Tuesday, 5 October, 2010
Quadrant Online

October 2010

Volume LIV Number 10

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Self-Control, the Neglected Key to Learning

Judy Stove

 From the 1990s through the early part of this decade, a momentum began in Australian public life, as in other English-speaking nations, for the reintroduction of some kind of values education in schools. This was probably in reaction to the trends which had been evident for three decades previously: that young people seemed to be increasingly self-indulgent, individualistic, uninvolved in their community, and given to crime and addiction.

There may have been a sense that in moving away from the firm moral framework of the mid-century, schools and teachers had been complicit in the process. It is also likely that with schools in all Western countries now teaching students from a wide range of cultures, it was thought important for a cohesive values framework to be taught.

Unease with the status quo was shared, it should be noted, by critics from both broad Right and broad Left. The former claimed that the changes of the 1960s and 1970s had wrought the damage; the latter blamed the consumerism of the 1980s and 1990s.

Almost certainly, there was in Australia also political motivation, in an attempt to stem the drift from public schooling towards private, usually religious schools. (The drift was strongest in outer areas of capital cities, which represented marginal seats and consequently valuable votes.) From 1964 to 2004, in one Australian state (Victoria), government school enrolments declined by over 12 per cent, while independent-school enrolments grew by nearly 8 per cent. Australia-wide, the growth in independent-school enrolments between 1996 and 2005 was about 4 per cent.

"It seems to me that the idea is that the reason parents opt for Private or Catholic schools is because Public Schools do not teach values," wrote Jolanda Challita to a Sydney Morning Herald comments page in 2004. This was borne out by a study prepared for the Herald and its Melbourne counterpart the Age by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) in that year, which identified, inter alia, moral and religious values as a commonly reported factor in the decision to switch from government to private schooling.

The parents fleeing public schools clearly had not taken on board the fact that public schools also were supposed to be teaching values. In 1999, Commonwealth and state governments issued a joint declaration (the "Adelaide Declaration") outlining national goals for school education. Several parts of the national goals relate to a student's moral development. "When students leave school they should [inter alia]:"

1.2 have qualities of self-confidence, optimism, high self-esteem, and a commitment to personal excellence as a basis for their potential life roles as family, community and workforce members; [and]

1.3 have the capacity to exercise judgment and responsibility in matters of morality, ethics and social justice, and the capacity to make sense of their world, to think about how things got to be the way they are, to make rational and informed decisions about their own lives and to accept responsibility for their own actions ...

On the basis of these goals, work began in about 2002 on the creation of a "values framework" for Australian schools. (The National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools, as it has become, can be viewed at: http://www.curriculum.edu.au/verve/_resources/Framework_PDF_version_for_the_web.pdf.)

This work acknowledged that "education is as much about building character as it is about equipping students with specific skills". But what were these values - on the importance of teaching which everyone was agreed - to be?

Some studies are instructive here. US studies during the 1990s indicated that over 90 per cent of people surveyed thought that honesty, respect for others, democracy, and respect for people of different races and backgrounds should be taught at school. A Scottish study, published in 1995, set out to discover what values were actually being taught in primary schools. When surveyed, teachers identified as values which they tried to foster:


• truthfulness, honesty and respect

• fairness

• sharing with others and being kind

• tolerance

• self-discipline and self-control

• self-esteem.

Interestingly, however, in the summary of findings, self-discipline/self-control does not appear among the seven values identified most often as being stressed within the schools.

Much more recently, a survey commissioned by the Australian Parents Council in 2007, as part of the Australian government's values education program, looked at the values identified by parents of students at non-government schools (Values and Other Issues in the Education of Young Australians, published in September 2008).

In a focus group, the parents identified as values they wished to see their children taught:


• respect for self and others

• honesty/integrity/decency

• compassion

• love for one another

• sense of justice/equality

• acceptance of others/understanding

• self-reliance/resilience/persistence

• responsibility/independence

• service to others/sense of duty.


Parents were then shown the actual list of nine government-endorsed values, which is as follows:


• 1. Care and compassion

• 2. Doing your best

• 3. Fair go

• 4. Freedom

• 5. Honesty and trustworthiness

• 6. Integrity

• 7. Respect

• 8. Responsibility

• 9. Understanding, tolerance and inclusion.


Noting some overlaps, the parents also noted some differences. (Perhaps their "service to others/sense of duty" was too old-fashioned to be federally endorsed.) The parents noted that something seemed to be lacking from the Commonwealth list; they eventually identified it as "love for one another" and its resulting obligations.

Parents saw Australian society as displaying too much materialism and selfishness. Perhaps inconsistently, they deplored both "the treatment of minorities, particularly Middle Eastern minorities and Muslims" and "restraints on people's freedom to speak out on issues such as euthanasia or multiculturalism or on other matters that seem to require 'political correctness'".

Most importantly for self-control, they objected that "in today's Australia there is too much emphasis on rights and not enough on responsibilities". This is certainly borne out when we look at the detail of the officially promoted value of responsibility (Value 8):

Responsibility: Be accountable for one's own actions, resolve differences in constructive, non-violent and peaceful ways, contribute to society and to civic life, take care of the environment.


Under "Integrity" (Value 6), we find the explanation:

Integrity: Act in accordance with principles of moral and ethical conduct, ensure consistency between words and deeds.


But what are these principles of moral and ethical conduct? The framework is silent, except, presumably, by implying that these are covered by the other values listed.

The introduction of the values framework has, of course, generated large amounts of paperwork and bureaucracy: there are cheesy acronyms, "Key Elements" as well as "Guiding Principles", lots of training to be done, and consultants keen to be the ones to do it. Groups of schools in all states have received funding to introduce projects which implement the framework.

The vague nature of the Nine Values has allowed a wide range of interpretations, with at least one school (Mooroolbark Heights Secondary in Victoria) including "self-discipline" as a goal under the "Responsibility" umbrella. Clearly, however, the teachers, students and principals involved in the pilot projects have found implementing the framework to be challenging, in some cases exciting, often confusing, but generally worthwhile.

But how do they measure the success of the program? The Scottish researchers in 1995 noted, with some disdain, that teachers judged the success or otherwise of their efforts to inculcate values by the behaviour of their students: that is, by an openly behaviourist criterion. Yet clearly there is a practical reason for this: behaviour is the only visible manifestation of values, and it is difficult enough to influence without delving into motivation as well. (Teachers are mindful of not setting themselves up for failure by starting with overly ambitious goals for their values teaching: Key Messages from Canterbury Cluster, Queensland.)

This is the case not only in young children; it is the one we trust most in adults: "actions speak louder than words". If you pay your taxes and don't break the law, the state is not interested in whether your motivation consists of a desire to stay out of court, a deep commitment to the public good, or an expectation of heavenly reward.

This is the practical truth underlying that cliche of the sociologists, from Emile Durkheim onwards, that education is merely that indoctrination which results in the kind of behaviour which suits the ruling powers. As Durkheim wrote in 1911:

Education is the influence ... [whose] object is to arouse and develop in the child a certain number of physical, intellectual and moral states which are demanded of him by both the political society as a whole and the special milieu for which he is specifically destined.


But we wouldn't want the state to be evaluating our motivations. Morally, we would not want a teacher to assess a student on his or her values, independently of his or her behaviour. The Scottish team noted that their government's guidelines prevented teachers from assessing "pupils' personal stance on various issues". We would see this as unwarranted interference with the child's freedom of belief, as we would deplore the state's intrusion into our reasons for doing right. (But if someone does wrong, we are quite happy for the state to inquire into his motivation.)

Yet perhaps even satisfying the behaviour criterion is beyond the capability of values education. In the period 1928-30, the researchers Hartshorne and May concluded that the values and religious education of the time had no influence on moral conduct. In the 1960s, Kohlberg found the same. This is indeed Plato's problem in the Meno and Republic: can virtue be taught, in view of the discouraging evidence all around?

To step back from the behaviour criterion for the moment, consider the views of parents. Parents are not like teachers or the state. While their primary concern is for their child to behave in a right way, they would ideally also like their child to behave well for the right reasons.

Before we consider what the right reasons might be, let's think about the reasons which one might, as a parent, find disappointing as a child's motivation (these are relevant to younger children as well as to the older child or adolescent):

(A) The desire to get good marks at school or "do well" in life ("Doing the right thing is more important than being successful.")

(B) The desire to please the parent ("But you should want it for you!")

(C) The desire to be well liked ("But sometimes doing the right thing won’t make you popular.")

Kohlberg famously described what he believed were the stages of a child's moral development, some of which broadly corresponded to (A), (B) and (C) above. His view was that acquisition and internalisation of moral attitudes was, like other kinds of learning, cognitive and cumulative.

Ultimately, the parent wants the child to have a commitment to the right action as being the proper thing to do, right for its own sake. I believe this is what various modern theorists mean by "moral self-identity". From a pragmatic perspective, too, a student who has an internal commitment to doing right is more likely to do right consistently - that is, regularly and reliably to satisfy the behaviour criterion - than one who just "goes through the motions".

This brings us to what the ancients believed were the right habits or attributes, in summary form: the virtues. These are, presumably, lurking in an undeclared manner behind the "moral and ethical principles" of Value 6, so let's make them explicit.

Justice: the virtue which "gives each person what is owed to him" (Cicero, following Plato in Republic I, iustitia suum cuique distribuit: De Legibus 1.15). This is clearly embodied, to some extent, in Value 3, "Fair go".

Courage: this is partly embodied in Values 5 ("Honesty and Trustworthiness") and 6 ("Integrity"), but not closely. It sometimes takes courage to be honest. In fact, it is perhaps only where courage is required - that is, in the face of the temptation to be dishonest - that honesty, trustworthiness and integrity are key values. In other words, it is courage that underlies the value of these.

Temperance or Self-control: as we have seen, some schools have interpreted Value 8 "Responsibility" to include self-control. But it is nowhere else to be found, except perhaps implied in Value 6.

Wisdom: this is nowhere reflected in the Values list. The Scottish researchers noted more than once with surprise that no schools they surveyed placed an explicit value upon learning for its own sake. Nothing even approaching wisdom, such as "good judgment", is even proposed.

The Christian virtues of "Faith, hope and charity" are more clearly visible in Value 1 "Care and compassion" and Value 9 "Tolerance, Understanding and Inclusion".

Let us suppose that the classical virtues are implied in the "moral and ethical conduct" of Value 6. Then, a person of integrity will be one who manifests justice, courage, temperance and wisdom. This would certainly fit with the core meaning of "integrity", which is of course "wholeness": such a person would be integer vitae, whole of life. Let us take this wider view of the value.

Wholeness of person, though, is not something that can be achieved all at once. Even if we do not accept that Kohlberg's research was extensive enough to justify his method of universalising his schema of moral development (he drafted the theory on the basis of interviews with seventy-two Chicago boys), and even if he probably conflated widely differing responses to fit his stage groupings, it seems likely that children do progress through a series of moral attitudes to arrive at mature moral judgment. On this basis, then, moral growth is a matter of slow progression, in parallel with, and related to, cognitive growth.

Just as self-control, then, is important from the earliest kindergarten classroom in order to allow learning to take placei - ontrolling one's desire to speak, to play, to be silly, for longer and longer periods of timei - so it continues to be a prerequisite for subsequent learning and all other achievements. Perhaps the reason this is overlooked is that it is so obvious, particularly to teachers. Yet this most humble of the virtues is the one which makes the others possible.

Ours is the only period of Western history in which it is, perhaps, considered naive to praise self-control. It goes against everything in our culture. Freud's characterisation of self-control as "repression" effectively shifted it from the "solution" basket to the "problem" one. Sociology, with its emphasis on power relations, has also had a considerable impact on education theory.

Among other outcomes, this means that teachers who are trying to encourage self-control among their students, of all social backgrounds, find themselves undermined by colleagues preoccupied with "disadvantage" as the problem underlying all misbehaviour. The New South Wales Teachers' Federation Principles have, as the second principle out of three, "The recognition and addressing of disadvantage." This political stance lends some weight to the public perceptions outlined in the introduction to this paper, that public schools have been traditionally less concerned with values than have private schools.

In a manner impossible today, Kohlberg pointed out in 1966 that some of the problem was to do with class and IQ. "This task pointed up the fact that some of the difficulties in moral development of lower-class children are largely cognitive in nature." Nowadays, "disadvantage" explains everything; income and power, not moral behaviour and intelligence, are the significant factors in student achievement.

Yet self-control empowers its users, including those who are less powerful in society. In having forgotten this, we have abandoned a critical tool for life, as well as a long heritage of ethical thought. In about 1730, Benjamin Franklin conceived of an ambitious plan: "of arriving at moral Perfection". (This proved harder than he had expected.) For daily reference, writing in about 1784, he summarised the virtues of various writers into a list of thirteen, of which Temperance was the first (then Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity and Humility):

My Intention being to acquire the Habitude of all these Virtues, I judg'd it would be well not to distract my Attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and when I should be Master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on till I should have gone thro' the thirteen. And as the previous Acquisition of some might facilitate the Acquisition of certain others, I arrang'd them with that View as they stand above. Temperance first, as it tends to procure that Coolness & Clearness of Head, which is so necessary where constant Vigilance was to be kept up, and Guard maintained, against the unremitting Attraction of ancient Habits, and the Force of perpetual Temptations.

Here we see that Franklin employed a progressive method, and that his key enabling virtue was temperance, or self-control (he noted that some authorities confined the concept to eating and drinking, while others extended it to cover every pleasure or passion). On Franklin's view, once regularly employed, self-control empowers a person to make decisions (Resolution), get things done (Industry), and do right (Justice). In some ways, a progressive list such as Franklin's is more useful than the Nine Values list, which - though presumably paying lip-service to a Kohlbergian "stage" concept - explicitly treats all values as non-sequential, presumably to be manifested simultaneously.

If we are to treat the acquisition of self-control as temporally and causally prior to other achievements, in the school context, self-control allows learning to take place in the first place; allows a student to listen to others and work with them; exercise Value 9 ("Tolerance, Understanding and Inclusion"); and "do his best" (Value 2). It supports, as we have seen, Values 6 and 8.

Beyond school, the prior acquisition of self-control means that a student is less likely to engage in harmful behaviours such as smoking, drinking, trying drugs, or experimenting with sex. If a student fails by adolescence to develop a practical level of self-control, he or she is more likely to get involved in crime. If you think that this is just a conservative's perspective, let's hear it in sociologist-speak:

A meta-analysis of ten years of research (Pratt and Cullen, 2000) as well as numerous subsequent studies (e.g., Baron 2003; Finkel and Campbell, 2001; Hay 2001; Vazsonyi and Crosswhite 2004) show that low self-control is a persistent, though modest, predictor of many kinds of rules violations and that it helps account for many other well established associations between various variables and criminal or deviant behavior.
(Welch, Tittle and Grasmick, "Christian Religiosity, Self-Control and Social Conformity", Social Forces, March 2006)

It is worth noting that Durkheim, writing in an age which was still aware of the classical virtues, also emphasised it at an individual level, despite his preoccupation with impersonal forces:

To learn to contain his natural egoism, to subordinate himself to higher ends, to submit his desires to the control of his will, to confine them within proper limits, the child must exercise strong self-control.

The benefits of self-control are not merely negative, in avoiding harm. If a teenager asks what’s in self-control for them as a positive benefit, the answers are clear, requiring only that he or she looks beyond the immediate.

Self-control, as Franklin saw, enables a person to apply themselves either to study or to the requirements of a job, such as getting up in the morning, appearing clean and tidy, attending on time, and working the required number of hours. Study and working mean that he or she gives him or herself a better chance of earning money. And earning money is a path to self-esteem. While it is not often put so clearly, it is implied in the fact that employment is widely identified as the single most important social good which governments can promote. (One of the school clusters implementing a Values pilot program, a group of secondary schools around Bourke in New South Wales, which have a high indigenous population, focused on employment-related projects.)

If it is objected that this role for self-control is too self-seeking, the social benefits of the virtue can hardly be open to the same objection. Society at its most basic requires that people exercise enough self-control to avoid committing crime. Again, this may seem obvious. But in view of the fact that in Australia as a whole, as well as in particular jurisdictions such as New South Wales, the rate of assault has been steeply rising in recent years, perhaps it is not quite obvious enough.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, in the period from 1996 to 2007, the national trend in assaults showed an increase of 55 per cent. Sexual assault increased by 36 per cent, robbery nearly 10 per cent, and kidnapping by 52 per cent. Adjusting for population increase, assault has still shown a dramatic rise. While there has undoubtedly been a widening of the concept of assault, the obvious inference is that people are not learning to control their anger, which is no doubt aggravated in many cases by alcohol or drugs. As a behavioural criterion for our moral education in schools and the home, this is conclusive enough.

The importance of controlling anger has been recognised for a long time. Plutarch wrote that anger was difficult to control once it developed. The answer was to collect, over time, mental resources to help in the event of one's anger occurring. He makes the point that anger can be triggered by trivial causes, but can quickly result in disproportionate effects. He suggests that people should be less willing to take offence at small insults and problems, and to be content with simple and inexpensive material goods (because they will be less upset if these are broken): practical strategies for reducing the scope of anger.

One of the groups of schools (Noarlunga Centre Cluster, South Australia) that implemented a pilot Nine Values program took as one of its starting points a question which embodies much of Plutarch's recommendations, while going well beyond the Nine Values: "How can we build capacity in our students to become more resilient, to be reciprocal and to manage impulsivity?"

The school cluster reports some improvement in behaviour after implementation of the program. (The Noarlunga schools apparently substituted the term "virtue" for "value" in some discussion, although it is not clear whether this was intentional.) The focus of the cluster's evaluation is, again, at the school level.

Yet every single part of Plutarch's counsel goes against the influences our children face each day. Advertising encourages them to want expensive items; government gives handouts of cash and demands that it be spent (to selected recipients - "working families" are ideologically acceptable, but not always the most needy); and the only sphere in which the popular culture promotes self-control is in sport, diet and exercise, where it reaches the scale of an obsession. For a student to develop his or her own "moral self-identity", he or she has to manifest considerable resistance to the status quo.

If this is to change, teachers could do worse than recall the four cardinal virtues which formed the backbone of Western moral thinking for two and a half millennia, and the Christian virtues. It is disappointing that the national values framework has apparently been drafted without any historical perspective. If you conduct a search for the word virtue in the Australian government's Values Education website, you will find only one search result - a school using the trademarked "Virtues Project". (Imagine - the Virtues Project is trademarked. What would Socrates say about this new sophistry?)

Teaching values with some historical background adds richness (and is more likely to support the integrated teaching of values, which is part of the aim of the program). Students from Year 5 onwards are quite capable of exploring the question "What is 'a fair go'? Is this what we mean by justice?" The one group of schools which used philosophy classes to assist with its pilot Values program found that it was not always the students who usually performed best at school who gained most from philosophical discussion, but sometimes those who struggled with the usual curriculum.

They should also be paid the compliment of being taught about courage. Presumably this is part of what underlies the study of Anzac Day, although it is not made explicit: it is no doubt considered to be in poor taste to praise courage.

The one ancient virtue completely lacking from the Nine Values framework, self-control, could be discussed as the key enabling tool for all moral, personal and social development. And no discussion of values is complete without consideration of what might constitute wisdom or the right kind of life. This could go some way to addressing the parent’s desire for the child to make a personal commitment to right values, without amounting to an assessment task which would infringe his or her freedom of belief.

Unfortunately, in a welter of conciliation, specific discussion of why some values are better than others is precisely what the Nine Values framework assiduously avoids. It omits discussion of why the nine were chosen, rather than, say, the values promoted by celebrity gossip and reality television (appearance, exhibitionism, selfishness, greed). This is because to assert any actual values would, apparently, go against Value Nine: "Tolerance". This lowest-common-denominator approach - unless enhanced by schools with more specific values, such as self-discipline - is unlikely to develop anything other than the self-centredness which it was the originally stated aim of values education to combat.


Judy Stove delivered an earlier and shorter version of this paper at Redfield College, Dural, in July 2009. She is a member of the Restraint Project, which is led by Professor James Franklin.