The beating by a Texas judge of his daughter in 2004 that has provoked a storm of outrage in the United States has made me reflect on how the situation with regard to corporal punishment in schools has changed during my career as a schoolmaster and head teacher.
Let me tell you about one boy, let's call him Will. One day, some 30 years ago, Will, a 14-year-old boy at the school at which I was headmaster, told his home economics teacher to f*** off. She marched Will along to my office. I promptly beat him. This was the punishment which his teacher desired. It was the punishment which the rest of the class expected. It was what Will expected. He did not swear at her again. I might add that every now and again my deputy and I beat boys for bullying, damage to property, insolence to staff and petty theft. My deputy, who hit much harder than me due to my injured wrist incurred during military service, claimed that boys never came back for more, but this did not prevent him from being widely liked and respected.
I do not think that my action in beating Will was at all similar to Judge Adams' action. Whereas he had clearly lost control of himself, I am confident I was in complete control. Whereas a male chastising a female may well be motivated by sexual desire, including a father beating his daughter, I derived no gratification whatsoever from chastising Will. I didn't lose my temper: I was merely doing my job in upholding the discipline of the school and supporting a member of my staff.
As a consequence I feel no shame for hurting a child. Will knew what the punishment for his insolence would be. In the climate of the time it would have been remiss of me not to have beaten him. As a boy I myself was beaten at my boarding school for idleness and disobedience, for talking after lights out for instance. It did not occur to me that I was treated unjustly, and indeed I continued to admire and like the teachers who punished me.
However, all that has changed now. Enlightened, liberal opinion is unanimous that chastising children is wicked, and consequently, since approximately the millennium, corporal punishment in all British schools has been illegal. Most teachers would probably regard this as a good thing. I myself am not so sure. I do recognize that the onset of co-education had made corporal punishment problematical, in that male teachers cannot be allowed to belabor girls.
While alternative punishments can be devised, it is not a coherent, satisfactory situation though. Ideally, girls and boys should be treated the same. What has happened is that a disciplinary option has been denied to the authorities in a school. Yes, it is always better to reward good behavior than punish misdemeanors. But there was something to be said for the punishment of bad behavior with prompt, clear-cut action that was over and done with quickly.
I suspect that discipline in schools has declined overall as a result of the abolition of corporal punishment, and that it would be improved if corporal punishment were to be restored. But I very much doubt if it will happen.
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