The Role of Respect in Education

December 3, 2018 Updated: December 3, 2018

Respect for others is the key to social harmony and a functioning democracy. It is a check on willfulness and selfishness, as respect recognizes that others have rights and feelings, too, and acknowledges that our own pursuit of happiness does not entail the right to trample on the rights of others.

Respect is a key component of the greatest of all rules for social conduct: the Golden Rule, which enjoins us to do unto others as we would want them to do unto us.

One of the key institutions for infusing respectful behavior has been the public school system. In elementary schools, teachers impose discipline on their pupils. In addition to teaching the traditional three R’s (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, for those of you who haven’t heard this before) teachers have demanded that their charges learn respect—respect for the person in charge, respect for their peers, respect for social order, and respect for knowledge.

In schools, children learned that their own wants and preferences were not supreme. They were taught that the needs and wants of others deserved respect, too. Teachers imparted the vital lesson that human cooperation requires a certain degree of order to avoid the anarchy of everybody doing whatever they want, whenever they feel like it.

Those of us who have been professional educators for a long time have been dismayed to see a decades-long trend of the virtue of respect draining out of many classrooms. Pardon the overused cliche, but back when I was a kid in the ’50s and ’60s, we respected the authority of teachers, whether we liked them or not.

The main reason we did was that if we got into trouble at school and our parents found out, we would be more harshly punished at home than we were at school.

In recent decades, more parents have sided with their children against teachers. I first encountered this phenomenon while substitute teaching in inner-city schools in the early 1970s. There, many of the students openly defied teachers and refused to do assigned work, and they did so with the full knowledge and backing of their parents.

One particular junior high school was so dysfunctional that the windows had been replaced with bricks to avoid yet another smashing, and students tore pages out of textbooks to avoid doing assignments. I asked a friend of mine who taught there full time what he considered a “good day.” He answered, “When nobody gets hurt.”

Respect for teachers, classmates, and the learning process was close to nonexistent. The result was that this school, like many others I taught in, was little more than an expensive, taxpayer-funded babysitting service—a repository to keep kids out of their parents’ hair and off the streets for seven or eight hours a day.

An especially tragic aspect of these broken schools from which respect has vanished is that there are parents who desperately want their children to attend a decent, functioning school where they can receive the education they need to be prepared for the economic opportunities our society offers.

Sadly, the public school establishment—teachers’ unions, well-compensated administrators, and progressive politicians—don’t respect those parents and children enough to legalize the vouchers and freedom of movement that would allow students to have a choice of schools.

Respect for teachers has sunk to abysmal depths in many non-urban schools, too. Rather than back teachers who demand a certain level of conduct, effort, and performance from students, many parents think, “How dare you teachers punish, rebuke, or (heaven forbid!) give a C to my child!”

Rather than push back against this parental pressure to overlook poor conduct and accept mediocrity, many teachers take the line of least resistance and lower their standards. In doing so, they disrespect their pupils and education itself.

Many of us who teach college have had students confront us with indignation that we would dare give one of their papers a grade lower than an A, on the grounds that they’d always gotten A’s before.

They seem unaware that a paper that is poorly reasoned, poorly organized, and riddled with dozens of errors of grammar, punctuation, and syntax cannot be assigned an A if there is to be any integrity to our grades.

The problem of poor writing skills isn’t the fault of the students; rather, the blame rests on pre-college teachers who found it less stressful to award A’s to pupils who punctually completed their assignments and behaved pleasantly in the classroom. In other words, many grades now reflect good citizenship instead of worthy scholarship.

The consequences of not respecting young people enough to tell them honestly about deficiencies in their work are serious. These students march off to college with inflated egos after having grown up receiving participation awards and being told their work was fine when it often wasn’t.

They demand “safe spaces” to insulate themselves from ideas that challenge their facile (and often false) assumptions. They self-righteously demand the banishment of ideas they disagree with instead of learning how to engage in systematic, well-reasoned, respectful dialogues.

Too many college students have insufferable senses of self-righteousness and moral superiority because no teacher respected them enough to point out how much they still had to learn. They think they have all the answers. They act as if they are the first generation of Americans who have yearned to make the world a better place and have embraced false solutions like socialism. (I say that as a former socialist.)

By allowing respect—respect for teachers, authority, order, and our fellow man on the one hand, and for truth, history, and the complexity of knowledge on the other—to drain out of our schools, our society has sown the wind and is now reaping the whirlwind.

Can we recover and reinstate respect to its former status? I don’t know if we can, but for the good of our children and our society, we need to try.

Mark Hendrickson is adjunct professor of economics at Grove City College. He is author of several books including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.”