Chronicles of Higher Education

“Because We Love Our Children: Bringing Corporal Punishment Back into the Classroom”

by Justin Evans, Richard Cheney School of Disembodied Politics


In the beginning of the 20th Century it was believed that education should take a more progressive direction to match such technological advances as the automobile, powered flight, and sliced bread.  This new wisdom suggested, what was at the time, radical changes to a system beleaguered by an influx of urban poor and recent updates in child labor laws of the mid 19th Century.  For many years, public educators had been able to count on the same system of control over the student as those teachers who taught in private schools as well as their close partners in the social structure of the Gilded Age, the textiles mills.  Specifically, schools were free to dole out physical punishments at will, and without repercussions.  However, as Progressivism began to take root in the United States, this control and authority came under severe scrutiny.  Soon, the same groups which had created societies for the prevention of the cruelty to animals, began to see a need to prevent cruelty to children, and labor laws were created, banning in some places, the hiring of children under the age of nine.  This lapse in judgment was the slippery slope Progressives were looking for, and a quick 75-80 years later, began to demand that public schools cease the use of corporal punishment by teachers upon their students.

While the demands for fewer beatings in school began in the early 20th Century, it took a great deal of time to make said practice pretty much extinct in American schools.  The reason for this is clear.  Public school teachers knew the combined value of such punishments far outweighed the minor issues which might arise from a bruised backside, or even a chipped tooth, or an irate parent.  Although some public schools still hold to corporal punishment the child may opt for in lieu of suspension or other punishments (for which contracts and waivers are provided the child must sign and make parental contact) corporal punishment is, unfortunately, a thing of the past.  By in large this is not a lamentable condition, but when coupled with the decline in student performance mirroring the decline of use of corporal punishment in the public school, the truth is easy to see.  As a nation, we must return the option of corporal punishment to the public school teacher.  With that return, one can only hope we will return to a dominant position in rankings of academic achievement as well.

This issue is much more than nostalgia and yearning back to a much simpler time, nor is it based on spurious research that states children do not respond positively to abuse.  Simply put, there are many tangible arguments to be made for this pendulum swing back to common sense.

First is obviously classroom control.  Over the past thirty-five years, it has become exponentially more difficult to control the students in any given classroom.  Many education researchers attribute no correlation between classroom management, corporal punishment, and student behavior, citing most instances of student misbehavior can be attributed back to the teacher’s disciplinary style.  Unfortunately, many of these studies took place after it was no longer fashionable to use corporal punishment and as such, could not be thoroughly tested along side classes which still incorporated corporal punishment as a regular part of their disciplinary model.  In his brilliant essay on child psychology, B.F. Skinner stated children are like pigeons, where a “flock mentality”rules.  While Dr. Skinner goes on at length, almost to the detriment of his main point, about the use of tracking collars for children in much the same way ankle bands are used on pigeons, two sentences in the penultimate paragraph makes its point without any ambiguity.  He writes, “In all my years as an experimental psychologist, I have been struck by the notion that children and pigeons are quite similar and would respond to most any basic stimuli in the same ways as each other. In fact, I imagine one could physically abuse a child or a pigeon and see essentially the same reaction.”  The connection is clear.  Pigeons follow the flock mentality.  Pigeons and children respond to physical abuse the same way.  Children in a classroom are essentially a herd or flock.  In order to control the child as you might pigeons, the best route is to use physical punishment.

This argument is true even if the so called modern research is right and states classroom behavior strongly relies upon the teacher model for classroom management.  Imagine if you will if the teacher was again free to implement corporal punishment in his or her classroom management model?  Even those teachers with poor management skills would bask in new found respect if they were allowed to beat a child at will for forgetting to raise a hand and be called on before speaking, or having the audacity to assume it was okay to get up and sharpen a pencil before permission has been granted.  Cell phone use in the junior highs and high schools would be a thing of the past.

As The United States falls further and further behind the other nations in the world academic arena, it is evident that we as a people should be willing to make serious changes to the way we teach our children.  If one was to look at the great heroes of American history, you will notice that there are far more people we admire who came from an era when corporal punishment was allowed than we admire from the last forty years.  If we isolated the category down to Presidents of the Unite States, the division is clear.  Names like Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Garfield spring to mind.  However, if you look at the presidents this nation has had as corporal punishment faded out of favor, you will hear names like William Jefferson Clinton, George Bush Jr., and Barack Obama.  These are names which stir up a mixed feeling in Americans today.  Certainly each has their loyal followers, but never has our nation had such a successive string of controversy.  Detractors might want to argue that there was evil produced during these same eras.  They point to people like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mickey Rooney.  True, these were some of history’s greatest evil geniuses, but there is a logical explanation.  The fact they were able to flourish was not because they were beaten, but because they were not beaten enough.

The fact remains, when children are under the constant threat of physical pain, they revert back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Students will no longer care about self actualization or even socialization if they are worried about their safety.  If a student’s primary goal is to stay safe, the student will adapt and do whatever is necessary to remain safe and free from pain.  This will serve to crystallize and focus the student.  Each student will be truly motivated to memorize the Periodic table and the names of all the U.S. presidents.

Imagine how much more manageable the Second World War would have been if the Allies didn’t have to deal with Hitler or Mussolini.  Think about how much warmer the Cold War would have been without Stalin.  How many fewer Andy Hardy movies would have been made if Mickey Rooney’s teachers would have cared enough to beat him even more?

One also must begin to ask, how much more pain and suffering is the United States willing to endure all in the name of comfort and ease of conscience?  There can be no doubt that some educators are against the idea of corporal punishment.  These concerns are well intended but quite unfounded.  While no clinical evidence can be produced as to the positive effects of corporal punishment, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show how well children respond to corporal punishment.

Finally, one must consider the student.  After all is said and done, helping to develop bright, articulate students is the primary goal of all teachers, or should be.  If educators really are in favor of giving their students every advantage, then they have a responsibility to explore the many options which corporal punishment offers.  For example:  Students will look at any time they are not being beaten as good times. They will care less about the bully who is stealing their lunch money.  In fact students may even stand up to the bully, knowing that the bully cannot match the physical strength of the teacher and therefore any pain and suffering would be mild and insignificant by comparison.  This leads to discussion as to why it is important for teachers to make a personal connection with each student.  Under certain circumstances, if a beating incapacitates a student, while that student convalesces, he or she will have ample time to improve reading or math skills, as they shouldn’t be distracted by heavy play.  This will free up much needed time in the classroom once wasted to help lagging students catch up; time which could be more wisely allocated for other activities.

Also, students will learn the difference between fact and fiction as they watch films such as The Three Stooges.  Knowing what real violence is they will be able to discern fact from fiction much easier, thereby making each student even more adept in this modern age of technology.  Corporal punishment is simply a practical fit inside America’s classrooms.

Of course there will be those who will protest such a decision.  Even some parents will object, which is why in-service training is a crucial part of this move.  Teachers need to learn where to strike a child for maximum effect and minimal physical evidence.  Yes, accidents are unavoidable, but for the most part, teachers need to remember that the student is not the property of the school, and therefore cannot do permanent damage without repercussions.  The last thing any school district needs is a lawsuit.

Finally, this must be a decision of conscience for each teacher to make for his or her self.  There can be no equivocation when deciding to re-enter the realm of a sound and rational approach to education.  Each teacher must ask the one essential question if they wish to consider themselves an effective teacher with the students’ best interest at heart:  Do I care enough about the success of my students to use corporal punishment in the classroom?


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