Interview with Dr. Bernhard Bueb: Education and Discipline

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The famed headmaster of Germany’s most elite boarding school has committed a national sin — he is calling for a return to discipline, order, authority and obedience as hallmarks of effective educational institutions.

Dr. Bernhard Bueb’s best-selling book, “Lob der Disziplin” (In Praise of Discipline) is challenging the establishment and jolting national sensibilities.

Spurred on by the 1968 student movement, post-Nazi intellectual elites and educators have spent the last 40 years purging German schools of all remnants of Hitler's heavy-handed national-socialist regime. In particular, they have done away with the principle of authority. But according to Dr. Bernhard Bueb, this well-intentioned campaign has been disastrous for German kids. He believes its proponents have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Today, Dr. Bueb spoke with me by phone before giving his keynote address to the Center for Political Orientation in Rome, Italy. What follows are snippets of our conversation. I think his reflections about the state of education in Germany are applicable to the challenges parents and educators now face in America.

Father Jonathan: Dr. Bueb, you started as headmaster of the Salem boarding school in 1974. What were things like at the time?

Dr. Bueb: When I started, we were going through an extreme revolution of the youth. Until 1968, young people were quite normal. Everything was about order and discipline, perhaps a bit excessive, I admit. But then, as a reaction, the authority of teachers and parents was abolished. When I started in 1974, the school had no idea of where to go. People were uncertain about what is the right way to educate children. Even the conservatives decided that liberalism was the best way to educate.

Father Jonathan: What do you mean by “liberalism”, in relation to education?

Dr. Bueb: I mean “laissez faire," don’t interfere, discuss everything with the kids. The big thing back then — and still today — was to be against “anti-authoritarian” education. And I agree that we shouldn’t be authoritarian, but what they meant was that you shouldn’t practice authority as a father, mother or teacher. “Just let them grow,” they would say. These people were pupils of Rousseau ... they were followers of the Enlightenment. They insisted young people should use their own brains, but I would say how will young kids find the way to use their brains if they are not taught? These people thought educators should give kids freedom at a very early age.

Father Jonathan: And what exactly did they mean by giving kids “freedom”?

Dr. Bueb: They meant independence. Don’t interfere. Don’t ever compel kids to do anything. Then their good natures will help them find the way.

Father Jonathan: It sounds like you disagree with that philosophy?

Dr. Bueb: Well I saw in my own school, and all over the country, adults just got tired. Kids got used to arguing about everything. They had to discuss why they should have to empty the garbage or help in the kitchen. This is still the problem in Germany. And the result is teachers can’t cope any longer.

Father Jonathan: If the system has not been working, why have they followed it for so long?

Dr. Bueb: They said it was a recall of national-socialism. Authority, obedience must go. But the problem is not authority and discipline. It is when you exercise them without love. Now there is a general movement toward more discipline, more order. 95 percent of people in practical education are in favor of my proposals. I mean, the teachers and the kids have no problem with going back to being more strict. It is the 5 percent of people who only dedicate themselves to academic theory who are against it.

Father Jonathan: In the United States we have similar challenges. In a study released by U.S. News and World Report a few years back, the biggest discipline problems in high schools in 1940, as reported by teachers, were talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, cutting in line, dress-code violations and littering. Just 50 years later, in 1990, teachers listed the biggest discipline problems as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault. How does your educational philosophy relate to what seems to be a moral decay in American society?

Dr. Bueb: You should have the courage to demand discipline of children. You should stand up for your authority, with love, but you should also be more strict. People have said to me, "but this is the same thing that the national-socialists demanded." But those are just the academic elite who say that, and some older people. But teachers and young people and children agree with me. As long as you educate them with love, then there is no danger of falling back into national-socialism. Very strict education helps people to become democratically-minded. Absolute freedom is not the way. Self-discipline is not learned by too much freedom, too early.

Father Jonathan: When you talk about “strict education” and “discipline” what are you referring to?

Dr. Bueb: The requisite of all culture growth is asceticism … learning to postpone or renounce wishes and desires. You have to learn to work. Kids need to live a rational life, meaning to submit themselves to reason. You shouldn’t barter with your child. To a three or four-year-old boy or girl, you just say, “You have to do this or that.” People say you need to discuss everything with a child as young as possible. I am proposing finding the middle ground, a third way, to be strict with love.

Father Jonathan: How did you do this in your boarding school?

Dr. Bueb: I am for punishment. The kids knew that there were consequences. They would have to spend the weekend at the boarding school, for example, if they misbehaved. They didn’t like that. Or they would have to stay indoors. Or in the case of sports, if they missed a practice, they would have to go jogging on Sunday morning.

Father Jonathan: What about the moral decline in society as a whole? Isn’t the problem bigger than just discipline in schools? Do you have a sense of why we are going in this direction?

Dr. Bueb: When a nation gets too rich, people begin to lose morals. Riches are hard to cope with. My book is now in eight languages. Germany is not the only country with the problem. Taiwan, China, and Korea, for example, are now trying to cope. When you are rich, you are seduced to enjoy life and not to work on yourself as a person. On the other hand, the poorer you are, the harder you must work to get along. Also, I think that families no longer exist in the same way as you had 50 years ago. Divorce, single mothers, we see the very negative effects in education.

Father Jonathan: OK, so what are the solutions?

Dr. Bueb: The best solution would be to renew family life, but I think it is almost impossible to educate adults. I wish we could bring back the family culture from one day to the next, but I don’t think this is possible, so we must find ways for young people to grow up in a well-settled environment. The real enemy of education is television and internet because children just live through the media. I think, instead, we need to help them live their own experiences and live these out with their peers under the leadership of adults who enforce discipline. Especially in poor, urban communities, we should compel children to get involved in extra-curricular activities. Lots of sports, games, music, theater, outdoor events. We need to create community for them, and you can’t have community without discipline. They will then see that happiness is the consequence of hard work, and not just being beautiful, or doing drugs and alcohol.

Father Jonathan: Any final thoughts?

Dr. Bueb: My main message is this: Parents and teachers should be adults again.

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