People should reconsider corporal punishment

Cassandra's Candid Corner
Stabroek News
August 5, 2001

As promised last week, we'll continue our discussion on this theme now.

I had raised the question of corporal punishment with one headmistress. A point she raised was revealing. She said that if a teacher beat a child, it was also hoped that the caring, loving parent, not wanting to see the child beaten again, would reinforce the message at home. Well, from general reports, it seems that many parents either do not care or are so caring that they come to the school to beat the teacher. So much for the effectiveness of corporal punishment. Another headmistress bluntly said that on many occasions she would prefer to beat the parents instead.

One young lady while discussing the necessity of corporal punishment, offered this novel explanation. She said that beating children is a cultural thing. She opined that since the plantation-owner used physical punishment to get his message across, we have inculcated this modus operandi and have never tried consciously to shed it. It has become our norm.

I will not get into any socio-cultural debate since I am not equipped to handle this theme, but I can swear that during my five years in rural Central Africa, I never once saw parents or school-teachers whip children. And I have read that the cultures of Melanesia and of American Indians are characterized by relatively little punishment of the young.

Since we are discussing the infliction of pain and the induction of frustration by one individual on another, legal and moral considerations have to be addressed. First, even though the laws of our country still allow parents to beat children, they are undergoing scrutiny with a remedial objective. Already, according to the magnitude of trauma exercised on the child, parents can be charged. But civil servants beating children not their own? How can a modern legal system tolerate that? As civil servants, teachers are expected by law to treat each client (in this case, the pupil) the same. It logically follows that teachers must punish in the same way all students disobeying a given rule. What a legal dilemma, since we cannot assume that all students are similarly motivated and will react to the punitive measures the same way. Which law gives a teacher the right to define the magnitude of punishment based on a subjective assessment of the situation?

The moral dimensions of beating small children are no less disturbing. One can, with some confidence, argue that there is only a qualitative difference between the need to punish a criminal and the need to maintain order in a classroom. One can realistically argue that problems of behaviour in schools are often indicators of inadequate instruction, inappropriate curricula and errors in judgement on the part of educators and policy-makers. Given that at least a portion of the last sentence could be correct, what moral right do we have for beating children when the faults lie within ourselves? Of course, another moral issue concerns the use of punishment when no harm is done to anyone other than the subject. The time spent on corporal punishment pertaining to these offences could better be employed in scholastic instruction.

The intention of administering pain to a child is to effect a behavioural change. One could justifiably argue that using blows to stop an undesirable behavioural pattern should be substituted instead by conscious promoting of the desirable behaviour. In other words, methods should be used to lead the child along a rationally-prescribed path towards the desired goal.

Then there is the objective of prevention of misdemeanour even before it is committed or to ensure that, if committed, it does not happen again. We are talking here of institutionalizing the terror. Have the wild-cane or leather or paddle or ferule or 'two by four' and all those instruments of mediaeval torture placed in a conspicuous position in the classroom. That should prevent potential transgressors. Use when necessary. That should then prevent recurrence of the wrong-doing. Well, of two things we can be sure. It is naive to think that a young culprit will be a better and reformed person because of a beating or because of continuous brutality against his or her person. We have already alluded to the phenomenon that the same child is often being reprimanded or punished. Secondly, no child can learn in an atmosphere of apprehension and fear.

Though intentions were perhaps noble (perhaps just copied and perpetuated because of tradition or perhaps just plain sadism in the Dickensian sense), the effectiveness of corporal punishment has been, at best, only marginally successful. I believe the time has come for the Ministry of Education to assault frontally this barbarism against children. Our educators must devise and implement positive control mechanisms which would include incentives, performance evaluation and supervision. We must no longer allow our children's spirits to be broken or stultified by the pain of corporal punishment. And beatings do not need to happen. Look how many members of the 'underprivileged' and `disadvantaged' teaching profession there are, who care, who love, who teach without raining blows on the helpless. Those teachers can go to their graves knowing that they were greatly cherished by hundreds, even thousands, of their wards who went on to become successful secondary school students and then graduate to become competent professionals and parents.

Thank you Mrs Woon-sam for making mathematics fun. Thank you Mr. Sylvester, Mr T. Anson Sancho and Mr Sawh for making History, Literature and Latin living subjects without once scaring the living daylights out of me. Thank you Mr. 'Bup' Barker and Mr `Cop' Perry and Mr Josh Ramsammy for making me a scientist without one day raising your voices, other than to inspire us to greater things.

This column has by no means the objective of denigrating the efforts of my favourite professionals. It should not convey the impression that all teachers either subscribe to, and support, the philosophy associated with corporal punishment, or carry out beatings on a perennial basis. The objective of this deliberation is to have people re-consider corporal punishment relative to the learning process. If there are responses, I hope that they are less of a personal nature and more of a conscious effort to deal with the problem.