggest discipline problems in high schools in 1940, as reported by teachers, were talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, cutting in line, dress-code violations and littering. Just 50 years later, in 1990, teachers listed the biggest discipline problems as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault. How does your educational philosophy relate to what seems to be a moral decay in American society?

Dr. Bueb: You should have the courage to demand discipline of children. You should stand up for your authority, with love, but you should also be more strict. People have said to me, “but this is the same thing that the national-socialists demanded.” But those are just the academic elite who say that, and some older people. But teachers and young people and children agree with me. As long as you educate them with love, then there is no danger of falling back into national-socialism. Very strict education helps people to become democratically-minded. Absolute freedom is not the way. Self-discipline is not learned by too much freedom, too early.

Father Jonathan: When you talk about “strict education” and “discipline” what are you referring to?

Dr. Bueb: The requisite of all culture growth is asceticism … learning to postpone or renounce wishes and desires. You have to learn to work. Kids need to live a rational life, meaning to submit themselves to reason. You shouldn’t barter with your child. To a three or four-year-old boy or girl, you just say, “You have to do this or that.” People say you need to discuss everything with a child as young as possible. I am proposing finding the middle ground, a third way, to be strict with love.

Father Jonathan: How did you do this in your boarding school?

Dr. Bueb: I am for punishment. The kids knew that there were consequences. They would have to spend the weekend at the boarding school, for example, if they misbehaved. They didn’t like that. Or they would have to stay indoors. Or in the case of sports, if they missed a practice, they would have to go jogging on Sunday morning.

Father Jonathan: What about the moral decline in society as a whole? Isn’t the problem bigger than just discipline in schools? Do you have a sense of why we are going in this direction?

Dr. Bueb: When a nation gets too rich, people begin to lose morals. Riches are hard to cope with. My book is now in eight languages. Germany is not the only country with the problem. Taiwan, China, and Korea, for example, are now trying to cope. When you are rich, you are seduced to enjoy life and not to work on yourself as a person. On the other hand, the poorer you are, the harder you must work to get along. Also, I think that families no longer exist in the same way as you had 50 years ago. Divorce, single mothers, we see the very negative effects in education.

Father Jonathan: OK, so what are the solutions?

Dr. Bueb: The best solution would be to renew family life, but I think it is almost impossible to educate adults. I wish we could bring back the family culture from one day to the next, but I don’t think this is possible, so we must find ways for young people to grow up in a well-settled environment. The real enemy of education is television and internet because children just live through the media. I think, instead, we need to help them live their own experiences and live these out with their peers under the leadership of adults who enforce discipline. Especially in poor, urban communities, we should compel children to get involved in extra-curricular activities. Lots of sports, games, music, theater, outdoor events. We need to create community for them, and you can’t have community without discipline. They will then see that happiness is the consequence of hard work, and not just being beautiful, or doing drugs and alcohol.

Father Jonathan: Any final thoughts?

Dr. Bueb: My main message is this: Parents and teachers should be adults again.

Personally I’m not keen on the government making anything compulsory, even something as beneficial as recreation and exercise.

Fundamentally, though, Bueb’s arguments are sound.  Children should be given consistent discipline, love, guidance, and correction from a very early age.  Despite what elitist intellectuals would have us believe, it’s the failure of parents to do these things that leads young people to places like boot camps and jails.

Freedom of thought and expression are wonderful things that can lead young people to reach their potential in ways that structured learning can never match.  Yet without discipline, immature minds with too much time and freedom on their hands too often end up in trouble.

Not everyone agrees, of course. has a summary of Manfred Schneider’s review (no longer available, evidently) of “In Praise of Discipline”, Bueb’s 2006 book.  It said:

Schneider sees this as a stiff, top-down pedagogy of do’s and don’ts, meant to replace independent experience: “Why does the teacher begrudge others this experience? Why shouldn’t youth, too, follow the crooked path strewn with errors and disappointments, instead of stumbling along from one guidepost of discipline and authority to the next? The modern world even broke the authority of organized religion, because modernity wanted to promote experience and experiment over belief.”

The answer to Schneider’s question is this:  Youth, in their earnest, unchecked bumbling down the path of life, commit far too many heinous, barbaric acts against themselves and innocent others for parents and educators to release them on the world without the proper upbringing.

In this regard, as in others, liberal thinking has proven itself a dangerous, destructive failure.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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