JWR Eric BreindelMona CharenLinda Chavez
Jacob SullumJonathan S. TobinThomas Sowell
Robert ScheerDon FederRoger Simon
Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / March 6, 1998 / 8 Adar, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Of fingernails and freedom

A 9-YEAR-OLD girl comes to school with long fingernails painted pink. Yes, it's certainly evidence of a children pushed into adolescence too fast, but that's not the point here.

The teacher clips them short.clippers That evening, the teacher gets a knock on her door. When she opens it, she is served with a warrant for criminal assault and battery.

This is America, where respect for authority has sunk lower than respect for the truth in Washington, D.C.

According to The Washington Post, the Virginia teacher noticed that the child was playing with her long nails and sent a note home asking that they be trimmed. The mother says not only did she trim the nails, but she also polished them.

Apparently believing that the nails were not cut short enough, the teacher took matters into her own hands.

Perhaps she ought not to have done so. She could have called the child's mother and discussed the nail controversy with her. If the teacher wanted to play hardball, she could have insisted that the mother collect the girl and not return her to the classroom until the child's nails were an appropriate length for a 9-year-old.

But even putting all of that aside, the teacher was still acting well within the limits of sanity when she did what she did.

Can we say the same about this mother?

There was a Pennsylvania case a few years ago in which a teacher cut off four inches of a sixth grade girl's hair as punishment and was fired for it. And there have been other, even more extreme examples of teacher malfeasance (such as a widespread failure to teach the subjects they are paid to teach). But by what twisted reasoning does cutting a child's nails constitute assault and battery? A magistrate actually approved this.

Actually, this mother is not at all unusual. Classroom discipline has not eroded over time due to global warming. It was the increasing unwillingness of parents to support and reinforce the discipline of teachers that undermined the teacher's classroom authority. When my parents were young, teachers were crossed only at great risk. Not only did teachers themselves deliver corporal punishment, but parents often punished their children for getting punished at school. By the time I was in school, talking back had become acceptable, though we still lived with a healthy amount of fear.

Today, of course, it is more often teachers who live in fear -- sometimes even terror. It is more common in 1990s America to read of teachers assaulted and even shot than it is to hear of teachers striking students.

One needn't believe in corporal punishment to recognize that for a generation, parents steeped in the excessive individualism of the 1960s have seen it as their duty not to raise polite and respectful children but rather to ensure that their little geniuses' talents be offered full scope to develop. Schools, against their own interest, reinforced this with a syrupy focus on self-esteem.

Individualism is at the heart of the American creed, but individualism unmixed with heavy doses of concern with order and community leads to chaos -- and to nonsense like an assault charge for cutting a child's nails.

So much has been sacrificed at the altar of individualism. Children have been urged to express themselves at the expense of filling their minds with facts. And when they do set about the business of learning, they've had to contend with all manner of distractions as their classmates express their individuality with purple hair, nose rings and tattoos.

But, at last, order is making a comeback. In scores of school districts around the nation, school uniforms have been adopted. The ACLU objects, of course, but even New York City is now considering requiring all students to wear uniforms. In Long Beach, Calif., which instituted school uniforms in 1991, the policy has been associated with a 76 percent drop in school crime, the highest attendance records in 17 years and improved morale among teachers and students alike.

There will always be tension between freedom and order. But when order is sacrificed completely, freedom cannot endure. That's why it's a relief to see the pendulum swingingback.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.