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May 8th, 2001

  Six of the Best


My attention was caught by last Thursday's story in the New York Times about corporal punishment, known in these United States by the cheerful little euphemism: "paddling." The story concerned 10-year-old Megan Cahanin, who was whacked on the bottom by her school principal (a female) down in Zwolle, Louisiana. The Times reports that Megan's father, obviously one of those modern men who never stray far from the Kleenex dispenser, and whose idea of a relaxing weekend is to take off into the woods to beat on drums and hug fauns with Robert Bly, "collapsed on the floor, crying" when he saw the resulting bruises. He soon recovered sufficiently to get himself lawyered up, though, and we can now expect a minor national debate on the pros and cons of paddling — or, as good liberals prefer to say, "child-beating." It turns out that 23 states still permit paddling in schools, though most school districts in those states let parents sign a form exempting their own children. The Cahanins could have done this, but didn't bother. (Memo to Mr. and Mrs. Cahanin. TRY PAYING ATTENTION TO YOUR CHILDREN'S EDUCATION.)

This is a no-brainer for liberals. They are, of course, against corporal punishment in schools. Children, they know from reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are morally superior to adults. Authority is oppressive, a manifestation of the corrupt power relations that prevail in late-capitalist society. Violence is wicked, unless used — as against the unfortunate Serbs — to enforce "diversity." Way back in the 1930s, when the young Malcolm Muggeridge went to work at the Manchester Guardian, then as now the leading liberal newspaper in Britain, one of his first assignments was to write an editorial piece on this topic. Unsure how to approach it, he went to a colleague who was typing away at a nearby desk. "What's the paper's line on corporal punishment?" asked Muggeridge. Replied the colleague, without looking up or breaking rhythm on the typewriter: "Same as capital." Liberals have it so easy. They always know what to think. It comes in neat little formulas that you can pick up in half an hour. And if you forget what you're supposed to think, pretty much any newspaper or TV station will remind you. For us conservatives, life is more complicated. Do we want our kids to be whacked? All right: do we want them being whacked by members of the NEA?

Now, I know what you're thinking. Derb … Brit … beating … bottoms … What a surprise that this particular topic should have engaged the interest of this particular columnist … NOT! The Brits are well known to have … issues with smacking and thwacking: and a conservative Brit — well, enough said.

No use trying to brush this aside. It is a matter of common observation that national stereotypes, like other stereotypes, almost always have a firm foundation in fact. To a noticeable and significant degree in every case, Germans do tend to be obsessed with order, Russians do drink a lot, the Chinese are addicted to gambling and Italians do talk with their hands. And, yes, we Brits do, or until recently did, have a thing about flagellation. Le vice Anglais, the French call it, and they know us as well as anyone. (The French vice, in case you're wondering, is that having invented a device to wash one tiny part of their anatomy, they see no need to bother washing the rest.) The infant Vladimir Nabokov, forming his earliest ideas about the world from what he heard and read in pre-revolutionary Russia, wrote that his first distinct mental image of the British as a nation was of a fierce red-haired schoolmaster thrashing a small boy. Hard-heartedness towards children has long been thought to characterize those brumous isles of my birth. Remember the passage in Gone with the Wind where the Butlers take their new baby on a trip to London, and are scandalized when the English nanny they have hired lets the child cry in the night without attempting any intervention? "Children cry," huffs the nanny as Clark Gable hands her the pink slip, "that's what they do," or words to that effect. Exactly the advice my mother gave when we had our first child. "If she's dry, fed, and not running a temperature, let her cry."

The great English boys' boarding schools — "public schools" — are of course at the heart of Britain's collective flagellation neurosis. The names of the schoolmasters in classic British fiction give the game away: Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickelby, Thwackum in Tom Jones … you can practically hear the birch rod hitting the glutes. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's book The Public School Phenomenon, now apparently out of print on both sides of the pond, is very good on the history here, with some wonderful anecdotes. (I have looted its pages shamelessly for the following illustrations.) The offenses boys were flogged for were not always what you might expect. In the 1660s, smoking was made compulsory at Eton, as it was believed to be a prophylactic against the plague. A certain Tom Rogers remarked about this time that "he was never so much whipped in his life as he was one morning for not smoking." A hundred years later, Sam Johnson observed that: "There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what the boys get at one end, they lose at the other."

Fifty years further on, Dr. John Keate, headmaster at Eton 1809-34, was a notorious flogger. On one memorable occasion in 1810, he flogged the entire lower fifth form — about 100 boys.

He did so in public, in front of anyone who cared to watch, and in front of those about to be beaten. Before long, angered or excited by the sight of their friends being flogged, the audience began to stamp and shout. Soon they began to throw eggs at Keate; his task of flogging, while also dodging and sloshing about in burst eggs, became not only ludicrous but impossible. He had to send out for the assistant masters to patrol with birches while he beat the final eighty-odd boys.

Yet, as Gathorne-Hardy notes, as a method of discipline, all this flogging was virtually useless. "The noise from Keate's classes was continuous and deafening, so that passers-by would stop and listen in wonder." (To be sure, it did not help that Keate's classes were often 200 strong.)

The more you look at the flogging culture of these schools, the more the whole thing looks like one of those inexplicable, cruel and pointless cultural aberrations that nations fall into, sometimes for centuries at a time — like foot-binding in China. And though I am normally suspicious of cheap psychological explanations for human behavior, it seems clear that all that flogging did have some negative consequences on individual victims. When Evelyn Waugh went to Ethiopia in 1936, his first call was on the British Ambassador. Waugh recorded the event in his diary as follows:

Arrived Addis 4 p.m. Dinner with British mission. Asked me to beat him.

Well, I didn't go to one of those schools myself. My primary school had some fine and dedicated teachers, but it was in a slum, and the kids were a very rough crowd. Whacking on the hand with a ruler was common. Done skillfully, it hurt like a bitch. For more serious defaulters, the headmaster kept a stout cane, also for use on the hand. There was no thwacking on the bottom in either of my schools. (They were both day schools, and the folklore on this subject was that the target of chastisement was related to the type of sexual misconduct boys were thought most likely to indulge in: at day schools, masturbation, ergo the hand; at boarding schools, buggery, ergo the bottom. I have no idea whether this theory has any foundation in the behavioral sciences.) My secondary school, for all that it aped the old-established boarding schools in a lot of ways — we had a "house" system, and played rugger instead of soccer — had corporal punishment only in theory. I don't recall any boy being beaten in all my seven years at the place, though it's possible I missed something. The flogging culture had pretty much died out from British life by that time, anyway.

So whatever you might think, I come to this issue with a mind unclouded by prejudice and a heart uncontaminated by any trauma more severe than a stinging palm at age ten. If you come to dine at my house while the wife and kids are away, I shall not ask you to beat me, I promise (though if you feel like doing the dishes, I won't object). From this standpoint of lofty objectivity, I declare that I don't see much wrong with a little corporal punishment. I have smacked my own kids, when they have been exceptionally naughty — a sharp smack on the back of the hand. I haven't done it often — once or twice a year, I think — and I have never hit them anywhere other than on the hand. It's an ultimate deterrent. In the matter of parental discipline, I'm a parents-rights extremist. All but the very worst parents are better for kids than institutional care. I would smack my kids in public if I thought it necessary, though it never has been. If any ACLU-subscribing busybody raised a fuss, I'd tell them to mind their own damn business, and if hauled off to court, I'd willingly beggar myself to defend my rights as a parent.

And in schools? In spite of my support for parental chastisement, and my instinctive feeling that anything liberals hate as much as they hate corporal punishment must have something to be said in its favor, I can't say I'm enthusiastic about teachers hitting kids. For one thing, I'm just not enthusiastic about teachers. Where I live, public-school teachers make $70,000 a year, work 4-hour days, take twelve weeks' vacation a year, retire at 55 on three-quarters pay and have a union armed with thermonuclear weapons. Teachers drive Volvos and vote Democrat. No, I'm not crazy about teachers as a species, though of course I know there are many honest and conscientious ones, possibly even a few Republicans. I don't want teachers hitting my kids. In my state, as it happens, they can't. If they could, I'd sign the exemption form.

However, I do like the idea of people setting standards for these things according to the custom of their own localities. One of the wonderful things about the U.S.A. is the regional variation; not just in trivial things like landscape and flora, but in manners and morals, too. Up here in Pyongyang-on-the-Hudson, our behavior is strictly circumscribed by regular directives from PC Central. Down in Lousiana, on the other hand, they drive those pickup trucks with a gun rack behind the seat, chew tobacco, breed coon dogs and hang signs saying SPARE THE ROD, SPOIL THE CHILD in the classrooms. Good luck to them. If the people of Zwolle want teachers to paddle their kids, I say, leave them alone. Parents can exempt their own kids almost everywhere the practice is permitted; or, if they feel strongly enough about it, they can always move to another state. The Tenth Amendment was still in the Bill of Rights, last time I looked, and should be honored.