Progress and Punishment

What should teachers do when students misbehave? This might seem like a simple nuts-and-bolts question, but for generations it has triggered culture-war debates. Conservatives often insist that children need traditional punishments; progressives warn that those punishments only make behavior worse and that harsh discipline tends to land heaviest on minority kids.

Are we ready yet?

Are we ready yet?

In the recent issue of Mother Jones, Katherine Reynolds Lewis reviews the disciplinary work of psychologist Ross Greene. Like other progressives over the course of the last century, Lewis argues that traditional forms of school discipline are utterly wrong-headed.

As Lewis reports,

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

Teachers using Greene’s approach build positive relationships with misbehaving kids. Instead of offering a set of rewards and punishments, teachers try to let students explain and vent their negative feelings.

According to Lewis, the system works. Reluctant teachers (and prison guards) have been brought around by the dramatic positive results.



Historically, not everyone has been so smitten with these sorts of interventions. As I argue in my recent book, conservative school activists in the 20th century insisted that Greene-style reforms were hopeless. Not only did they fail, conservatives thought, such progressive claptrap fundamentally misunderstood the nature of humanity and education.

As Max Rafferty put it in 1968, children need to be understood on their own terms:

a child is not a little man. He is a being in transition and a lot closer to the raw simplicities of the primeval jungle than any of us will ever be again or than we like to think we ever were. Childhood may be mystic, as Victor Herbert said, but it’s often very far from merry.

For one thing, the child lives in a world where both time and space are vastly different from ours. A year to a child may easily be a week to us. A bungalow to us six-footers is a skyscraper to him, a wooded grove the limitless forests of Xanadu.

He is notably impatient where we have learned patience. He is openly and candidly selfish where we have been pressured by the needs of society to conceal our own self-interest. He is direct where we are devious, simple where we prefer to be complicated.

In response to earlier generations of Greene-style disciplinarians, Rafferty responded,

There speaks the progressive educationist. Adjust to your environment at any cost. Don’t try to change things. After all, nothing is really ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’


What’s wrong with teaching the kid that fighting in school is wrong?

Why not outlaw profanity and bring back the good old soap-in-the-mouth bit for youngsters who can’t keep a clean tongue in their heads? The school exists to make Johnny a better boy.

In an earlier work, Rafferty blasted the progressive assumptions of Greene-style approach to discipline.

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler. . . . Prior to 1930 school discipline was built around corporal punishment. It always had been. Education had walked and in hand with the hickory stick apparently since time began, and virtually every teacher who ever lived took this state of affairs for granted.

School, you see, was not considered ‘fun’ in those days. It was a mighty serious business and was conducted that way. At any rate, once the two premises are accepted that (1) boys won’t behave in schools unless compelled to do so and (2) boys must be made to behave so that they can learn things that are essential for them to know, then the whole paraphernalia of corporal punishment falls into proper perspective. . . . Things have changed of late in the field of discipline, and more than somewhat. They started to change at home first, back in the twenties and thirties. The prime mover in their change was the new psychology, which was widely publicized and which caused parents seriously to doubt their proper role vis-à-vis their children for the first time in the recorded history of the human race. . . . The result was the emergence of the least-repressed and worst-behaved generation of youngsters the world had ever seen. The psychologists had been right in one respect. Junior certainly had no repressions. He could have used a few.

In Lewis’s telling, Rafferty’s brand of traditionalism flies out the window when teachers and parents see the positive results of progressive discipline. I’m not so sure. After all, as Rafferty’s work from the 1960s shows, Greene’s brand of progressive reform has been around since the 1920s. It didn’t convince conservative skeptics then and I don’t think it will now.

The questions go deeper than just classroom efficiency. Some traditionalists, IMHO, will continue to believe that old-fashioned forms of discipline—yes, including corporal punishment—are not just more effective, but more closely connected to the true nature of childhood.

Traditional Education Is Not Illegal…or Is It?

Nobody thinks men should punch their wives and drag them through hotels. But plenty of traditional educators and parents DO think that corporal punishment is not only proper, but necessary.  The recent controversies in the National Football League seem to show that corporal punishment is now both illegal and morally abhorrent.  Does this mean that traditional education is done for?

In case you don’t follow sports news, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens has recently come under fire for brutally punching his then-fiancee and dragging her face-down through a hotel.  [Warning: This video is disturbing.]  The leadership of the National Football League, too, has been accused of initially downplaying this horrific incident.

Perhaps due to all this attention, another NFL star has been punished severely for physically abusing his son. In this case, Adrian Peterson has been accused of beating his four-year-old son with a switch.  His team immediately deactivated him and now a warrant has been issued for Peterson’s arrest.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not a supporter of corporal punishment in any form. I would not allow my daughter’s school to use physical punishment on her and I do not think schools should use such punishment on any kids.

But I understand that lots of people do support corporal punishment. It has long been a fundamental tenet of traditional education that children must be disciplined, physically if necessary.  In the arguments of traditionalists, this is in the children’s best interest.

For example, arch-conservative school leader Max Rafferty argued in 1964 that American education relied on sensible corporal punishment.  As Rafferty put it,

Prior to 1930 school discipline was built around corporal punishment. It always had been.  Education had walked and in hand with the hickory stick apparently since time began, and virtually every teacher who ever lived took this state of affairs for granted.

In Peterson’s case, the grand jury did not disagree that corporal punishment was legal. Rather, according to the New York Times, the grand jury concluded that Peterson’s punishment was “not reasonable and did not reflect community standards of what was reasonable discipline.” It seems Peterson hit his son severely enough to leave cuts and bruises.

Again, I fully support the criminalization and condemnation of this kind of severe beating of a young child. But sometimes publicity can have a strange effect.  In this case, Peterson was accused of beating his son TOO SEVERELY, not of beating his son in general.  The grand jury specified that Peterson’s application of corporal punishment violated community norms, not that Peterson’s use of corporal punishment was itself illegal.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the take-away for many Americans will be that all forms of corporal punishment have been rendered illegal. So here’s my question: Will traditionalist parents and teachers now assume that corporal punishment in toto is illegal?  Immoral?

How to Hit your Child

What do you do when your kids misbehave?  Do you hit them?  Or is that a form of abuse?  It seems as if our culture is confused about this question.  Throughout the twentieth century, as I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives argued that parents and teachers MUST beat children in traditional ways.  Anything else threatened civilization itself.  Has that attitude changed?

Is this "abuse?" Or is this "parenting?"

Is this “abuse?” Or is this “parenting?”

In American culture, a certain form of physical correction of children by parents has long been the norm.  Especially “spanking.”  In this kind of punishment, the child is swacked on the butt by the parent, either with a hand, a spoon, a brush, a belt, or some other mild weapon.

As a survey article in National Review Online describes, states now differ in their laws about spanking.  In New York, for instance, a judge recently ruled in favor of parents’ right to spank, as long as it is done mildly, with only an open hand.  In the New York case, the parent insisted he had not used a belt on his child.  That would have crossed the line, he felt.  In other states as well, courts have struggled to draw clear boundaries between acceptable spanking and unacceptable child abuse.

Until 2012, according to the NRO article, all 50 states recognized parents’ right to spank their own children.  In that year, Delaware passed a law forbidding any form of physical punishment.  At the first and second degrees, parents in Delaware can be charged with a felony for causing harm to their children.

As you might expect, a certain sort of conservative finds this sort of law outrageous.  Not only should the rights of parents over their children be sacrosanct, some conservative activists have argued, but spanking is a healthy and humane form of punishment.  The Home School Legal Defense Association, for example, called Delaware’s new law “a violation of the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, including the long-recognized right to administer reasonable corporal discipline.”

It’s not a new issue.  As I found during my research for my upcoming book, educational conservatives have long insisted on the right and duty of both parents and teachers to use physical punishment on unruly youth.  For some conservatives, this sort of corporal punishment is the only way to properly shape character.  As the old saying goes, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

In 1950 Pasadena, for instance, local activists bubbled over with their outrage at progressive novelties in their local public schools.  One parent insisted that teachers must use “whipping . . . when the situation calls for such punishment.”  The problem, many conservatives in Pasadena thought at the time, was not that teachers might abuse students.  Rather, the danger came from a generation of children left uncorrected and unbowed to authority.  Such unguided youth, one letter-writer complained, were in danger of total “moral disintegration.”  And the obvious reason for that disintegration, according to this anonymous writer, was the “fatal lack of the right kind of instruction in our schools.”

A few years later, conservative stalwart Max Rafferty agreed on the importance of corporal punishment.  In his 1964 book What Are They Doing to Your Children, Rafferty warned of the dangers of progressive methods.  New teachers, Rafferty explained, came

Fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, [they] compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself.

Instead, Rafferty believed, the traditional methods remained the best.  Each teacher should learn when and how to correct a student using physical punishment.  In the old days, Rafferty wrote, such things were beyond argument.  In times past, Rafferty described, some parents might

Storm into the schoolyard and whip the teacher for abusing little Willie, but by far the more typical parental reaction to the tearful complaint ‘Teacher licked me!’ was to reach for the razor strop and give a home version of teacher’s treatment out in the woodshed.

Rafferty and the Pasadena conservatives knew that such physical punishment was controversial in their own times.  Each conservative writer appealed to a past in which teachers and parents had an unfettered right and duty to use appropriate methods to raise children right.  In 1950 and 1964, conservatives saw themselves as stalwarts of traditional methods.  Those methods had already come under attack by dunderheaded progressives.

So there is nothing new to controversy over corporal punishment.  Yet clearly, as the NRO review shows, things are changing.  Could we be on the cusp of a new age for corporal punishment?  Will more states follow Delaware in outlawing all forms of physical punishment?


Death, Taxes, … and Teacher Abuse?

School bullying can be tough.  Once kids get the taste of blood, they will often hound their victims mercilessly.  The victims have no place to run, especially in the new world of cyber-bullying.

Anyone who survived middle-school in America knows that the tired old advice to “tell the teacher” is only guaranteed to make it worse.  But what about when the victim is the teacher himself?

A story on National Public Radio this morning details a new law in North Carolina designed to protect teachers from student cyberbullying.

Lisa Miller reported the story of one teacher:

“Chip Douglas knew something was up with his 10th-grade English class.  When he was teaching, sometimes he’d get a strange question and the kids would laugh.  It started to make sense when he learned a student had created a fake Twitter account using his name.

“‘It was awful,’ he says. ‘It had this image of me as this drug addict, violent person, supersexual, that I wouldn’t want to portray.’

“Douglas told the kids he planned to call the police—because under the new North Carolina law, the student behind the tweets could spend a month in jail and pay a $1,000 fine.”

As any educational historian will tell you, Facebook and Twitter aside, there is nothing new to teacher abuse.  In nineteenth-century schools, a prime consideration of teaching prowess was physical prowess.  In those “good old days,” teachers often had to physically overpower their students in order to control a classroom.  As historical Carl Kaestle argued in Pillars of the Republic (New York, 1983, p. 19), many schools in the 1800s required male teachers, since “the older boys were often stronger than [women teachers] were.  It was for this latter reason that female teachers were in many districts employed only during the summer sessions, when the older children were generally working.”

My research for my 1920s book found similar assumptions during that decade.  Perhaps the most intriguing glimpse of teacher abuse came in a little snippet I uncovered in the legislative record for the Florida State House of Representatives for 1923.  Tucked away with all the other proposed bills was this little mystery:

“House Bill No. 747:

“A bill to be entitled An Act to amend Section 5443 of the Revised General Statutes of Florida, relating to the insulting of teachers upon the school grounds. 

“Which was read the first time by its title and referred to the Committee on Education.”

Despite my digging, I couldn’t find out any more about the fate of this odd little bill.  I do know that it was submitted by request, meaning that some Floridian wrote to his or her state representative and asked for a law like this.

Did a teacher suffer insults on school grounds?

Did he or she yearn to prosecute the little brat?  Or brats?

If so, the hapless teacher would have been better off to teach in North Carolina in 2013.

Or maybe not.  The teacher described in the NPR story had to resign.  The law could not protect him after all.