good-mannersA few months ago I wrote a post for my local historical society’s blog about the Good Manners charts which were once a prominent feature of every Queensland State School classroom. These charts (which were in use from the 1890s to the 1960s) highlight an important function of the school: the training of children in socially desirable manners and morality.

In my research I define discipline as any process employed to shape the present or future behaviour of another person. This is intentionally broad, encompassing not only disciplinary mechanisms which are widely recognised as such (corporal punishment, detentions, or school disciplinary absences), but also the more subtle processes of moulding children into individuals whose behaviour meets social norms. The Good Manners chart is an excellent example of a mechanism which, while not explicitly disciplinary in the traditional sense, serves to discipline the behaviour of children by reinforcing adult expectations.

It is interesting to note the types of behaviours mentioned in the chart. Children are instructed to be polite to elderly or ‘crippled’ people, to avoid cheating at games, and not to bully. They are also told to keep clean and to salute individuals such as ministers or teachers. This wide range of behaviours extends beyond that we might today view as within the range of the school’s disciplinary ambit. Cleanliness is today viewed as the responsibility of the family, as are other behaviours listed such as politeness to parents and siblings.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that we have moved past the point of prescribing correct ways of being through our educational institutions. The means of teaching, and the behaviours taught, have merely evolved. This is, after all, a key purpose of the school – to train the younger generation to take its place in adult society.