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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Punishment.

by P. G. O'Connell.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 296


A short time ago a prisoner astonished many people by imploring a judge to give him a lash. Yet his request was perfectly reasonable, for the said judge had just awarded him seven years, and had a moment before sentenced two other prisoners to one month and twenty lashes. As far as I could gather from a newspaper report, the offences were the same.

The public school boy as a rule considers six cuts on the hand, with a few on the back thrown in, a less punishment than half-an-hour's imprisonment. If we assume that one stroke of the lash is equivalent to seventy-two cuts of the cane from a friendly but strong hand, we find that seven years imprisonment is equivalent to more than ten thousand lashes. No wonder criminals like the lash. Those who advocate the use of the cane on the ground that the boys like it, do not usually urge the same argument in favor of the lash, though it would be far more applicable to the latter; for the public school boy gets his full six cuts on the hand, with a few on the back thrown in, whereas the criminal never gets anything like his full ten thousand lashes.

I have a friend, who is the most modest man alive, except on one point. If one mention corporal punishment in his presence, the wicked light of pride will come into his eyes, and, though he is too modest to offer an opinion, on his lips will tremble the speech he once made to me, the longest I ever heard him make:-- "Ah! They don't know how to cane nowadays. My old master used always to cane half a dozen of us before breakfast and if any boy funked he used to call for a volunteer to show how an English boy ought to take a caning, and, when there were several volunteers, he always chose me."

There is something fascinating in this picture of a Howard standing forth to show Brown, Jones and Robinson what a British boy should be, and the moral effect on Smith may be excellent; but is it not somewhat paradoxical to call by the name of "punishment" that which almost invariable seems to a boy an honourable distinction? Given an English gentleman, with a cane, metaphorically, in his hands, and a class of thirty English boys before him, resolutely determined to keep no sort of order until he has caned one of the three or four hardened spirits who are clamouring for the privilege of being the first to feel just how scientifically he can cane, is it to be wondered at that the English gentleman should bow to the traditions of the school and not only cane, but cane well? Is it not also obvious that the boy will consider this caning a distinction, and show, as honourable scars, the marks that have been made on his hands?

While allowing that the traditions of a school can only be altered gradually, if the alterations are to do more good than harm, I must confess that there seems to me to be something radically wrong with a system which puts an English gentleman into such a position. Moreover, the man, who is in this position, is often only twenty-one, with the athletic and other honours which he has gained still rather new to him, with his head somewhat turned by "the looks that ladies bend" on a successful athlete, with his mind stocked with memories of the slight esteem in which he, as a boy, held the master who did not cane, and with wise counsels to keep discipline at any price, seeing that "many men of the highest ability have had to resign because they could not keep discipline."

It is not a fancy picture. I know one man, who, for a whole month faced the position and refused to cane, till he became the laughing-stock of boys and masters, and then in a weak moment used a cane so scientifically that in a few hours he became the terror of all the boys, and gained the envious admiration of all the masters. After that day twenty-five lines from him were accounted a worse punishment than a hundred from any other master, because of the possible caning that might reward an undotted "i."

I have heard another man who insulted a young aspirant to the honour of the cane, by setting him the ridiculously mild punishment of twenty-five lines, and was gravely informed by the boy that masters were not allowed to set more than ten lines. Strange to say he believed it, and while the boy became a hero, the master had to resign. The tale is now one of the traditions of the school, and is repeated with equal gusto by masters and boys. Naturally every boy is burning to outdo this record example of "cheek."

Another master, who entered on his duties with the pretty theory in his head, that a teacher should make his teaching so interesting, that to be deprived of it for an hour would be sufficient punishment for any offence, was informed by his fellow-masters that this particular form of punishment was against the rules of the school, and this time the information was correct. He also had to take to the use of the cane, though he had previously kept order well enough by occasionally sending a boy out of the room.

Yet even continual caning, ridiculous as it is, is preferable to the state of things in some schools where caning is not allowed. On arriving at a certain school, a Mr. X. was informed that the only punishment allowed was the setting of copies. He also gathered that his form was the worst in the school, containing some dozen boys who, in their progress up the school together, had raised the art of "baiting" a master almost to the rank of a science. Moreover, he was informed that his predecessor had let them get "rather out of hand," but, as if to reassure him, he was told that if he could only keep them in order it would not matter much about teaching them anything, the presumption being that they were unteachable. As he examined the faces of the boys the next morning, it struck him that it might be a case of "give a dog a bad name and hang him," but being aware of the advantage of striking the first blow and hitting hard, he set a boy twenty copies in the first few minutes. This had the desire effect of keeping the boys perfectly quiet during the whole hour. At the end of it, the boy came up to Mr. X. and said, "If you please, sir, I cannot possibly get those copies done by to-morrow, because I have twenty to do for Mr. A., twenty for Mr. B., and ten for Mr. C." Mr. X. reflected that this might be the latest development of the art of "baiting," but the boy's face seemed so honest that Mr. X. believed his words and said, "Well, think no more about the imposition until to-morrow, then I will tell you what I have decided; I may excuse it altogether."

The boys were very good for the rest of the day, no doubt awaiting anxiously what would happen. Mr. X. made enquiries that night, and when he met his class next morning, he asked any boy who owned no impositions to hold up his hand. Not a hand was raised. Did any boy owe less than fifty copies? A few hands were raised. "It seems to me," said Mr. X., "that it would be cruelty to animals to give you any more impositions,--" the boys' faces brightened--"so I must devise some new form of torture,"--the boys' faces fell--"I shall make the experiment of treating you as the House of Commons is treated by the Speaker. If any boy offends I shall name him to the class, and I shall expect the class to reason with him out of hours. I will promise not to set any impositions without due notice, that is to say, if I give notice that the experiment will be suspended for an hour, I shall be allowed to set impositions during the next hour, not during the hour in which I give notice. If, during the next hour, I do not have to set any impositions, we shall become a House of Commons again."

Mr. X. had to answer several questions about the House of Commons, but the boys took up the idea, and he never had to set an imposition to this "unruly" class, though he had to "suspend the experiment for an hour" now and then. The stillness during such an hour was something phenomenal and unhealthy. Mr. X. did not ask whether his methods were contrary to the rules of the school, but from what I know of him, I conclude that he managed to do a little teaching in addition to keeping order.

The day will come, though it is as yet far distant, when every teacher will be able to make his lessons so interesting that no punishment will be necessary. Meanwhile, the only practical suggestions that I have to make are, that head-masters should allow their assistants a free hand, and that there should be more public discussion on the subject. During the next silly season, for instance, a number of parents might write to the papers about it. We do not want dogmatic statements like--"Corporal punishment makes a good man bad, and a bad man worse," or "Luther owed his determined courage to the floggings he received as a boy." What is wanted is a record of observations made, with, or better still without, the inferences drawn. What Tommy did, what punishment he received, how he behaved during the next day, this is what should be recorded. At present a young teacher has no book of recorded observations to consult.

School traditions only preserve a record of the cases in which a boy has routed a master, yet even they are useful. But we want also such tales as the following:--One bright 1st of April, Mr. J. was made an April fool of by one of his best pupils. Pretending to be very stern, Mr. J. wrote a note and told the boy to take it to the head master. No sooner had the boy left the room, very much depressed, than another boy was sent after him to tell him that as one good turn deserved another, Mr. J. had made an April fool of him, and that he need not deliver the note.

The above story is not true; I only give it as a specimen of the kind of (true) anecdote that is wanted. I will give one more specimen. As a punishment for some offence, a little girl of ten was allowed nothing but dry bread for her evening meal. Next day the table had a few extra delicacies on it and she was asked to take her choice, as she had been particularly good. "I think I'll have some dry bread," she said, "It tastes so nice." This story is true.