A lot has been written about reality TV being cheap TV, dumbing down and encouraging unrealistic expectations. Certainly programmes like Big Brother, which allow non-entities to become famous for being non-entities suggests that life is simply a popularity contest. While programmes such as X-factor and pop-idol bring out a multitude of people who have no talent, but have gone through a system which does not allow for the idea of failure (lack of competitive sport, lowering of standards for testing, over-praise without any suggested improvements) and as a consequence these people believe they should get through just because they want it.
However, to dismiss all reality TV on this basis seems to be missing a number of stark, yet simple lessons that can be learned about the idea of discipline, and most importantly self-discipline. Before giving examples I am happy to acknowledge that all the following are put together as entertainment and not social experiments (except where the process exists outside the TV programme) and that like all such programmes suffer to a greater or lesser extent from clever editing to make a point.
Take Brat Camp (which exists outside the programme). The ethos of this institution is the establishment of boundaries and the development of self-discipline. True the environment allows a harsh reality check to be imposed with little opporunity to turn away, but it does take some of the teens a while to give in and some do return to their bad ways after the programme (though the success rate seems pretty high). For me the most important part is when the teens are able to reflect on their actions and the consequences and there seems to be a genuine realisation that the two are connected. From this point onwards they are much better equiped to deal with the tasks they are set and there is a sense of achievement at the end. For all that this is a TV programme, the success of the camp begs the question why can't we set up similar schemes over here.
Or how about "That'll Teach 'Em". Run over 3 series it took children out of the modern educational environment with its liberal, childrens rights based teaching (no uniforms, calling teachers by their first names, informal teaching etc.) and placed them in a 1950s Grammar, a 1960s secondary modern and lastly a 1950s style school where the focus was on the different learning styles and abilities relative to sex. The 1950s school was particularly good at showing how rules, or boundaries, whilst initially rebelled against came to be welcomed because they provided clear guidance to pupils and enabled them to focus their efforts on more productive activities. The 1960s school helped demonstrate the benefits of a flexible education system that took into account the individual needs and abilities of students, in particular those who were more vocationally gifted, and were able to gain a sense of achievement through lessons such as brick-laying that they had never experienced before. The final programme also illustrated that boys and girls are different and helped reinforce the benefits of single sex education.
All three series made the children work hard, enforced discipline, provided punishment and gave clear boundaries. At the end of each series it was clear that for the vast majority of pupils the experience had been a positive one and that they not only responded well to the discipline but had more respect for the teachers because of it.
Lastly I'd like to mention Lads' Army/Bad Lad's Army/Bad Lads' Army: Officer Class and to focus on the last two in particular. Young men in the early twenties are perhaps the most dangerous group in any society, particularly if they feel there is no future for them or if they have become drawn into a routine of bad behaviour. Okay, so these blokes volunteered, a few bailed out before the end and perhaps some where not quite as 'bad' as they were made out to be. Even so, what came through, allowing for the excess of the military environment, was the way they responded to (harsh) discipline and through tis were able to develop self-discipline and as a consequence by the end of each series were able to address life with a more positive attitude, having overcome adversity and proved to themselves waht they were capable of achieving.
There are other series that contribute to this debate but for the moment I'd like to dwell on just one aspect, the relationship between discipline and self-discpline. For the moment children are born they need clear sets of rules, that are explained and that are applied rigorously with identified punishments. Children also need to be taught to empathise, to understand how other people might feel in a given situation. Of course they also need to be praised to help positively reinforce 'good' behaviours, but this alone is not enough. As Monica Geller once said "Rules help control the fun", without rules there is chaos, or worse, anarchy. We must trust in those we employ to enforce the rules (which initially should be parents) but we also need to give people the tools to be able to do the job. This means proper parenting classes that deal with the moral and social guidance of children; allowing teachers to impose proper discipline; identifying authority figures and giving them the respect that their position deserves.
At the moment we seem to live in a society where many parents do not know how to bring their kids up and by the time they get to school they believe they can get whatever they want just by being bad, they have no respect for authority and do whatever they want. They grow into unruly young people who are selfish and lack self-discipline. They want everything and they don't want to have to put any effort into getting it. As they become young adults they live their lives without thought of others or the consequences of their action. As adults they find it difficult to hold down relationships and spend much of their lives in needless confontation. To do nothing means allowing this situation to become the norm and to have 'fear' as the main motivation in all our actions.