What good is it?
Losing a generation to lack of discipline
“We are looking at a nearly insurmountable scale of loss to children’s schooling.” This remark didn’t come from a conservative, or a Republican. It came from Robert Jenkins, UNICEF’s chief of education. Kids missed out on months of being at school, and learning at home with no personal supervision or interaction harmed them. It continues to harm them, and creates a danger of a whole generation marked by a lack of discipline.
Educational knowledge can be caught up. We can make kids attend longer classes, or attend for longer time, or have them drink from the firehose of the Internet, which can supply all the answers they need. Heck, within six months, nearly all search engines will be AI-LLM (Large Language Model) powered and could not only supply reference materials, it could also write the lessons, textbooks, and tests ad-hoc, tailored for each kid at their particular level of development. (This is a different topic from kids using OpenAI’s ChatGPT to write their homework—which is a real thing.)
I believe technology can catch up our kids and supply a lifelong learning partner that will make “knowledge” easier than anyone who has ever lived on earth. In fact, it will be so easy to have the answer to everything that the definition of “learning” may evolve from integrating concepts and knowledge to parrot out on tests, to the best way to elicit an accurate response from the proper AI, yielding the “correct” answer. But AI’s—even if their worst impulses are healed—cannot supply effective habits to make this generation into good citizens, ready to run their own world.
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One word can describe what’s missing, and it’s “discipline.” Discipline is the development of habits with a purpose. I have a habit of laying out my clothes, setting up the bathroom (towel, facecloth, bath mat) for the next morning, getting the coffee ready to brew, and having the dishwasher complete its cycle in the night. This is to help me get a good start in the morning, and not spend time doing those things when I get up. But if I then use the “extra” time I have created in my morning schedule to mindlessly watch YouTube videos or play online games, what good does it do?
Having “good” habits without a goal, or some articulable purpose that leads to improvement of character, or helping others, doesn’t achieve anything. “Discipline” is the application of purpose to habits that lead to good outcomes, and our youth—never mind adults—are in danger of losing the ability to learn it.
I saw a video someone made on TikTok, posted on Twitter, of some twenty-something questioning why he should have to work: “What if I don’t want to achieve s***t?”
I think anyone who applies a little thought to this concept can find the obvious flaw. All these “universal” things have to be provided by people willing to achieve things for those who don’t want to achieve anything. And, without discipline, nobody wants to achieve anything, so the system this person seeks will fall apart. It’s not like it hasn’t been tested in history. Eventually the “achievers” find their own ends, which leads to subjugation, tyranny, and serfdom for those who don’t achieve. Discipline can be applied to evil ends just as it can be applied to good ends.
But if only those with selfish ambition learn discipline (usually through negative reinforcement, the “school of hard knocks”), then society will suffer. With our technology in what Jonah Goldberg called “the greatest time and greatest place in human history for this guy to be alive,” losing discipline won’t lead to immediate starvation, but it will veer society away from good, toward some very evil ends.
The Bible is big on discipline. God’s discipline, as “our Father,” and a parent’s discipline of a child. Moses reminded the Children of Israel “From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire.” (Deuteronomy 4:36.)
And “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (Deuteronomy 8:5.) Job, who lost everything, told his friends, “Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (Job 5:17.) “We have examined this, and it is true. So hear it and apply it to yourself.” (Job 5:27.)
Proverbs mentions discipline 16 times. “Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.” (Proverbs 15:32.) “Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.” (Proverbs 19:18.) “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” (Proverbs 19:20.) “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away.” (Proverbs 22:15.)
The same root of the word “discipline” yields the noun “disciple.” Jesus left the “Great Commission” for his followers (the “disciples”):
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
How are disciples made? Through teaching discipline. That means building good habits with the purpose of knowing God and His commandments better. It means having those commandments literally taken “to heart,” living in the heart so they are like muscle memory for the mind. A committed runner feels bad going a day without some kind of road work. A weight lifter begins to feel run down if “leg day” is skipped. It takes time and effort to build back up after an injury sidelines an athlete.
I try to write every day. When I don’t write, the urge builds inside me, because it’s become a habit. But if I just stop writing altogether, the habit would fade and the feeling would fade along with it. Discipline must have purpose (I write to improve my mind, and my skills, and to share my thoughts with others). If I just write to put words on a white screen, what good does it do? To me, writing and prayer are closely tied, because I pray over what I write, and frequently pray while I write.
Prayer is a discipline. Displaying kindness, being polite, and doing good deeds for others is a discipline. Saying you want to achieve nothing and have “society” provide guaranteed universal services and income is not discipline. Learning math is discipline. Having an AI do your math is not discipline. Sitting at home, doing online lessons without a purpose does not lead to discipline. Watching “church” online versus being there and worshipping with the congregation does not lead to discipline (there are exceptions like being sick, or a shut-in).
None of us have control over certain things. Will a man keep his hair? How long will our natural lives be? Will a woman have cellulitis? Some things we can control: what’s our risk tolerance? Do we like to take chances or play things safe? Other things are totally up to us: how much effort will be spend on discipline?
Without discipline, we lose control of our attitudes, and our habits become mere things we do to pass time, or further our selfish ambition. Today’s society, the isolation of the pandemic, and the ease of getting what we want, for many people, especially in the relatively rich developed countries like the U.S., has made discipline a bad word. That goes double for Biblical discipline.
I think we all need to take some time to look at Biblical discipline, before we lose it.
Have a great Sunday everyone and enjoy the Super Bowl!
I'm not a parent with kids, so feel free to toss these thought into the bin if that makes more sense...
With that disclaimer made, one thing that I'd also like to see distilled into kids in their education in addition to discipline is a sense that each one of them has the tools and agency to impact the world in a meaningful way (if not right away). In a more specific sense, as someone who primarily exercises my agency in building stuff, I think that too many kids don't think that they have the power to build worthwhile things of their own, so they never try.
It isn't the lack of desire to learn or flex their creative muscles that's holding them back, it's a message from society that individual contributions and actions are insignificant next to all the systemic and institutional power that is in force around them. The systemic lesson isn't a bad one, but probably one that should be taught AFTER a phase where kids can spend some time believing (and FEELING) that their actions and creations matter, instead of being passive players on which society acts. Kids need to understand that they have AGENCY (that's embedded in specific contexts) and it's discipline that hones and sharpens that agency into doing something meaningful.