Moral Autonomy: The Badly-Behaved Student Section

Tim Leet (November 2022)

Our student section at the last basketball game had gotten a little out of hand, so I was asked to supervise the next few games to keep our kids in check. If you’ve ever had that assignment, you know it’s not an easy one. The students have a hard time distinguishing between cheering the home team and heckling the visitors. As the adult supervising this spectacle, you don’t want to throw cold water on their enthusiasm, but you can’t allow that enthusiasm to spill over into mean-spirited taunting either. 

In my last post — Gardeners, not Blacksmiths — I said that healthy moral growth requires we honor our students’ autonomy. This assertion is easily and frequently misunderstood. The heat of a competitive basketball game elicited some pretty unattractive behavior from our students. Must we leave that bad behavior unchallenged in order to honor their moral autonomy? If we equate the word “autonomy” with the word “freedom,” we might believe this is true. But autonomy is not the same thing as freedom. Colloquially, these words are often used interchangeably, but psychologically, autonomy and freedom are quite different. 

Granting freedom is easy: just look away and let the kids be kids. There would probably be some ugly incidents at future games, and our school might get a reputation as an unpleasant place to play. Of course, we’d also be sending a message that we tacitly approve of that behavior or that we wash our hands of responsibility for our students’ conduct at the end of the school day. Neither is a message responsible educators wish to send, and because autonomy is not the same thing as freedom, we don’t have to. 

Almost as easy as granting perfect freedom is eliminating freedom completely. I could write up a list of prohibited behaviors and seat myself in the middle of the student section so as to better enforce them. I could seat troublemakers right next to me or even expel them from the gym. I could stand on the playing floor right in front of the student section and stare at them, grim-faced, while the game raged on behind me. I could do these things and decisively eliminate bad behavior. 

Of course, I would at the same time decisively eliminate good behavior, since it is hard to call behavior good when it’s been coerced from kids under threat of punishment or humiliation. That would be like chaining your dogs to the porch and then praising them for staying there. 

We do not need perfect freedom in order to experience our autonomy. Autonomy is not the absence of limits but the experience of agency over one’s own actions, and this does not require that we make that choice from perfect freedom’s infinite set of possibilities. We simply need to feel, to a satisfying extent, that our behavior is self- authored. Coercion is the antithesis of autonomy. 

Autonomy is one of the nutrients of moral growth. One cannot cultivate the virtue of responsibility, for example, without there existing the real possibility of acting irresponsibly. We cannot commend honest academic work when that work is performed under a zero-tolerance policy for academic dishonesty. There can be no success where failing is impossible. There can be no moral growth where mistakes are forbidden. 

I told the leaders of our student section that I needed their help. I said, “You have more power over your classmates during a basketball game than I do.” I told them that the adults in the school didn’t want to stomp on their fun, but that taunting and ridiculing opposing players was simply not okay. That was about the extent of my lecture. With that little bit, I put a boundary around the problem and the conditions of its possible solutions. Inviting students into the solution-making process is transformative. If you’ve ever done it, you know it’s true. A solution that they’ve devised — even a clumsy, imperfect solution — is one they are infinitely more willing to enforce than one of mine. The secret, of course, is that it is their solution. 

Did we eliminate all bad behavior from that year’s student sections? No, we didn’t. Autonomy is powerful, not magical. We did eliminate the worst, and in general, our gym became a more hospitable place to play. I felt best about the way we involved our student leaders in a high-quality process that championed respect, fairness, and self- control. Look for ways to involve your students in finding solutions to the problems in your school and classrooms. For my money, this is one of the best approaches to moral education and certainly better than a finger-wagging lecture about the importance of respect. 

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