the history of education and childhood 

next page

A Study of Attitudes Towards Corporal Punishment as an Educational Procedure From the Earliest Times to the Present

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Faculty of Education, University of Victoria, 1971,

by Robert McCole Wilson

Author's address: Robert McCole Wilson, (87 Cottonwood St.) Box 838, Lake Cowichan, B.C., V0R 2G0 Canada.

Author's email address:

Web editor's note:

This 1971 study is still relevant, offering a rich selection of historical material and many interesting observations. For this 1999 online edition, the author wrote a new Afterword; also, some illustrations were added to the original text.

To navigate through this work, either scroll down and follow the "next" links at the bottom of each page, or choose a chapter below:


1.   The Problem

1.1  A Continuing Controversy
1.2  Previous Investigation
1.3  The Procedures
1.4  Questions
2.   The Origins: Primitive Societies to the Middle Ages

2.1  Primitive Tribal Societies
2.2  Early Civilized Societies
2.3  The Hebrews
2.4  Ancient Athens
2.5  The Spartans
2.6  The Romans
2.7  The Middle Ages
2.8  Summary
3.   The Rise of Humanism and the Conflict with Tradition

3.1  Renaissance Italy
3.2  The Northern Renaissance
3.3  Protestant Leaders
3.4  Continental Education before 1800
3.5  England to the 18th Century
3.6  Summary
4.   The Intellectual Revolution

4.1  General Philosophical Attitudes towards Punishment
4.2  The Influence of Rousseau
4.3  Other Nineteenth Century Educational Philosophers
4.4  Summary
5.   The Social Revolution

5.1  The Schools of England in the Nineteenth Century
5.2  North American Schools of the Nineteenth Century
5.3  Official Regulation of Corporal Punishment
5.4  Children's Punishments in Fiction
5.5  Summary
6.   The Positive Approach

6.1  Background
6.2  Twentieth Century Philosophers
6.3  Experimental Psychology
6.4  Clinical Psychology
6.5  Teacher Training Literature
6.6  A Major English Survey (1952)
6.7  The Present Situation
6.8  Summary
7.   Discussion and Summary
8.   Afterword (December 1999)

Bibliography and links

author's 1939 school class

Glum faces: the author's 1939 school class.


This thesis is an attempt to help clarify the issue of corporal punishment in schools by looking at the historical development of the attitudes which are currently held. The views on corporal punishment of influential educational thinkers from the earliest times to the present have been presented and analysed. Also the degree to which these views were a reflection of, or contrast to, the attitudes of the time has been noted. It was shown that the arguments against corporal punishment could be broadly classified into motivational arguments (it doesn't work) and ethical arguments (it is morally wrong).

The educational legacy of corporal punishment from earlier European societies provided a time-worn acceptance closely bound up with religious and social attitudes. A few exceptional individuals, particularly Quintilian, spoke out in opposition, as did certain Humanists during the Renaissance period, but with little general effect. Early Protestant leaders found support for its use in Old Testament edicts, but organised Catholic Orders in France began to use more subtle methods of motivation which greatly reduced the fear of physical pain as an incentive. Despite occasional protests, England was to accept rigorous teaching methods until well into the 19th century.

While there was much violence and brutality in that century, more and more of the leading thinkers opposed man's inhumanity to man, and to child. Although Rousseau was the most influential, almost all of the leading educational philosophers of this century opposed corporal punishment except as a last resort. The belief that a child should be motivated to higher achievement and better behaviour through love and interest grew, along with the stress on more acceptable teaching methods, and an attractive school environment. European schools became a contrast to those in English-speaking countries where change was much slower. But here, too, change was to come through the moral persuasion of educational leaders, the restrictions placed on corporal punishment by official bodies, the general improvement in teacher training and the vast improvement in school buildings and equipment. Among the most influential in changing public opinion were writers of fiction who portrayed the effects of brutality on children.

The 20th century has brought closer to fulfillment the promise of the nineteenth. Better quality teachers have introduced into classrooms more positive teaching methods which avoid harsh methods of discipline and motivation. While experimental psychology has not yet clearly shown the effects of punishment, clinical psychology has contributed much in the examination of deeper motives of both punisher and victim, and has attempted to cure behavioral problems through individual counselling and therapy. Despite advances in psychology, however, the opposition to corporal punishment continues to rest most securely on ethical arguments.


The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the assistance given by Dr. Cary F. Goulson, the Chairman of the Thesis Committee, who gave generously of his time and advice. Acknowledgement of his assistance does not imply any responsibility for the viewpoints expressed, or for any inadequacies in the text.

Suggestions or comments to the author:

Mail to

Other suggestions or comments:

Mail to

top of page

next page
©  Copyright 1997-2000 Robert M. Wilson / The History of Education and Childhood
@ Nijmegen University, NL
December 13, 1999