Questions of discipline and order arise wherever formal education is practised, and are particularly acute for those training to teach or in their first school posts. For many years now writing on these topics has tended to depict teaching as the deployment of 'skills' and 'techniques' and competent teachers as those who successfully 'manage' their classes. This approach is criticised by Richard Smith as manipulative and destructive of the kind of pupil-teacher relationship conducive to any but the most trivial sorts of learning. Thus the philosophical issues which the book explores are shown throughout to have their roots in problems associated with established thinking and practice, and the author's ideas have considerable practical relevance. He argues for a thorough reappraisal of the nature and basis of the teacher's authority and demonstrates the importance of a proper understanding of the function of punishment.
He suggests that many of the problems of discipline that teachers meet may actually stem from inappropriate ways of treating pupils, and shows that solutions to these problems must be compatible with the degree of initiative and personal responsibility that it is the business of education to foster. Schools have changed in many ways, largely for the better, since the first edition of this book appeared: the young people in them are generally treated with far more respect than was the case a quarter of a century ago. The voices of a more repressive tradition however still make themselves heard from time to time. It is therefore important continually to re-state the principles on which civilised relationships between pupils and teachers need to be based.