Merciful Malcolm

Malcolm Gladwell--author of Blink and The Tipping Point, bestselling books on shelves from Miami to Mombasa--recently pontificated in The New Yorker on school discipline. His piece denounces the "age of zero tolerance" by pointing to, of all people, Robert Oppenheimer. Apparently, in 1925, a youthful and disaffected Oppenheimer nearly poisoned his Cambridge tutor (on purpose). But rather than expel (or jail) Oppenheimer, university officials were lenient. For covering his instructor's apple with noxious chemicals, the future quantum theorist was placed on probation and ordered to see a psychiatrist. Gladwell laments that schools (in his words, once "home to this kind of discretionary justice") have fallen prey to unbending and often unwise disciplinary rubrics. To be sure, zero tolerance policies have their drawbacks, as do mandatory sentencing guidelines for judges. But Gladwell's suggested replacement is almost as bad--it seems to relieve youngsters of any responsibility whatsoever. He writes that "making a fetish of personal accountability conveniently removes the need for institutional accountability." Okay. But sometimes outside circumstances and mitigating factors are simply irrelevant. Oppenheimer or not, fruit defilers should be severely punished. Also, one shouldn't pose such a stark dichotomy between personal and institutional responsibility--it's not an either/or scenario. If we've learned anything from our battles over educational accountability, it's that both are needed to catalyze behavioral change.

"No Mercy," by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, September 4, 2006