Hard News by Russell Brown


The cane and the strap

In The Fern and the Tiki, his frequently withering examination of 1950s New Zealand, the American academic David P. Ausubel devoted many pages to what he regarded as the cruel and authoritarian approach to discipline in New Zealand schools. It seemed to him that punishment was regarded as a greater end than education itself.

Some headmasters and teachers know and believe in no other form of discipline. They state frankly that classroom control can only be maintained through liberal use of the strap and the fear which this engenders. Hence they start off the school year with entering third-formers by laying a cane on the desk and asserting that they know how to use it. And to show the class forthwith that they mean business, they deliberately make an early example of the first hapless lad unlucky enough to commit a trivial offence.

Teachers such as these not only use the strap routinely for minor infractions of the rules but also for smudgy homework papers and for spelling errors. In some circumstances they openly incite biys to misbehaviour or disobedience so as to have an acceptable excuse for thrashing them …

"Under these conditions," wrote Ausubel, "very little emphasis is placed on self-diiscipline and as a result very little develops," and "once external controls are removed, the entire tenuous structure of imposed attitudes towards work, knowledge and authority tends to collapse."

Thus, he thought, were constructed some of the less appealing aspects of our national character. In Fretful Sleepers, Bill Pearson lamented much the same traits from the inside.

Ausubel copped quite a backlash when he volunteered such views on being asked, inevitably, what he thought of New Zealand - he was a know-it-all American. Ironically, it's a franchise of an American organisation that is now receiving unquestioning coverage on the same issue.

Really, is Family First the new Maxim? The religious lobby group treated as if it has science on its side? And why does it get its logo on the Herald's story conveying its claim that the withdrawal of corporal punishment in schools is the reason for an increase in violence in recent years?

What the story doesn't tell you - and what newspaper stories never tell you -- is that at least some of the increase in the raw number of violent incidents in schools is a consequence of an increase in school rosters; a flow-on from the mini baby-boom of the early 1990s. It's clear enough that there is cause for concern - if violence in schools isn't new, assaults on teachers are intolerable. But the claim that it is a consequence of the cessation of corporal punishment isn't supported by any evidence of which I'm aware.

Corporal punishment in all New Zealand schools was banned in 1990 (we were rather late to the party - every industrialised country in the world has done away with corporal punishment in schools - with the exception of about half the US states, one state in Australia and Canada). If an increase in school violence had been solely due to the withdrawal of the strap and the cane, we shouldn't have had to wait 10 to 15 years for a change in behaviour, should we?

There's a sad memoir of school punishment here.

But what I always think of when this issue arises is a conversation I had with John Godfrey, my old deputy principal at Burnside High. Burnside, now one of the most desirable schools in the country, had been ahead of the curve in abolishing corporal punishment, and he believed it had been the making of the school. When the structured violence of corporal punishment was removed, the overall level of violence at the school fell away dramatically. It became, he was certain, a better place for everyone.

And I think that in general, schools are much safer places than they were when I went. In particular, the pastoral culture of our local secondary school means it is a safer place for my son than some of the more traditional schools he could have attended, where bullying remains a problem. His younger brother has not been an easy pupil for any school to handle, but at no point has that meant he has suffered an assault for who he is. That might not have been the case 20 years ago, and I'm grateful for the change.

Anyway, the Sunday Star Times story on me, David Cohen, our kids and autism is online if you didn't catch it in the paper.

We're launching A Perfect World, David's moving and informative book about life with his autistic son Eliot, next Monday at the San Francisco Bathouse, 171 Cuba Street, Wellington. There'll be an auction to raise money for the Autism Intervention Trust, the Bonnie Scarlets are playing and I'll be the MC.

You can buy your $10 tickets at Working Style Wellington, 8 Woodward Street, ph 04 472 2194 and Millwood Gallery, 291b Tinakori Road, Thorndon, Wellington ph 04 473 5178. Or email rsvp@peadpr.co.nz to reserve tickets at the door. See you there.

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