Corporal Punishment in American Education: Readings in History, Practice, and Alternatives

By Irwin A. Hyman; James H. Wise | Go to book overview

20 Corporal Punishment

B. F. Skinner

Corporal punishment has, of course, a very long history. The Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans all flogged their schoolboys -- there were no schoolgirls then. In medieval times it was the same. In England, even today, teachers' magazines contain advertisements for the taws -- a leather strap preferred to the cane because it leaves no marks.

If you belieive that what has always happened is going to happen, then history is certainly on the side of corporal punishment. But you might as well argue that it is also on the side of tyranny, despotism, military dictatorship, and police states. Almost every nation in recorded history has controlled its citizens through punitive measures, and issues between nations have almost always been resolved by that particular form of punishment called war.

We are proud of our efforts and occasional achievements in moving toward other ways of dealing with each other as people, and with other nations as nations. If education cannot lead in that movement, it can at least follow. The mistake has been to suppose that the alternative to punishment is permissiveness. If you take away the teacher's rod, the teacher feels helpless. Over the years, through the last half or three-quarters of a century, in the name of progressive education, education has abandoned one task after another because the teacher lacked the power to teach, and we come at last to a desperate situation. Those who support education must ask education to do something for them, and teachers must return to more effective methods. Many people suppose that there must therefore be a return to the aggressive, violent, punitive method of corporal punishment. A more effective alternative, which we are now pretty clear about, is hard to implement. We are naturally aggressive, for nature operates through aggressive techniques, as you will see if you watch any animal society. Moreover, we quickly learn to treat each other adversely because the results are quick.

This is an edited version of an essay presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., August 1976.

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