Thursday, November 11, 2004

In defense of stupid rules

For some reason, as a child I was most fascinated with books in which the children went to boarding school (A Little Princess, What Katy Did At School, etc.). Part of it was the thought of going far away to some strange place; part of it was the fairy-tale like preponderance of rules at such institutions; instead of your coach turning into a pumpkin you got a scolding by the headmistress and detention, but the general idea was the same. It all sounded like a challenging and amusing game, whether you went along with the rules or tried to break them.

As it happened, I never got the chance to spend any length of time in any sort of institution. However, most of my compatriots did, whether it was a Christian college, IBLP, mission organization, or whatever. They all came back with the same complaint: The Rules. As a teacher in a Christian high school (whose rules seemed quite lax to me) I got the exact same complaints. It didn't really matter what the specific rules were, or what the institution was, the complaints were the same: meaningless rules, mindless conformity, legalism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy.

For the most part they also seemed to think these problems were unique to their institution, or to their specific time and culture, and that there was some better paradise out there where all the rules made sense and were sensibly enforced.

There isn't. Stupid rules are intrinsically bound up in the nature of institutions. An institution is up against one of the most powerful forces known to man: the madness of crowds. Get a crowd of people together, and they're liable to do something crazy. Get a crowd of young, inexperienced people under the influence of powerful hormones together, and the chance rises to a virtual certainty. Even if a majority of them have the maturity to handle greater freedom, an institution can't deal with people as individuals--it has to deal with them as groups, and thus must write its rules for the lowest common denominator.

There are several reasons that the ensuing rules wind up being arbitrary. One is the need for an appearance of order. It's a basic fact of human psychology that people act more orderly when things look orderly. Crack down on graffitti and you have less theft. So if one has times and seasons, strict dress codes or uniforms, rules about how to move, talk, etc., one constantly reinforces the idea that this is an orderly place. That's why Catholic schools have uniforms: not because there's some Vatican document that says plaid skirts are more acceptable in the sight of God, but because children dressed in uniforms behave better.

Another is the role of practicing obedience. You want people learning how to obey on the stupid rules--the ones where breaking them has no real consequences. Most of the rules we will have for D1 in the next few months will have no particular moral or safety value: Don't bang on the keyboard. Don't crawl on the hard-surfaced floors. But they will teach her to obey us so that when she's big enough to encounter real dangers (don't run in the street), she'll already have learned how to obey. We don't wait until she's big enough to run out in the street and then teach her to obey--if she decides to try disobeying then, it's liable to be too late to correct the problem.

Yet another is the factor that the few stupid people in the crowd tend to ruin things for everyone. I once went on a sledding trip to Mount Rainier, only to discover that the Park Service had banned sledding except in one level, overcrowded run. Why? Two drunk guys had gotten hurt sledding. Snowboarding was still OK, though, as no one had yet sued over it. We were highly annoyed, but you couldn't blame the Park Service for wanting to protect themselves. If you're standing in loco parentis for hundreds of young people, an irreducible minimum of whom are bound and determined to go do something that will hurt themselves, you're going to err on the side of caution.

Then, of course, one comes to the problem of how people apply the rules. There are various types: the ones who treat The Rules as if they came down from Mount Sinai. (Often the ones who wind up breaking even the Mount Sinai rules as soon as they get out.) The ones who give lip service to The Rules and them break them when anyone's back is turned. The administrators who enforce The Rules with a rod of iron yet don't follow them themselves. I'm sure they were there in your institution, because they are present in every institution. Every institution is made up entirely of sinners, and if hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and legalism aren't the three most common human sins, they come awfully close.

Now, as it happens, institutions with their arbitrary rules are particularly prone to fostering that kind of problem. That's because God didn't create people to live in institutions; he created them to live in families. As a family, we can deal with people as individuals. We can gradually give more freedom to one who has earned it while continuing to train another under restraints until he is ready. Love, close quarters, and the rough-and-tumble of everyday living make it more natural--and more important--for us to be real with each other.

I don't think it's particularly good for someone's moral and social development to spend much time in any institutiton. But sometimes one is there for awhile; in that case, stay calm and head home by the stroke of midnight instead of kicking the pumpkin. The Rules won't hurt you if you don't let them. And if you want to improve whatever institution it is you came out of, spend your time and energy critiquing the things that can be changed and that are worth changing.

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