Discipline Beyond Obedience

Chil­dren are awe­some. And some­times they are an awe­some chal­lenge. To be hon­est, our two daugh­ters are this every sin­gle day – more than once. Young chil­dren in par­tic­u­lar express their insa­tiable desire for self-deter­mi­na­tion with­out restraint. Espe­cial­ly when we as par­ents, for good rea­sons or because time is press­ing, want to con­trol them and demand obe­di­ence. How­ev­er, they react to our threats and manip­u­la­tion attempts all the more rig­or­ous­ly with refusal, the more force­ful­ly we put these for­ward. This is exhaust­ing, but in essence also very good, because the point is not obe­di­ence and sub­or­di­na­tion, but rather per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and (self-)discipline – nei­ther when it comes to bring­ing up chil­dren nor in oth­er lead­er­ship situations.


Obe­di­ence’ is to mean that the action of the obe­di­ent essen­tial­ly occurs as if he had made the con­tent of the com­mand for its own sake the max­im of his con­duct, and that only for the sake of the for­mal rela­tion­ship of obe­di­ence, with­out regard to his own view of the val­ue or insignif­i­cance of the com­mand as such.

Max Weber

Obe­di­ence has a long tra­di­tion in Ger­many. Lenin is cred­it­ed with say­ing that there would nev­er be a rev­o­lu­tion in Ger­many because the Ger­mans would buy a plat­form tick­et before they stormed the sta­tion. Equal­ly deri­sive, but much more ornate, Hein­rich Mann described his pro­tag­o­nist Diederich Heßling in the nov­el “Der Unter­tan” (lit­er­al­ly “the sub­ject”, trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish under the titles Man of StrawThe Patri­o­teer, and The Loy­al Sub­ject), com­plet­ed in 1914, as an obe­di­ent to author­i­ty, nation­al­ist fol­low­er and con­formist. He crawls to the big­wigs and bul­lies the under­lings and there­by becomes pop­u­lar and successful.

On the birth­day of the pro­fes­sor the catheters and the table were crowned. Diederich even wrapped the cane.

Hein­rich Mann: Der Untertan.

Notwith­stand­ing the small and large excess­es of blind obe­di­ence in our his­to­ry, edu­ca­tion for a long time aimed at obe­di­ence, first to par­ents, then to teach­ers, pas­tors, may­ors and oth­er author­i­ties, and final­ly to the boss. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this atti­tude does not dis­ap­pear. On the con­trary, authors like Bern­hard Bueb and his book “Lob der Diszi­plin” (engl. “Praise of dis­ci­pline”, which should have been called rather “Praise of Obe­di­ence”, but which then for obvi­ous rea­sons prob­a­bly would­n’t have sold so well) give it new heights. And while some, above all the tabloid press, cel­e­brat­ed Bueb as “Ger­many’s strictest teacher”, many rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the edu­ca­tion­al sci­ences crit­i­cized his essay as back­ward-look­ing and unin­hib­it­ed­ly total­i­tar­i­an black pedagogy.


Dis­ci­pline is achieved through self-orga­ni­za­tion and per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, by dis­ci­plin­ing one only gets obedience.

Ger­ald Hüther

The Latin dis­ci­plī­na derives from dis­cip­u­lus, which means ‘pupil’ or ‘appren­tice’, and ini­tial­ly just means ‘school’, ‘teach­ing’ or also ‘sci­ence’. Learn­ing requires dis­ci­pline in the sense of per­se­ver­ance. Only in the course of time has the con­cept of dis­ci­pline acquired the after­taste of obe­di­ence and sub­or­di­na­tion. The brain researcher Ger­ald Hüther there­fore makes a clear ver­bal dis­tinc­tion between dis­ci­plin­ing, which aims at obe­di­ence by avoid­ing neg­a­tive con­se­quences, and gen­uine dis­ci­pline in the sense of self-dis­ci­pline and per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, the ori­gin of which lies in ourselves.

Chil­dren are just like adults on this point: we want to coop­er­ate when­ev­er pos­si­ble, but we don’t like being manip­u­lat­ed to do so.

Jes­per Juul

The task of edu­ca­tion and lead­er­ship in gen­er­al is to elic­it and pro­mote this self-dis­ci­pline. As a father, I can­not and will not always stand beside my chil­dren, wag my fin­ger and pun­ish mis­con­duct, nor can and will I con­trol every move of my peo­ple as a leader. In both sit­u­a­tions I want and have to trust that inde­pen­dent action is tak­en cor­rect­ly in the sense of the whole. And in both sit­u­a­tions it is my respon­si­bil­i­ty to encour­age and empow­er dis­ci­pline with­out instruct­ing or pun­ish­ing.

One-half of life is luck; the oth­er half is dis­ci­pline – and that’s the impor­tant half, for with­out dis­ci­pline you would­n’t know what to do with luck.

Carl Zuck­may­er 

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