Thursday, October 20, 2016

To spare or not to spare?

When the President speaks, everyone listens. Last week he spoke on corporal punishment. He justified instances of teachers and principals losing their temper and then went on to note that they, being the flawed humans they are, must be cut some slack on account of the impossibility of handling more than 30 students at the same time in one class. He could have said more, but he did not. Not surprisingly perhaps, he said all this as part of a speech delivered at a Teachers Felicitation Ceremony held at Nelum Pokuna.

This week’s column is not about whether the President of a modern democracy can or must deliver such speeches. It’s about whether the fact that teachers are as human as you and I are should shield them from legal reforms when it comes to the upbringing of children. There’s a literature that spans decades and even centuries over this area. Meanwhile, commentators from both sides of the divide have spoken vociferously and have, for the lack of a better way of putting it, simplified that divide in terms of the East/West dichotomy that dictates the thrust of debates over more compelling socio-political issues.

Which is why, when examining a topic as contentious as corporal punishment (in schools), one must privilege reason and look at what each side has to say. Some say that it contributes to a culture of strict, ramrod discipline. Others say that it marginalises those who are by nature errant as students, who can only be moulded by less harsh methods. Few, very few in fact, look beyond the rhetoric of debate and base their arguments on tested, empirical evidence.

Before delving into that evidence though, what are the arguments and the perspectives? More importantly, what is the issue? Corporal punishment, of course. But what does that term indicate? In a broad sense, it includes all forms of punishment (mental and physical) inflicted on a student for an infringement of a preconceived rule. It’s usually touted as a last resort, but more often than not is resorted to whenever and wherever a teacher loses his or her temper over the student’s intransigence.

The problem is compounded when we think of the role of the teacher. Teachers, in the most basic sense, are considered as taking the place of the parent (or in legal parlance, “in loco parentis”). In other words, if corporal punishment is considered the norm inside the house, then it is considered a norm inside the school. Long considered the most immediate and quick method of enforcing discipline, it’s easy to see how and why, regardless of the point that at law and in principal it’s the last resort, it’s used frequently: in the absence of other more expedient measures, it guarantees compliance at once.

In Sri Lanka, corporal punishment traces its origins to the Penal Code of 1883, Article 82 of which absolves a guardian (or any person acting as such lawfully) when he or she inflicts punishment on a child, if that act of inflicting the punishment is committed “in good faith.”

Now “in good faith” is probably one of the most vague legal phrases out there, but for the purposes of my column this much will suffice: despite the later reforms which invaded the Penal Code (not least being Article 308A, which explicitly provided for the offence of cruelty against children), there were subtle exceptions that shielded teachers whenever they chose to inflict punishment (Article 314, for instance, which is about the offence of “criminal force”, conveniently inserts a caveat: a schoolmaster in the “reasonable exercise of his discretion as master” who flogs a student is not, for all intents and purposes, committing that offence).

I believe that this concurrent, schizophrenic attitude of support for and opposition to corporal punishment probably explains why the contemporary discourse on it is so confusing. It has become so schizophrenic that commentators from both sides of the divide have sustained a stark, black-and-white dichotomy when it comes to the debate.

How does this dichotomy go? Simple. If you support corporal punishment, you are an outdated, unenlightened savage who hasn’t kept up with the times. If you oppose corporal punishment, you are a Westernised, enlightened gentleman who privileges the dignity of the child over the greater, collective good. That this dichotomy is as simplistic as the moral triumph of John Keating in Dead Poets Society, and that it has served to blur the intricacies of the debate even more, we should not doubt.

Which brings me to another more pertinent point: what exactly are the arguments for and against caning, flogging, kneeling down, and other forms of physical punishment?

Briefly put, those who oppose corporal punishment see it in terms of the dignity of the child. Children are wayward. They make mistakes and that has less to do with intention than with an underdeveloped mentality. Among the responses I managed to collect on this point, some were quite vociferous: just as children need to be corrected, that does not absolve teachers who think this calls for disproportionate punishment. Far from being perfect, such teachers can be and are flawed, which cogently explains how students who committed no crime can, in the general order of things, be punished and flogged by mistake.

No less a person than the President (in that aforementioned speech) gave an instance where he had been caned for a mistake committed by another student. The most vociferous response to this came from a friend of mine, who quite eloquently said that when such instances of punishment for uncommitted crimes go unnoticed, they add to a society in which even upholders of the law either punish innocents or blow relatively trivial crimes out of proportion and torture the offenders.

That is correct. One need only flip through Basil Fernando’s harrowing Narrative of Justice in Sri Lanka to realise that this country is chock-a-block with glaring instances of injustice and disproportionate punishment meted out against innocents.

The message given to students when they are punished out of proportion, quite obviously, is that there shouldn’t be recourse to appeal when authority is involved, or in other words, that authority figures are beyond reproach and hence, even if a crime was not committed, some past sin may have compelled the student to be pulled up and punished (the reference to past sins takes a new dimension when considering the attitude of compliance fostered in Sri Lanka, perhaps a result of the privileged status of Buddhism and multiculturalism).

Do these arguments indicate in any way the primeval, sadistic urges of those who mete out such punishments? Not necessarily. It’s reasonable to surmise that far from enjoying the infliction of those punishments, the teachers involved are driven by an honest desire to retain discipline and efficiency in an institution which is by default run on uniformity and standardised procedures. That however doesn’t license the continuity of harsh sanctions thrown at students, if such sanctions result in their dignity being compromised on considerably. In simpler terms, we can conclude: the discourse against corporal punishment has mainly to do with the individuality of the child.

The arguments for it, by comparison, are more colourful and varied. Responses on this count range from “If I were not caned, I would not be where I am today” or “The teacher punished me for a reason, which made me a better human being” to “Children need to be disciplined in order to adapt them for the life to come after school.” “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is a frequently quoted line tossed out to justify caning and floggings, while the discourse against them is generally pooh-poohed on the grounds that it’s a “Western disease” (that is not a term I made up and that is a term that a distinguished writer and commentator used to defend those for punishment).

The main problem with these arguments, one can correctly infer, is that they are coloured by an artificial dichotomy between the East and the West. In other words, those for corporal punishment think that their opponents are Westernised and are considered more “enlightened” than them. That helps explain why they believe that corporal punishment is a Sri Lankan (or “Eastern”) method of instilling discipline, or why they believe that its abolition in the West (in particular, Britain and the United States) has led to a deterioration of values (whatever that means) in that part of the world.

This compels two points or problems.

The first. The assertion that our education system from its inception privileged caning and other forms of physical punishment is only half-true. Historical records do not show whether our pirivenas ever institutionalised caning and flogging the way they have been today. In fact one of the biggest myths surrounding this side of the debate is that caning is endemic to Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. While the ramrod austerity of Confucianism can explain the rigidity of the education systems in East Asian countries, that hardly explains the contemporary fascination with corporal punishment here.

The second. While historical records do not bear out the view of these commentators over pirivenas institutionalising physical punishment, they do point at how those who invaded this country privileged caning, flogging, and kneeling down as preferred sanctions for errors and crimes in the classroom. More than the Portuguese and the Dutch, it was the British who pioneered the modern education system in Sri Lanka. Until their arrival, we were complete strangers to the concept of public schools: needless to say, it is in these public schools that the image of the bespectacled, old principal holding the rattan cane was first formed.

Let’s not forget, after all, that the sections in the Penal Code absolving teachers were authored by Englishmen, not “natives.” Let’s not also forget that inasmuch as various Circulars issued by those in charge of education policy here (in particular, the Circulars of 1907 and of 1927, the latter being the first such issued by the Education Department on the subject) regulated the use of the cane and limited it to glaring instances of indiscipline, calls for abolition came much, much later, and could hardly be said to be “Westernised.” That is why some believe that the culture of caning students excessively, like our puritanical attitude to sex and divorce, was a result of “enlightened” laws drafted by Victorian men.

I suppose this makes the debate a tad easier to end: are you for a system of laws written and enforced by Victorians, however enlightened they may have been, or are you for the calls for reform made by bodies that have evolved considerably from the Victorian Era? Or in still other words, would you prefer to remain Westernised in the Victorian sense of that term or Westernised in the modern, civilised sense of that term? I abhor such simplifications, but for purposes of clarity I suspect that is what makes out for the ultimate resolution of this debate.

As for the argument that goes to the tune of “If it wasn’t for my teachers caning me, I wouldn’t be here”, suffice it to say that what holds well for one student may not hold for a great many others. If personal experience is anything to go by, I was not caned, flogged, or made to kneel down, nor for that matter were my friends (our school nominally banned corporal punishment), but none of us actually consider that as having degraded us, whether as human beings or as citizens of this country.

Teachers are imperfect. I am willing to bet that the vast majority of those we encountered in our schools scolded, punished, or sent out SOMEONE in our class for a crime he or she did not commit. Sooner or later, there will appear a student who will crack up. In this globalised world of ours, with access to other modes of civilization, there will be rebellion against authority. Wouldn’t it be better to correct the excesses of a system that has been instituted for over a century, rather than letting those excesses pass by without remedy and letting them contribute to an already fractured society?

One final point: those who compare our “idyllic” society with societies that are “deteriorating” in the West because of the abolition of corporal punishment there would do well to stop cherry-picking. They should look away from America and Britain. They should look to Finland. It’s not prone to race riots, ragging, and indiscipline that other more convenient countries are endowed with. Its schools are ranked among the best in the world. Those schools have defied conventional wisdom and done away with standardised tests. By all counts, they should be failing. They are not.

Now here’s the clincher: Finland banned corporal punishment in schools more than a century ago. Lawful chastisement (doublespeak for the “in good faith” punishments absolved by our Penal Code) was done away with in 1969. Parents and teachers can be sued for assault even under the Penal Code there, drafted just six years after ours was. Considering the relatively short time period between its enactment and the abolition of corporal punishment in schools (just 30 years), it would doubtless horrify educationists who continue to see deterioration in the West. Finland, if their assumptions hold true, should be failing.

And yet, it’s not. There’s zero tolerance on caning and flogging. Zero tolerance on physical punishment, period (and not just in schools: by 1983 corporal punishment was banned completely). Zero tolerance on teachers who take their “in loco parentis” status as a license to force students to comply.

If Finland is anything to go by, the West hasn’t fallen down. Not by a long shot.

The point is, cherry-picking serves no purpose. If you want to extol the virtues of corporal punishment, you’re looking into the wrong places. A regime of institutionalised punishment can’t hold much longer in a context where the rest of this globalised world has embraced less heinous methods. To conflate caning with discipline is wild, but to go on a tangent and claim that an essentially Victorian construct like our public schools continued a system of punishment that is endemic to our country is wilder.

We’re barking up the wrong tree, I believe. Time we realised this and moved on. Time we looked at our priorities and asked ourselves, “Do we really want our children to grow up and be better citizens, or do we want them to genuflect unconditionally before authority, WHATEVER that authority is?” The answer, I believe, shouldn’t be hard to answer. At all.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Written for: Ceylon Today, October 18 2016