Click here for Table of Contents
Click here for home, brianrude.com
Our society is very much aware of IQ. We are aware of the wide range of mental abilities found in any group of people and we are aware of the consequences of this variation. For some reason we are much less aware of some other qualities that may be just as important. Aggressivnesss is one such quality that needs to be made more visible. This is especially true for teachers, for aggressiveness plays a very important part in classroom discipline.
I first began to become aware of the importance of aggressiveness when I started teaching a few years ago. Things do not always go smoothly in a classroom. Teachers and students can get into any number of scraps. As a beginning teacher, I got into more than my share of scraps with my students. A fellow teacher told me I had to bluff. Apparently he could stand up in front of a class and tell them sternly, “The next time I see a paper wad go flying . . .“ and there would be no more paper wads flying. This was a bluff in the sense that he implied a lot more retaliation than he could actually deliver. The technique worked for him, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bluff. I could go through the motions of threatening the class, but that wouldn’t stop the misbehavior. It began to be apparent to me that something was going on that my instructors didn’t tell me about in college.
That something, of course, is aggressiveness.
People vary in aggressiveness, just as they vary in many other traits, and this variation has some important consequences. In order to make aggressiveness, and its consequences, more visible, it is useful to have some method of rating the aggressiveness of different people. I prefer to use a percentile ranking to measure aggressiveness, as opposed to a quotient ranking that is used for intelligence. By this method a person on the tenth percentile of aggressiveness is higher in aggressiveness than ten per cent of the general population, but lower in aggressiveness than the other ninety per cent. A person on the seventieth percentile is higher in aggressiveness than seventy per cent of the general population, but lower than the other thirty per cent. Notice that I said “higher in aggressiveness” rather than “more aggressive.” This is a very important distinction, as I will explain later in this chapter.
I’m sure various types of tests could be devised that would measure aggressiveness with some degree of objectivity. However, it is also quite possible to assign an aggressiveness rating to a person on a purely subjective basis. Just as a teacher soon learns which students are high in intelligence and which are low in intelligence without benefit of a formal IQ test, so is it possible to quickly learn which students are high or low in aggressiveness. To illustrate the varying degrees of aggressiveness found among people, I will present a number of examples. These examples are of people I have known. They are not fictional. Most of them were my students at one time or another. All names have been changed of course.
Patsy was in my junior high math class. She was an average student. In aggressiveness she ranked at about the tenth percentile. She would occasionally voluntarily take part in class discussion, but she was a bit insecure when she did so. She didn’t like being the center of attention. She was not competitive. She liked her own secure little world. When she faced a challenge by a classmate, such as teasing, or a dispute over a pencil, or a misunderstanding about whose turn it was to do something, she tried to hold her own but extricated herself from the conflict as soon as possible, even at the cost of losing face or being taken advantage of. I never really knew her very well. She was usually too shy to ask for help even when she needed it, and she would never even think of causing any trouble.
Charles was one of my students in a high school general music class. I would estimate him to have been on the twenty-fifth percentile in aggressiveness. Like Patsy he was pretty well content in his world, and like Patsy he tried to blend into the background so as not to get involved in things. However, he was a little more capable of defending himself. He wouldn’t give up quite so easily in minor disputes. He was not the type to take any initiative in class discussions, but would respond to my questions without hesitation.
Jim was a seventh grader when I knew him, and he was on about the thirty-fifth percentile in aggressiveness. This means he was not too well equipped to handle himself in competitive social interaction. Unfortunately Jim was different from Patsy or Charles. He was a scrapper. He went around bugging his classmates and was constantly being teased. He reacted almost violently to any offense, and this got him into constant trouble. His antagonists enjoyed “setting him up.” They would involve Jim in some mischief when my back was turned, and would then act innocent when I turned around. Of course I would catch Jim in some sort of misbehavior and would have to punish him. I knew Jim was usually retaliating rather than aggressing, but I still had to punish him. Jim could see through the game, but he was not able to effectively fight it. He couldn’t stay calm and cool, but instead would throw himself wholly into his retaliation. If he were only on a higher level of aggressiveness, he could have competed more skillfully and would likely have been much less scrappy.
Randy was like Jim in being on the thirty-fifth percentile in aggressiveness. He was one grade behind Jim in the same school. Unlike Jim, Randy was well adjusted and self-assured. Where Jim would stoutly defend himself against the least offense, Randy would be more the diplomat. He would not back out of a conflict at the cost of losing face as Patsy would do. He was not strongly aggressive, but he was intelligent and socially skillful, which were good compensations.
Amanda is on the fiftieth percentile in aggressiveness. She was in my high school chorus and was one of our regular piano players. She was not competitive. In fact she would go out of her way to smooth over rumpled feelings. But this was not due to a lack of aggressiveness. Amanda could assert herself. She wouldn’t let anyone run over her as Patsy would. Amanda was one of the dependable members of her class, the kind that would get the junior class play rolling or would run the pep club.
Karl is on the seventieth percentile of aggressiveness. Unfortunately he was rather immature and playful when I knew him, although he was a senior in high school. He was rather well liked by his teachers, but they recognized that he was a bit of a problem. If he got a notion to have a little fun, then the teachers were fair game. He was not greatly inhibited when he wanted to assert himself. He would be a “smart aleck” at times and was not above talking back to the teacher. Yet he would respond to reprimands. He was by no means as coldly calculating as Tom, whom I will describe in a minute.
The eightieth percentile is well represented by Carothers, one of my students in the prison school. Carothers was a very verbal and personable fellow and I liked him a lot. He was not the kind to be subdued by prison life. He apparently looked upon it as just another chapter in his life, offering a few opportunities, although most of them rather dull. I was surprised to learn that his other teachers didn’t care for him. I once asked a colleague what was wrong with Carothers. “What’s wrong with him?” my colleague replied, “living with that girl in California and not being married? You call that all right? He’s got a lot of cheek; he came up to me the other day with some statistics that there’s more unwed mothers in Missouri than in California.” It didn’t take too much to figure out what the situation was. Some of my colleagues had the bad habit of asking about the inmates’ personal lives, only to express disapproval of their answers, Usually this would start out with the simple question, “What are you in jail for, Smith?” and then one thing would lead to another. Most inmates would resent this, but there was little they could do about it. Carothers was aggressive enough that it didn’t bother him much, and he was intelligent enough to find a teacher’s weakness. A disapproval by a teacher was only an invitation to a game for Carothers, and this proved to be an unpleasant game for the offending teacher. Had Carothers been lower in aggressiveness, he would have had to earnestly defend himself. As it was, he could play a skillful game with one hand tied behind his back so to speak, and he generally enjoyed doing so. He could always tell just where the limits were and what he could get away with. In my class he was an ideal student. I never challenged him to competition, and I never asked him what he was in jail for. Instead, I just taught him math and he responded well. His aggressiveness, high as it was, never ruled his life. Rather it was just another one of his resources.
John, a buddy of mine in the army, was very similar to Carothers in his temperament and in being on about the eightieth percentile in aggressiveness. John was one rank above me in the military hierarchy, which isn’t saying much, and had been in the service a year or so longer than I had. He was no more put off by the army than Carothers was put off by prison. This is a little unusual, for most enlisted men have negative feelings toward the military. Like Carothers, John’s high aggressiveness was his servant, not his master. He could get chewed out by a sergeant with little effect. A chewing out that would be devastating to someone like Charles, who was on the twenty-fifth percentile of aggressiveness, was little more than a minor annoyance to John.
Carri was in my geometry class when I was student teaching one summer. She was on about the eightieth percentile in aggressiveness. She could be as tough as nails when something displeased her, and unfortunately I did a few things to displease her. I shared the class with another student teacher and neither one of us really knew what we were supposed to be doing. Our supervisor was of little help. He was often absent, and when he was there he did little more than sit in the back of the room and try to catch me and my colleague in mathematical errors. The situation was ripe for problems. For about the first four weeks of the eight-week session, Carri stayed in the background and caused no problems. For the last half of the session, however, it was a different story. Carri started griping. She griped when I made a mistake in explaining a problem. She griped when I assigned too much homework, or too little. She griped when I scheduled a test for Thursday instead of Friday, or Friday instead of Thursday. There was something in her personality that made her despise weakness, and once she found out that my colleague and I were weak teachers, she showed us no mercy. Carri was somewhat like Jim in being a scrapper, but she was much more discriminating in choosing the object of her wrath and the tactics that she used. Her aggressiveness was not quite her master, but it was not her servant either.
Larry was a salesman when I knew him, and apparently was on about the eighty-fifth percentile in aggressiveness. I was also a salesman for about two weeks before I had enough of it. The company’s method of getting sales leads was to call people at random from the phone book and tell them they had won a prize in the daily drawing, and that a salesman would like to take a few minutes to show his product when he delivered the prize. This gimmick didn’t seem to bother Larry. He thrived on this kind of selling; in fact he was the head of the local sales force for his company. Larry was in no way what might be called a “deep” person. In fact he was a very shallow person. He was intelligent enough, but he didn’t bother himself with things such as moral commitments, or making a better world, or even having his own affairs in order. He was content to drive a big car and to have a fancy office. He made money because it didn’t bother him one bit to go into strange people’s homes and try to hound them into buying an expensive vacuum cleaner. If the customer later complained and wanted his money back that wouldn’t bother Larry either. He would try to argue with the customer, but if he had to take back the vacuum cleaner that was no big deal either.
Tom and Clarence were on the ninetieth percentile in aggressiveness. They were both high school seniors when I knew them, though at different times and in different schools. I don’t imagine Tom is in jail yet, but he’ll probably get there eventually. His aggressiveness was not his servant as it was for John and Carothers. He was resentful of authority, though authority never made much impression on him. He could be bawled out by a teacher and at the same time coolly calculate his next move. Clarence was similar to Tom but was not so calculating; rather he was volatile. He was spoiled, a prima donna. Hence he was often in trouble. One could argue that he was not really that aggressive, but was compensating for real or imagined problems. I don’t think this was the case, though. Jim, who was on the thirty-fifth percentile, was a good example of such compensation. But there was a world of difference between Jim and Clarence. Jim was always on the defensive. Clarence was always on the offensive. Jim would feel a reprimand. Clarence could only be threatened by something more substantial, such as being kicked off the ball team. Mere reprimands, no matter how sharply given from an aggressive teacher, would roll off him like water off a duck’s back.
The purpose of these examples is to make aggressiveness noticeable, to make it visible. As one becomes accustomed to thinking in terms of aggressiveness, it is tempting to immediately tag each person one knows as to his level of aggressiveness. This is no more desirable than it would be to immediately tag every person as to his intelligence. Aggressiveness is not immediately apparent in every situation, nor is it relevant in every situation. I arrived at the levels of aggressiveness of the people I have described by observation and reflection of their behavior over a period of time, not by instant analysis. And at times I have formed an opinion of a person’s aggressiveness only to be taken aback when a new situation showed my assessment to be entirely wrong. Aggressiveness is real and it can be observed, but like intelligence, or any other human characteristic, it is not always what it first appears to be.
The examples I gave do little to explain or analyze aggressiveness. What is it? How does it work? Is it subject to change by learning? Is it a mystical force determined by the stars? Is it a consequence of more common everyday events in our lives?
I cannot answer these questions to any great extent, but I do have some thoughts on the subject.
First I will mention what aggressiveness is not. It is not intelligence. Some of the people I described in the previous paragraphs were good students and some were not. Aggressiveness is not imagination or creativitiy. These traits were shown by some of the people I described and were not shown by others. Aggressiveness is not the same as social skill. Charles, on the twenty-fifth percentile of aggressiveness, Randy on the thirty-fifth percentile, Amanda, on the fifieth percentile, and Carothers, John, and Larry, were all skilled in social interaction. Patsy, Jim, and Tim were clumsy in social interaction. Aggressiveness is not related to athletic ability. A good basketball player might have a high degree of aggressiveness, such as in the case of Clarence, or he might not. I think Randy, on the thirty-fifth percentile of aggressiveness, probably become a good ball player when he entered high school. I think this simply because Randy was skillful in whatever he did. He would no more need aggressiveness to be a good basketball player than a secretary would need aggressiveness to be a good typist.
Aggressiveness is an ability, not a drive. It is not always visible at first, any more than intelligence or musical ability is immediately visible. Aggressiveness is visible in situations in which aggressiveness is used. Primarily this means in a clash of wills. Those who are high in aggressiveness don’t mind a clash of wills. Those who are low in aggressiveness do. People with a high ability to be aggressive do not mind telling their boss what they think; they are not afraid of getting into trouble at school; they don’t hesitate to complain to a store about defective merchandise, or to speak before a group, or to walk into an unfamiliar social situation, or to ask directions from a stranger, or to do a multitude of other things that would, or possibly might, involve a clash of wills. A person who is low in aggressiveness is not as well equipped to do these things as one who is high in aggressiveness, and therefore he will avoid them as much as possible. In some people, such as Jim, Tom, or Clarence, aggressiveness is put to use everyday. In other people, such as Carothers or John, it says in the background. Aggressiveness is a potential, a capability held in reserve until needed.
This perspective of aggressiveness as an ability rather than a drive explains why I use the term “aggressiveness” rather than the terms “aggression” or “aggressive.” Aggression is an act, aggressiveness is the ability that is necessary for that act. When Johnny slugs his neighbor he is being aggressive; he has engaged in an act of aggression. But the act itself does not necessarily say that he is high in aggressiveness. If Johnny casually slugs his neighbor whenever he wants something and doesn’t think much about it, then he is high in aggressiveness. But if Johnny is only retaliating for a long series of provocations, then he is probably low in aggressiveness. Similarly if Judy talks back to her teacher, she is acting aggressively; but this one act alone does not mean she is high in aggressiveness. If Judy acted on the spur of the moment because she didn’t care for something the teacher said, then she is probably very high in aggressiveness. But if she has been upset for a week about a troublesome assignment and finally vents her frustration by a few ill-chosen words, then she is low in aggressiveness. An analogy between aggressiveness and intelligence is applicable here. A person who is low in intelligence may still make a good grade on a test by effort and persistence, but that does not change his intelligence. Similarly a person who is low in aggressiveness can at times act aggressively when he is pushed far enough, but that does not change his aggressiveness.
Aggressiveness works by means of inhibitions, or lack of inhibitions. To illustrate this fact I will present a hypothetical example. Two people, Smith and Jones, buy a piece of defective merchandise and both feel they should return it and get a refund. Smith is of high aggressiveness. He wakes up in the morning and goes to work and all day long doesn’t think about confronting the store manager with his complaint. On his way home from work he stops by the store, presents his case, and gets his money back. Jones, who is of low aggressiveness, cannot handle the problem as easily. He went to sleep the night before with the nagging feeling that he would have trouble returning the merchandise. Five minutes after he wakes up in the morning, the nagging feeling returns. At work, during the day, he spends about half his time deciding on what to say, or how to say it, and on what he will do if the store manager won’t take the merchandise back. He stops by the store on his way home from work, presents his case adequately, in spite of his flustered feeling, and gets his money back. On the surface these two cases appear the same. Both Smith and Jones complained about defective merchandise and got their money back. But the cases are not the same. Jones went through a very unpleasant emotional experience. Smith did not.
Which is more real, the aggressiveness of Smith or the inhibitions felt by Jones? My view of the matter is that aggressiveness is simply the relative lack of inhibitions. Inhibitions against being caught in a clash of wills with others are universal among humans, but in widely varying degrees. Smith, who is of high aggressiveness, would show these inhibitions in some situations; but the minor matter of returning merchandise to a store is not enough of a problem to elicit these inhibitions to any great extent. For Jones the same problem is overwhelming enough to elicit his inhibitions to a considerable extent. His inhibitions make it difficult for him to do what he needs to do.
One day before class I observed a small but aggressive sixth grade boy go up to his classmate, who happened to be several inches taller and many pounds heavier, and say something to him. The smaller boy turned away with a smirk on his face, while tears momentarily came to the larger boy’s eyes. I never knew what the smaller boy had said, but it was obviously a threat of some kind. It was taken very seriously by the larger boy who happened to be very low in aggressiveness. Which is more real, the aggressiveness of the smaller boy or the inhibitions of the larger one? My interpretation is that inhibitions are real; aggressiveness is simply the relative lack of inhibitions. The aggressor probably forgot the incident the moment he turned away, but his victim was probably upset for the rest of the day. This incident stands out in my mind because of the difference in size of the two boys. Had the larger boy been the aggressor, then I might not have even noticed the incident. But the smaller boy was by far the more aggressive of the two. He was high in aggressiveness because he had few inhibitions. I presume his inhibitions could be elicited in some circumstances, such as by getting bawled out by a very aggressive teacher; but I could never get results by bawling him out, and I had more than one occasion to try.
The idea that inhibitions are more real than aggressiveness is analogous to heat being more real than cold. Heat is the motion of the molecules of a substance. Cold is simply the relative lack of this motion. This fact has long been known to science, yet we continue to speak of cold as if it were just as real as heat. In a practical sense it is. Similarly we may continue to speak of aggressiveness as if it were just as real as inhibitions. In a practical sense it is but, on a deeper level of analysis, inhibitions are more real.
If these inhibitions are real, then the next step is to inquire what causes them, or what elicits them, or in what situations do they occur, or if they are spontaneous regardless of circumstances, or what? My interpretation is that these inhibitions are just an extension of the body’s sense of pain. The purpose of pain is to keep us out of dangerous situations. These inhibitions -I will call them “confrontation inhibitions” - have the purpose of keeping us out of dangerous confrontations with others who would do us harm. Our body’s sense of pain is a marvelous thing, but it is not perfect. The body cannot detect the difference between a dentist’s drill, which will repair the body, and stepping on a nail, which will injure the body. Similarly a person’s system of confrontation inhibitions cannot tell the difference between calling the bluff of a bully who will back down and challenging a burglar who will shoot to kill. We use our reason to know that a dentist’s drill is beneficial and that calling an empty bluff is beneficial, but that knowledge alone will not ease the pain.
Confrontation inhibitions are not spontaneous. They are elicited by certain situations, just as pain is elicited by certain situations. The simplest situation that will elicit such inhibitions is simply the physical presence of others. This is usually not a strong enough stimulus to make confrontation inhibitions visible, but there are some cases when it is. A small child who has never left his mother’s side and is then abruptly left with a strange baby-sitter would probably show such inhibitions very plainly. Stage fright and fear of speaking in public are examples of confrontation inhibitions elicited by the presence of others.
A second situation, and a very important one, that will elicit confrontation inhibitions is an aggressive display by another person. This is essentially what a “bawling out” is. Why should a student not want to be sent to the office? What can the principal do to him that he should fear? Of course the principal can apply some material sanction such as spanking or the removal of privileges, as can the teacher, but quite often demanding a misbehaving student to defend his actions is an effective punishment in itself. It is effective because the aggressive display of the principal elicits the inhibitions of the student, causing him to want to avoid any further such confrontations.
A third factor that can elicit confrontation inhibitions is simply knowledge of the aggressiveness and persistence of another. If a student knows by previous experience that a certain teacher is capable of handling himself well in a conflict, then that knowledge alone will elicit confrontation inhibitions in the student. Similarly if a teacher knows that a certain student is high in aggressiveness and will not hesitate to do battle, then that knowledge alone can give the teacher a strong desire to avoid a conflict.
The interplay between aggressive displays, knowledge of the other’s aggressiveness, and confrontation inhibitions results in the phenomenon of aggressiveness. This interpretation of aggressiveness as the relative lack of inhibitions fits well with the idea that aggressiveness is an ability, not a drive. A person who is high in aggressiveness has no more reason to act aggressive than a person who is low in aggressiveness. But when aggression is called for, a person high in aggressiveness can act with much greater immediacy and effectiveness than a person with low aggressiveness, simply because he is not struggling with his own inhibitions. A person of low aggressiveness will eventually act, but only at a certain psychological cost.
If aggressiveness is an ability, not a drive, then what accounts for the “natural cussedness” of mankind? Is there an aggressive drive in addition to the ability of aggressiveness? Some modern thinkers take the pessimistic viewpoint that there is an aggressive drive in humans and therefore conflict is inevitable. I take a much more optimistic viewpoint. I do not believe there is an aggressive drive as such. However I believe there is a drive for self-assertion, a drive that impels a person to strive to gain power and prestige in competition with others. I use the term “ego expansion” to refer to this drive and to the behavior that results from this drive.
The goal of the drive of ego expansion is simply to make an impression on others. This can be done by: bragging, starting fights, forming bonds, building bridges, burning bridges, writing books, collecting antiques, racing cars, making obscene phone calls, putting on airs, collecting status symbols, gaining status in one’s career, gaining military or political rank, telling jokes, and by a multitude of other ways. Keep in mind, of course, that most of these things can be done for reasons other than ego expansion. There are exploratory, manipulative, bonding, sexual, and I think even artistic drives that lead one to do many things for their own sake. For example, a person who races cars may be interested in the prestige it brings him, in which case his purpose is ego expansion, or he may simply have an interest in cars and mechanics, in which case his purpose is not ego expansion. Similarly one may collect antiques purely for interest, or one may collect antiques as status symbols. Only in the latter case is ego expansion the purpose of the activity. Also, one should keep in mind that many activities are done for practical purposes. One goes to work each morning to put food on the table, not to expand one’s ego. Ego expansion is an important drive, but by no means is it the only determinant of human behavior.
Ego expansion is a strong drive, but as I have indicated by my examples, it is not a specific drive. There are many ways in which the drive can be satisfied. The drive expresses the need to be somebody, but it does not say how this need is achieved. Culture tells one how. Among the Jivaros of South America, one gains status by collecting and shrinking the heads of one’s enemies. Among many Jewish people, one gains status by learning and quoting scriptures. Among school children, one gains status by being a good student or a good athlete. Among other peoples, there are yet other ways of expanding one’s ego.
When society approves of the means one uses to expand his ego, then his actions can be called “ego expansion by merit.” Unfortunately culture does not always do a perfect job in telling people how to channel their drives of ego expansion. There is also “ego expansion by aggression,” and this occurs spontaneously in many situations. It accounts for the “natural cussedness” of human nature. When one makes obscene phone calls, picks a fight, makes a pest of himself, or leads a street gang, one is attempting to expand his ego by pure aggression. Again it should be kept in mind that not every act, aggressive or otherwise, is for the purpose of ego expansion. When a professional burglar takes only things of value and carefully conceals his identity, he is working for material gain, not notoriety, and hence is not engaging in ego expansion. But when a burglar can’t help bragging about his exploits in the local bar, then he is engaging in ego expansion. When a student cheats on a test in order to pass a course, then he mainly wants material gain. But if he cheats on a test and dares the teacher to catch and punish him, then he is interested in expanding his ego.
Ego expansion by aggression starts very early in the life of an individual. Two-year-olds will engage in a clash of wills with their parents by obstinate refusal to do as they are told. When a toddler first learns the word “no” he gains a very valuable tool for expanding his ego. After a few more years of learning and growing, a child has ways other than sheer obstinacy to expand his ego. He can gain status by doing things that please his parents, such as learning to tie his shoes or make his bed, and he can gain status by entering the outside world and learning how to act in different situations. In other words, he has ways to expand his ego by merit. However, his opportunities for ego expansion by merit do not mean he will not make any attempts at ego expansion by aggression. Children will tease and fight each other as much as they can get away with in the early years in school. They will test their teachers by misbehaving and gaming. If a child is neglected or spoiled, these aggressive ways of expanding his ego may continue throughout the school years and even throughout life.
I cannot say for sure that ego expansion by merit and ego expansion by aggression are not two separate drives. Perhaps there is an aggressive drive, contrary to what I have been saying, that can only be satisfied by being aggressive. Perhaps there is a drive that impels one person to hurt another. However, I do not believe this to be the case. I believe ego expansion by aggression and ego expansion by merit are directed toward the same end, and that end is simply to make an impression on others. The evidence for this viewpoint is that people can be perfectly happy without engaging in any aggression, even though they might be high in aggressiveness. John, who I described previously as being on the eightieth percentile in aggressiveness, is a perfect example of this. Carothers, also on the eightieth percentile, would be another good example of this except for the fact that he had obviously hurt people; otherwise he would not have landed in jail. Still Carothers showed no evidence of having a drive to be aggressive for its own sake. He told me about stealing cars and TVs, about enjoying surfing in California, and about reform school in Georgia, but he never said or did anything that would lead me to believe that he ever wanted to hurt anyone just for the sake of inflicting pain.
A person can be perfectly happy without being aggressive, and a person can expand his ego without being aggressive; but this fact does not mean that ego expansion by merit is the preferred means of ego expansion. Aggression is a short cut to ego expansion, or at least it is commonly seen that way. Why should one try to gain status by being a good student when it is much simpler to gain status by giving a classmate a bloody nose? Why should one gain status by being a good athlete when it is much easier to gain status by baiting the teacher and turning the class period into a riot? Why should one work hard and earn the money for a fancy car when it is much easier to stick up a gas station? A person may not have an aggressive drive as such, but he may have the very common temptation to use the ability of aggressiveness to his own ends. Teachers will always have to deal with a certain amount of aggression and aggressiveness in any classroom situation. They should no more expect a student not to use his aggressiveness to his own ends than they should expect him not to use his intelligence or physical abilities to his own ends.
I have been talking so far about aggressiveness and ego expansion as if they were innate rather than learned. I believe this to be the case, although few psychologists, especially of the behaviorist school, would agree with me. The evidence that these traits are innate lies in the fact that a person’s temperament doesn’t seem to change too much throughout his life. A person who is shy and unaggressive tends to be the same way as a child, as an adolescent, and as an adult. A person who doesn’t mind getting bawled out in the second grade doesn’t mind getting bawled out in the army. Larry, the salesman I described, probably could knock on doors as easily when he was in the first grade as he can now as a salesman.
If aggressiveness and ego expansion were learned, rather than innate, then we would expect them to be more amenable to change. The phenomenon of assertiveness training, which has come into prominence in recent years, might indicate that aggressiveness can be learned, at least if such training is indeed successful. However, I suspect that such training is directed mainly toward learning to use the aggressiveness that one has, rather than actually increasing aggressiveness. Just as a poor student may need extra help in learning a subject, so may a person of low aggressiveness need help in learning how to handle himself in situations that involve a clash of wills. But I don’t think such help can raise one’s innate aggressiveness any more than it can raise one’s innate intelligence.
I have wondered for some time now whether there is a sex difference in aggressiveness. Are men more naturally aggressive than women; or is this belief just a figment of the male imagination? Men go to jail in much greater numbers than women, and boys cause more discipline problems in school than do girls. Do these facts mean anything? Although I can’t give a final answer to this, my hypothesis is that there is little difference in aggressiveness between the two sexes, but that there is a difference in the drive of ego expansion. Men channel their aggressiveness toward ego expansion much more than do women. Women channel their aggressiveness toward defense of home and family much more than do men. Women certainly have a drive of ego expansion, but it doesn’t seem to be as strong as it is in men. Women are able to enjoy competition, but, unlike men, are not driven by it. Men are able to enjoy home and family but, unlike women, do not make it the center of their lives. But there is no doubt in my mind that aggressiveness as an ability is very much present in women. I would no more want to get into a clash of wills with a girl in my class than I would with a boy. In my experience girls are easier to teach than boys, but if they don’t like something I do, they can cause just as much trouble as boys.
Aggressiveness and ego expansion are things that a teacher must deal with every day. Whether they are minor annoyances or major problems depends upon a number of factors, the most important ones being the level of aggressiveness of the teacher, the help given to the teacher by the administration, and the cultural values of the students.
A teacher who is low in aggressiveness has to deal with inhibitions. When a misbehaving student challenges a teacher, he elicits confrontation inhibitions in the teacher to some degree. In highly aggressive teachers such inhibitions may be unnoticeable. In fact, a little conflict with a sassy student may be a welcome change of pace to such a teacher. Teachers of medium aggressiveness find discipline problems unpleasant, but something that can be dealt with as part of the job. Teachers of low aggressiveness feel their inhibitions strongly. They find it very hard to do what must be done. They pull their punches. Such a teacher will not correct misbehavior as quickly as he should. When he does punish, he cannot act swiftly and surely. Instead of delivering an aggressive bawling out when needed, he gives a half-hearted lecture. Instead of removing a privilege and ending the problem, he will first threaten, and then he will let himself be drawn into a debate. As a result of all this he may not squelch misbehavior at all, but only elicit more misbehavior.
At one time, one of my colleagues was a pleasant old lady who was in her last year of teaching before retiring. Mrs. V. had the respect of the community and her colleagues, but I think this was primarily due to her age and personality, not to her effectiveness as a teacher. One day I was walking down the hall and passed her class. Tom, whom I have previously described as being on the ninetieth percentile in aggressiveness, was sitting near the door in her class and called out “Hi, Rude!” as I passed by. This was a flagrant discourtesy to Mrs. V., who was speaking to the class at the time. Incredibly, she ignored Tom. She didn’t want to get into a clash of wills with Tom and by ignoring his behavior she achieved that goal, at least for the moment. Previous to this incident, I had gotten the impression that she did not run a tight class, and unfortunately our administration did not run a tight school. Surely she could not have ignored such things during all her many years of teaching. Perhaps she was only biding her time for a few months until she retired.
When a class learns that a teacher will ignore misbehavior just to avoid a clash of wills, then discipline has degenerated to a very low point. Teachers who know this will usually meet a student’s challenge head-on no matter what the psychological effort involves. However, this strategy is not a final solution. If a great deal of psychological effort must be put forth every day, then the teacher is in a bad situation, for he can’t continue indefinitely. A teacher who must “psyche himself up” to face his class each day is an overachiever, just as a student who pushes himself beyond his academic abilities by sheer determination and persistence is an overachiever. Overachievement may last for a while, even for weeks and months on end, but it cannot last forever. Heroic efforts are constructive when they get one over a temporary hurdle, but heroic efforts on a day-today basis can only lead to trouble.
I have made teaching sound very unattractive for a person of low aggressiveness, as is often the case. The first and most obvious way to deal with this problem is simply not to teach. This may sound defeatist, but it is not totally unrealistic. I have known more than one person who graduated with a teaching degree, but would not take a teaching job - they had had enough in their student teaching. And the drop out rate of teachers in their first few years of teaching remains chronically high.
But many teachers of low aggressiveness continue to teach and many become very successful. They find ways to compensate for their low aggressiveness. They learn to act aggressively, even though it doesn’t come naturally to them, and even more importantly, they develop skill in using their other resources. The authority conferred on the teacher by the school is a resource that will work wonders if only it is skillfully used. Acquiring this skill, however, is not an easy thing to do. Unfortunately it is not taught in education schools, but must be learned on the job.
A person of low aggressiveness who wants to teach might also consider more carefully than others the position he accepts. A teacher of high aggressiveness can go into a poorly run school and succeed. He may be frustrated that the administration is failing to do many things that should be done, but at least he can run his own class as he chooses and he will not be overwhelmed by discipline problems. A teacher of low aggressiveness has got to have the backing of the administration. Unfortunately it is very hard to know ahead of time whether a principal or superintendent will run a school well or poorly. A job interview of an hour’s duration, followed by another hour touring the building, cannot give a teacher the perspective that he will have after he has taught in that school for several months. However, there is one danger signal to watch for in an interview. A superintendent or principal who flatly states, “We don’t have discipline problems,” and then drops the subject, should be avoided at all costs. Such a statement is not realistic; it suggests that he is not aware of what is going on in his own school. Yet I have heard such a statement more than once in job interviews.
It is tempting to say that teachers of low aggressiveness should stay away from schools which have a large proportion of lower-class students on the theory that discipline problems are much less prevalent in middle-class schools. Unfortunately this belief can be a trap. I had much less trouble with discipline when I was teaching in a prison school than when I taught in any public school. This seems a contradiction at first, for all the troublemakers from hundreds of public schools were brought together in my classes in the prison school. But there were more than adequate compensations. We were given the tools we needed to do the job. When a teacher “wrote up” an inmate for misbehavior, that student wouldn’t get a little lecture from the principal, he would get a week in solitary confinement. If there was any reason to believe that an inmate could be dangerous or could cause too much trouble, he would be transferred out of our minimum security institution to another institution that was of either medium or maximum security. Similarly a ghetto school might or might not present more discipline problems than an affluent suburban school. It all depends on what tools a teacher is given to do his job. As an analogy, a person can freeze to death in thirty degree weather if he has no coat; but with proper clothing, he can work quite safely and effectively at thirty degrees below zero. Similarly a teacher can go stark raving mad among nice middle-class children who are well brought up if he has less authority and skills than he needs, or he can do quite well among a pack of thieves and vandals if he has more authority and skill than he needs.