from educational Horizons Spring 1994

©1999 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 8/17/11

See also, Concepts of Punishment


Despite President Clinton's plea for clemency, Singapore officials caned convicted vandal Michael Fay. Singapore's use of caning is purely pragmatic. It is intended to make the costs of law-breaking exceed the benefits. Spray painting cars or stealing traffic signs might be fun, but it may not be sufficiently amusing to risk multiple lashes across the bare behind with a four foot rattan cane soaked in water.

Corporal punishment is similarly used in other nations, often in schools. I have an immigrant friend from Nigeria, for example, who says students there accumulate demerits they pay for on "flogging day." That is when the entire student body convenes to witness corporal punishment with a leather strop.

My Nigerian-American friend now tries to teach in a Philadelphia inner-city middle school. I say "tries to teach" because disorder is so overwhelming teaching is often impossible. The principal, usually busy with paperwork that he hopes will get him promoted, hides in his office. But when teachers try to restore order he regularly sides with the kids; particularly if they have belligerent parents. He even suspended a teacher who had to use force to stop an assault. The teacher, our school leader asserted, had "employed unauthorized corporal punishment."

The Principal is of African descent and prates about "Africanizing" the curriculum. In fact, he even once dressed himself as an Egyptian Pharaoh and had students carry him on a contrived sedan chair into a school assembly. My Nigerian-American friend thinks inauguration of flogging day, rather than the coronation of the Principal, should be the first step in any such "Africanization."

Paradoxically, kids from less 'humane' cultures often long for the relative safety of their homeland. They are more terrorized by the disorder in their inner-city American schools than they were by the threat of corporal punishment in schools back home. For instance, a teacher recently told me how her elementary ESOL students are uniformly repulsed and frightened by the disorder in their Philadelphia elementary school. The teacher recalled that one day, when the sound of cursing and fighting grew so loud in the hallway that her ESOL kids could barely hear her, a girl from Ghana suddenly said, "These kids are just so bad. In my room (meaning her regular classroom) I cannot learn!" She paused, then said longingly, "In Ghana they hit you if you're bad." The teacher asked, "Did that make Ghanaian kids behave?" "Oh yes," the girl replied, "it wasn't anything like this place!" "Do you think kids in this school would behave if they got hit?" the teacher inquired. "Yes!" the girl replied, momentarily brightening, "Oh yes, I'm sure they would!" Then her smile faded as she realized this was not going to happen.

The girl's mother is frantic about being compelled to send her daughter into this bedlam. (She won't defy the law and cannot afford private school.) She also cannot comprehend why Philadelphia school authorities allow such pandemonium to persist. One wonders what she would say to the Philadelphia School Board officials who, to be more humane, banned corporal punishment from city schools. Philadelphia teachers are even admonished never to touch a child. (This admonition conjures images of some hapless soul trying to teach with her hands tied behind her their back.)

Educators and other school officials have a non-negotiable obligation to maintain a safe school in which those who want to can learn. This is an irreducible minimum which must take precedence over well-intentioned efforts at social reclamation, racial pride building, condom distribution, and so forth. In practical terms this means that serious disruptions, bullying, extortion, and predation, cannot be tolerated.

If this ethical obligation can be accomplished without even touching children, much less paddling them, so much the better. But what if present resources are inadequate for this more delicate approach? Do educators with thirty plus kids per class, a broken copy machine, radiators that won't shut off even if the room is ninety degrees, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, command the resources necessary to maintain order without physical punishment?

In the "good old days" the Singapore solution was always available for extreme cases. Make other kid's lives miserable or learning impossible and it would eventually cost you a red behind. Today, many school districts, even entire states (the educationally weedy Garden State, for example) have totally ruled out this option. And what has taken its place? Sermonettes, ineffectual detentions, forced transfers, or, more recently, the pretense of teaching sociopaths conflict resolution. Predictably, the sneering recipients of these social 'services' continue to lay waste to everyone's safety and learning.

Sadly, some youngsters are too far gone for moral persuasion, instruction in conflict resolution, or the like. A teacher just told me of being shoved from behind and threatened with a meter stick by an enraged eight year old whom she had temporarily deprived of potato chips. The teacher reports the reluctant scholar screamed, "I'm going to beat you to death!" This child is in foster care and his present "parents" have told school officials they want rid of him. They say he is uncontrollable.

The child was suspended for the assault. After sleeping in for a few days, he is back in school making other people's lives miserable. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that this child is sufficiently rational to understand the connection between his behavior and punishment. Let's further suppose that the Singapore solution is the only sanction that impresses him. What is to be done? Should he be permitted to assault teachers or his classmates because paddling is so repellent? Would it be kinder to expel him? And what would he have to do to merit expulsion, kill somebody?

Suspension is the worst that customarily happens to school predators. For tough kids that sanction is a joke, just time off to run the streets. So, having had the Singapore solution forbidden by people who escape the price of its banning, school officials command few if any sanctions that impress hooligans. As one young hoodlum assured a more novice delinquent in the presence of a Philadelphia teacher friend of mine, "Don't worry, they can't do shit to you here."

Sure, the Singapore solution might damage children thus corrected. It also could encourage them to think that might makes right or that violence is the best way to resolve conflicts. (Of course, they probably think that anyway.) But even if it always damages them and they always learn the wrong thing, that, by itself, is not decisive;not until the rights and safety of others have been factored in.

If children are having trouble at home, if they are unsafe on the streets, if their lives outside of school are chaotic, they at least should be able to experience something positive in school. Once inside those walls it should be possible for them to feel safe, be treated with respect and dignity and to learn if they want to. And speaking of dignity, what about children subjected to merciless bullying because educators are blowing off their most elemental responsibility? How do you think their self-respect fares?

Teachers have similar rights. They must be free of the threats and assaults of disturbed or malevolent youngsters; and hoodlums must not be permitted to destroy their lessons. For any of this to happen, however, school officials must command meaningful sanctions that tough kids respect.

In the best of all possible worlds, pain would never have to be inflicted on anyone for any reason. And a lot can still be done to make schooling more palatable and more effective for a broader range of kids. But the world is far from perfect, school resources are strictly limited and order is necessary for reforms to take hold. Tough penalties, then, are still required. They must, of course, be scrupulously fair and carefully controlled; but they seem the only practical way to keep the street out of inner-city schools. Without meaningful sanctions, incivility and social predation simply take over.

Educators relied on the Singapore solution for nearly 6,000 years. Must they now revive what has only recently been set aside? I'm not sure and still hope for another way. I am sure, however, that many educators are now expected to teach where teaching is impossible. (They are even piously instructed to raise their expectations in conditions where only a fool would do so.) I am also sadly certain that many inner-city children are being compelled by law and economics to attend mad houses rather than school houses even though they are good kids who would dearly love to learn.