To Birch or not to Birch?

Ok, this one will probably get me some irritated responses, but what the heck.

When I was ten or eleven, I can clearly remember the day when it was announced that coporal punishment was to be banned from school.

The reasons were obvious enough to any thinking adult.

First, how can a grown up smack a child, and then tell him that the punishment was a) for his own good; b) that it’s wrong to hit people?

It’s the problem with all forms of physical discipline. The kids are being told not to fight, not to hit people, and to enforce that rule, adults smack them. Any adult can see that the logic is slightly flawed there.

Then again, the risks of adult brutality were always there too. The teacher who enjoyed punishing the kids rather too much; the ones who had a sadistic motivation, or who gained some sexual gratification from beatings. And of course the number of children who died from beatings.

OK. All these are bad, right?

Let’s take the death by punishment first. It’s a biggie.

How many children died because of punishment since, say, the end of World War II? I have no idea.

There is a great habit by do-good groups to lie, though.

In the days of early missionaries to Haiti, there was a need for money to counter the heathen worship endemic across the island. Preachers came back from Haiti with tales of dreadful practices. The Haitians would make wax dolls and stick pins in them to hurt or kill their victims, for example.

A great story, and all the more so because making waxen dummies and sticking pins in them was a European form of necromancy. It was unknown in Haiti. Yes, unknown. The story was spread by missionaries in Europe because they knew that people in Europe would respond. If Haitians were doing such things, it was because they were emulating European witches. The God-fearing Europeans tipped money into the missionaries’ hands.

Another example: when it was decided that alcohol was an awful thing, taxes were increased on booze. And those who tried to make their own by distilling beer or other hooches, were warned of the men who tried it, and were sent blind by the nasty contaminants that were distilled and concentrated along with the alcohol.

Except it was crap. Never happened. The impurities that could cause blindness would also make a drinker wince and spit it out. As proof, if anyone can give me the name of a guy who did drink hooch and went blind, I’d be grateful. On the other hand, I’d point people at the lack of such cases in Ireland where they regularly make their own potato firewater (how do you spell it? Puccin? Potsin?), I’d point to New Zealand where home distilling is perfectly legal, or Portugal, or France where it’s easy to do so with a licence.

No one goes blind.

There were the stories of horrible impacts on people for taking drugs, too. Well, heroin and other natural narcotics are less dangerous than the alternatives. By that I mean drugs like methadone, regularly used to wean heroin addicts off their habits, which are actually poisonous. The only dangers from heroin and coca leaves tend to be the way that the drugs are mixed with unpleasant powders (flour, sugar, rat poison) by criminal gangs to increase their profits. If drugs were legalised, and their purity checked, they would be a great deal safer.

So, unless I can be given actual examples of deaths since the wars, I will doubt any suggestion that there were any.

Now, it is possible that there were a number of teachers who did enjoy hurting the children under their care. I don’t doubt it. But whether that is the case or not, was the harm done equivalent to the harm to society in removing the punishment?

Because society has been harmed, drastically.

I remember the day I heard corporal punishment was being stopped because I can remember very distinctly the thoughts that ran through my mind.

They were: if there is no discipline at school, people will leave school without any sense of an ultimate sanction; that means that when they have left, they will not have any respect for authority of any sort.

Kids at school now don’t have respect for teachers. If they misbehave, there is no sensible progression of punishment.

In my day, there was the telling off in front of the class; lines to be written down; detention without warning that same day; a cane or slipper delivered by any master who saw it as necessary; all the way up to being excluded from school.

All the children knew what the boundaries were. Not only that, they also knew that the boundaries had an escalation procedure. Someone who was found bullying or hurting another child could be instantly escalated to an interview with the headmaster and his cane.

This is the reason why children like to have corporal punishment. I remember it very clearly: I liked the fact that those who misbehaved, who disrupted classes, and who made problems for everyone else, would be made to realise the error of their ways.

Now, many folks will no doubt complain that such behaviour is too harsh. Well, kids don’t think that way. Kids are small animals, and they think much the same as other small animals. They like to push the envelope, but they also LIKE to know that there are boundaries. They are happier.

It was interesting that the masters at my school who tended to agree to the cane rarely had to use it (Mr Rogers did on me – but I made sure I didn’t gossip with Mark Houlistan after that rather painful experience). Those who swore that they would never use the cane (younger teachers from trendy teacher training courses) were utterly incompetent at maintaining discipline in their classes.

And then you had masters like Mr Tuck who was accurate to within an inch at thirty paces with a beech-block board duster or piece of chalk. A brilliant teacher, like Mr Rogers, who could keep a class’s attention.

OK. Someone at the back there is now wincing and demanding to know whether I really would return to the dark ages like them. Surely I don’t mean that I would want to go back to beatings, to blocks of wood being flung at a boy’s head or poor little darlings being tortured with detention?

Too right, I would.

I repeat – the children prefer it. They like boundaries and dislike anarchy. The trouble is, in modern education, all intermediate forms of discipline are being eradicated. Kids can be told off in class, they can have lines given to them. What if they ignore those two? Then they are held in detention – by appointment, not on the same day as the offence. And finally, they can be excluded from school. But such expulsions must be validated by School governers, and County Council officers who have an interest in not punishing kids in case an expensive court case is the result.

An interesting consideration is, that the very children who misbehave, get excluded, and go on to successful careers as small time crooks or serious felons, will all too often join street gangs.

These are groups with rigid rules of joining and being accepted. They also have rigorous forms of corporal punishment for those who infringe their rules.

So the kids are, perhaps, leaving the normal society to join their own groupings that provide the very discipline they crave. The trouble is, they find it outside the law.

5 Responses to “To Birch or not to Birch?”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    A touch of corporal punishment would not go amiss among the looters and vandals of recent times. What’s wrong with public humiliation?


  2. Carole Schultz says:

    Of course children need borders and discipline. I was warned about talking in class, didn’t heed, so was taken to the front of the class, told to bend over the desk, and was then hit on the back of the legs with a plimsoll. I took heed! Without discipline, anarchy starts.


  3. knotrune says:

    When I was studying in Norway there was a news story about some people who died from drinking illegal strong alcohol purchased from over the Swedish border. What we found funny about it was who they were. Students? No. A bridge club! Seriously :) (Sorry, I don’t have a reference to cite.)

    Interesting thoughts about discipline. When I was in school there were some people I’d have quite happily seen hit a few times. (Heck I did it myself a bit, scrapping :D) One potential problem is if the teacher took the approach my form teacher did, which was to punish the whole class for the bad behaviour of a few. I reckon he was just being lazy not figuring out who the real culprits were. I also reckon that they found it very amusing to get some of the better behaved pupils to have detention. Massive fail.


  4. This made me snort for an extended time.


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