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The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

March 14 2004 at 6:57 AM
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From The Sydney Morning Herald, 6th December 1983, p. 3.

Blessed Birch dropped by schools
By Luis M. Garcia
Education Reporter

A game called the Blessed Birch, originally designed to teach children about human rights, has been dropped from the curriculum of some schools because their parents believed it could introduce their children to bondage and discipline.

The game works like this.

Students in a class form a circle and become the Court of the Blessed Birch. The teacher then appoints a judge, who sits in the centre of the circle and makes rules for the class to follow, such as 'total silence' or 'no smiling'.

Any member of the class can accuse another of breaking the rule. The judge then delivers his or her verdict, the 'rule breaker' is punished by being caned with the birch - a rolled up newspaper.

The Blessed Birch is one of several activities for schoolchildren contained in a book published by the Human Rights Commission and called Teaching Human Rights.

The book and other resource material is part of a course in human rights now being developed by the commission for use in Australian schools next year.

Copies of the book, still in draft form, have been sent to educators, teachers, and education departments throughout the country for comment and discussion.

Some schools, including at least one in NSW, have used the course as part of the curriculum for evaluation purposes.

According to the commission the aim of the course was to teach schoolchildren about human rights and how to defend those rights.

But to some people, like the Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE) group, the Blessed Birch 'game' is a child's introduction to bondage and discipline.

'The only thing that distinguishes the Blessed Birch activity from bondage and discipline is the fact that the participants are wearing school uniform instead of leather and chains,' a spokesman for PTAVE said.

The spokesman said that the Blessed Birch game legitimised corporal punishment in schools, and even raised the practice to the level of a religious rite.

Dr Ralph Tettman, who compiled the course, said yesterday that the Blessed Birch had only been included in the draft proposal for discussion purposes.

He said the commission had received some complaints about the game and that it had been decided that it should be dropped from the course.

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Bob T

Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 14 2004, 8:31 AM 

I guess the children of Au. can be thankful for PTAVE.
I wouldn't under any circumstances teach human rights by hitting even if it is only a newspaper.Imagine the humiliation of being falsely accused,convicted,and punished in front of your classmates.

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Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 14 2004, 9:18 AM 

Quote: ‘parents believed it could introduce their children to bondage and discipline.’

These parents are as filthy-minded as that horrible old bag, Mary Whitehouse, who saw sex in everything.

I know a headmaster of a Roman Catholic School who objects to the word ‘fingering’ being used in violin lessons. The man is sick.

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Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 15 2004, 9:07 PM 

Maybe - if you don't mind the ultimate result where teachers in New South Wales schools today, face the threat of disciplinary action in they raise their voice to a child, scold a child, reprimand a child, or dares to defend themselves from a child who tries to stab them.

Where you can (at least in theory, thankfully so far commonsense seems to have prevailed) be sacked for telling little Johnny or little Jenny that it was in some way, wrong for them to destroy the work of every other child stored in the classroom.

Oh yes - PTAVE has been a wonderful boon in this country.

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Bob T

Re: Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 15 2004, 10:18 PM 

Dean; I wish I could offer the perfect solution to these problems but I can't. I do know that the answer is not a return to CP in our schools. I've stated my reasons for this position before but I will list them again for those who may not have seen them.

1.There are those teachers who abuse their right to use CP.They may be few, but one is too many.

2. Schools that use CP are magnets for teachers who also have a spanking fetish.

3. Some Teachers/Principals/Heads fall into the habit of using CP as a first resort rather than a last resort because it is fast, easy (for them),and a simple solution to what may be complicated problem for the child.

4. All the restrictions one could come up with would fail to a. weed out all the spankos. b.stop CP from being used improperly in some cases. c.prevent some children from being wrongly accused,convicted,and punished by some spanko (who was not weeded out in the hiring process) because they happen to have the size or shape bottom that he/she likes to hit.

5. I know from personal experience what it is like to have to walk on egg shells every day around certain teachers/principals to avoid getting a beating.

Try to imagine what it would be like for your child to wake up every school day with fear and dread in their heart that they might accidentally run afoul of some sadist with the lawful right to paddle/cane them for what ever minor infraction they may commit.Keep in mind that no one is perfect and it is only a matter of time before they make a mistake and have to suffer a vicious beating from some sicko who could care less what long term emotional effect it has. And to say that we could keep these type of people out of the school system is a foolish pipe dream. Some would slip through, and I say again one is too many.

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Re: Re: Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 16 2004, 12:09 AM 

Hi Bob,

I understand your position, Bob. I really do. I respect you for it - it takes guts to stand up and talk about what you went through, and I think at least part of the reason you take that step is because you want to improve things. Despite believing in corporal punishment, myself, I have a great deal of respect for most abolitionists - because they are sincerely working for what they believe is in the best interests of children.

But, responding to your points one at a time.

1. Yes, there are teachers who abuse their rights to use Corporal Punishment. And, yes, one teacher in that position is too many.

However, there are also teachers who abuse their rights to teach Physical Education - I've encountered teachers like that. There are teachers who abuse the practice of teaching swimming classes. I, personally, had to deal with a teacher who abused her right to grade my work at school.

Should we also ban physical education? Swimming classes? Grades? Really, to eliminate all risk of abuse, you'd just about have to abolish schools.

I have a close friend who is currently studying to be a teacher - last year he spent three weeks in a Melbourne state primary school. On one occasion, he found himself in a very uncomfortable position of supervising 6 and 7 year old girls who were changing for a school concert (he wasn't the only teacher in the room, I might add - his supervising teacher was there as well). Now, he has no sexual interest in small girls (at least as far as I know) - the reason he was uncomfortable is because he personally felt this was inappropriate. After he got back to university, he checked the laws to see if there was a problem. There wasn't - legally speaking there's apparently no issue with an adult male teacher supervising prepubescent girls while they are changing (it's not considered *advisable* but it's not illegal - in fact it can occasionally be a requirement).

There's a huge potential for abuse in that situation as well - but there's no law against it here.

The point I am trying to make is that there is scope for abuse in *plenty* of things that happen in school environments. You can't ban all of them. You need to set a line somewhere.

Now, is corporal punishment a special case - yes, it might be - but the mere fact that abuse is possible is not a reason for abolition by itself - though it's certainly something that should be considered along with other factors.

And, I don't think, mere abolition stops abuse. We've had abolition of corporal punishment in state schools in my state for over 20 years now - and I know of teachers in such schools who have used it since that time without any action being taken. These teachers are already breaking regulations with what they do (the cases tend to be a lower primary school teacher smacking a child). They already face a risk of dismissal if a complaint is made. I have serious concerns that when you ban moderate and mild corporal punishment, you create a situation where a teacher can easily lose control - if you know you can be sacked for smacking a six year old on the bottom - there's no real reason to stop at that point.

We've also had cases here over the last year of teachers finding other ways of punishing children - two fairly high profile cases in my state last year involved a teacher who forced a child to sit under a leaking water tank, and another teacher who made their class walk over a student. In both those cases the teachers faced disciplinary action - as they should - but there weren't specific rules banning either of those actions. If teachers go too far, we have rules to deal with them.

Abuse occurs - it will always occur. Personally, I think the abolition of corporal punishment has made covert abuse, far harder to detect, far more common than it was previously. Here, at least, when a teacher abused corporal punishment, they were generally found out fairly easily.

2. Maybe this is true in areas where it is easy to become a teacher and where corporal punishment was very common. And historically speaking, there were a lot of areas like that. Here in Australia, to become a teacher takes a minimum of four years of study. Prior to abolition in state schools (and this is apparently still true in the private schools) most principals would not even consider authorising a teacher to administer corporal punishment without a minimum of ten years teaching experience - generally considerably more.

In the modern situation we have here, a spanking fetishist would be faced with the following situation more or less - studying for four years, and then entering a profession where you will earn approximately half the income other people with similar academic qualifications can expect to earn over the course of their careers (starting teachers are pretty well paid here - but as they get more senior, other professions really overtake them) and then spend a minimum 10 years - maybe as many as 20 (and these will need to be years of excellent service, so you can become a senior teacher), before you *might* be given the power to administer corporal punishment, most likely under such strict conditions that you can find an excuse to do so, once or twice a year, and if you ever cross the line, you will probably find yourself unemployed and unemployable in the field you are trained and experienced in. And that is if you are lucky to persuade one of the private schools that still use corporal punishment to hire you, and keep you on long enough to get the service seniority required.

I really don't think there's that much likelihood that many fetishists are attracted to the profession for that reason.

Now - all right, the conditions here may not be typical - but they do exist, and I think it would be rather foolish to set rules about what happens in some jurisdictions, based on what might happen in others.

So while I don't deny that the idea of attracting fetishists is a concern that needs to be addressed - I think you can look at local situations and see if it's really a concern for them. If it is - that's an argument for abolition. If it isn't, it's not.

3. Some teachers fall into the habit of using corporal punishment as a first resort rather than a last resort because it is fast, easy (for them),and a simple solution to what may be complicated problem for the child.

True - but this is equally a problem with any other form of punishment. For me, when I moved on to my school's senior campus at the age of 14 where corporal punishment was virtually never used, and detention became the standard form of punishment, teachers used detention in precisely the way you describe.

In fact, I believe that *because* 90% of the students starting at that school had come from one of the two prep schools to the school where corporal punishment was in routine use, teachers felt detention was somehow automatically something they didn't have to consider seriously detention was handed out for everything - because it was only detention. This was one of my pet hates, I should say - because detention affected me far worse than just about anyone else in the school - it used to *really* annoy me, because these unthinking teachers were punishing me worse than anyone else - precisely because they *didn't* think.

In the prep schools (and the two prep schools were offically part of the same school as the senior school with a lot of the same people making decisions for all three schools), corporal punishment was used - and there, teachers paid a lot more attention to using other methods of discipline and other methods of dealing with problems when they were appropriate.

We had, kind of, two grades of corporal punishment in the prep school - there was a fairly mild form used more or less routinely as a classroom punishment, pretty much without thought - and frankly, I would have been quite happy to see that useage entirely abolished - I don't think it did much good, and what good was accomplished could have been accomplished in other ways. But there was a more severe form (though really still not that severe - it impressed us at age 10-13 though) which was pretty much the 'nuclear deterrant' of the school - used much more rarely - and before using that method, teachers always considered whether or not it was the best way of dealing with the problem. For example, theoretically it was the punishment for bullying - which was a very serious offence. [In fairness, I should also point out that there was a punishment referred to as 'Penals' in the school - which didn't directly involve corporal punishment, just it's threat - and it was, in my opinion, utterly unjustifiable and... I'm not sure if it was actually abusive - but at the very least it came close. My school wasn't perfect.]

At a rough estimate, I think maybe a third of bullying cases were dealt with using corporal punishment - in most cases, it was dealt with through other methods such as peer mediation, counselling - lots of the supposed 'best practice' methods.

The thing is (I'm probably overusing that phrase, but I've been doing formal writing all week) - while I agree that many teachers have at times been inclined to overuse corporal punishment, this isn't something that has to happen. If this is occurring, I think there are ways you can limit it.

And I, personally, don't think it's a good idea to limit all teachers based on the lowest common denominator.

Presumably we *want* good teachers in schools working at their full potential. To achieve that, you really need to *trust* teachers. When you assume as a default, worst case practices, and make up rules to protect against them - you wind up crippling all your good teachers for the sake of the bad ones.

I should also mention that it is possible to design systems which make it far less likely that teachers will resort to corporal punishment lightly - most of the private schools here that still use corporal punishment (and those that have abolished over the last ten years) adopted variations on a particular system that seems to me to have been very successful in that regard. You can deal with these problems with less than abolition.

On question 4, I simply disagree with you - I think you can come up with restrictions and regulations to accomplish these things - at least, you can in many educational environments. You probably can't in environment with less qualified teachers, or where corporal punishment is used with great regularity.

But, you see, I don't want either of those situations. I want qualified teachers (and where I live we have them, so that's not a major problem) and I'm happy to see corporal punishment reduced to a last resort.

I don't *personally* think that should be entirely necessary. It wasn't a last resort at my school, and I don't think it did me any harm - on the contrary, in fact. But my *biggest* concern is what happens to children now in the absence of corporal punishment.

I don't think suspension, exclusion, or expulsion are better than corporal punishment. And in most educational jurisdictions I am aware of, they are what has replaced it.

Personally I would be more or less happy with a situation where corporal punishment could *ONLY* be used as a potential alternative to suspension or expulsion in some cases. I don't think it's necessary to go quite that far - but that would satisfy 95% of my concerns with abolition.

I could also support abolition *IF* I could be convinced that decent alternatives of some other sort had been set up. If people could point to concrete, sensible alternatives to corporal punishment with at least the same chance of working, in that situation, I could support abolition. And I think that it is possible to do this.

But most of the time when I have heard of abolition occurring - or of proposals to abolish - there hasn't been any reasonable alternatives offered. If you are going to abolish it - then make sure you have something reasonable to replace it available first.

See - I'm not really opposed to abolition - but rather to abolition for abolition's sake. If people can present a better alternative, I'm all for it.

5. As for your statement about walking on egg shells around certain teachers and principals to avoid being beaten, I don't have that experience.

What I have is expereince of being in a school were corporal punishment had been more or less abolished - and being a victim of constant bullying because it hadn't been replaced with anything. I couldn't avoid being beaten - it happened everyday, and it wasn't any better simply because it was my classmates doing it, rather than a teacher.

What I have is experience of being the only child from my neighbourhood to go to university, and one of the very few not to have been arrested during my teens - because I went to a school where I was lucky enough to have teachers who cared about my behaviour, and took effective steps to correct it.

See - part of my dilemma is quite simple.

I *benefitted* from corporal punishment in school. I really did. I developed a serious work ethic very early and very young from being in an environment where if I didn't work, I was punished for it in a way I couldn't shrug off and ignore. When I took pleasure in the pain of another person - I was punished for it in a way I couldn't shrug off, and ignore. I've had a great deal of success in my life - partly because of corporal punishment in my school - and I know a lot of my former schoolmates who feel the same way.

So supporting abolition is roughly equivalent to wanting to deny other children the same advantages I enjoyed.

From what you have said about your schooling - I can understand the way you feel. But I feel the way I do because of my schooling as well.

I have friends who go even further than I do - one of my best friends from school, honestly, and sincerely believes he would be dead today if not for corporal punishment. It stopped him killing himself.

It's not a simple equation. Corporal punishment can hurt people. But so can abolition.

So before I can accept abolition as valid, my personal belief is that I need to be convinced there are workable alternatives available. Ideally alternatives I can look at and say 'Yes - I think that would have worked for me the same way the strap did.'

I feel for you - because to me what you describe as happening to you was what I would consider absolute abuse - but many of us weren't abused - and I don't think it's reasonable to base everything in education on the abusive experiences of a few.

If we did that, my experiences would cause the banning of chemistry classes, and all disection classes.

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Lotta Nonsense

Re: Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 15 2004, 10:22 PM 

The Blessed Birch game has one purpose and one purpose only - to instill in the minds of players onlookers and others the idea that teachers whacking the bottoms of pupils is not necessarily and primarily a sexual perversion - which of course it is .
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Re: Re: Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 16 2004, 12:16 AM 

While I personally would have no objection to ascribing nefarious goals to the Australian Human Rights Commission, circa 1983... I honestly find it difficult to work out why an organisation that was working to abolish corporal punishment would have designed and promoted a game that was a deliberate attempt to conceal supposed sexual perversion in the practice.
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Bob T

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 16 2004, 4:19 AM 

Dean; There may not be a perfect solution to this problem.But the fact remains that CP no matter how mild or severe is abuse by it's very nature. You can't teach someone not to hit other people by hitting them.

I don't recall if I have related this before but I grew up with an older brother who seemed to be a magnet for bullies. I on the other hand was rarely if ever bullied. I was pretty much fearless as a child and found out early on that bullies don't like it when you fight back.However it was my fathers rule that if my brother was being bullied I had to get involved or I would get a whipping with his belt when I got home.It only took a couple of times of my brother crying to our father that "Bob wouldn't help me" that I decided I would rather get a black eye or fat lip than a beating from that belt.So I grew up fighting bullies that were always at least 2 years older than me.My brother seemed to be exempt from this rule and this caused a lot of problems between us. I would jump in and save him from getting beat up by some bully or bullies and he would stand back and not fight. When the fight was over (win or lose) I wanted to beat up my brother for not even trying to fight.Keep in mind that he is 2 years older than me and everything should have been reversed and I always resented it. I was in a no win situation. If I didn't help my brother ,I would get it at home and if I was caught fighting on the school bus I would get paddled at school for fighting.

So,although I can understand how you feel about bullies, I don't have a lot of sympathy for anyone who alowed themselves to be bullied when in most cases bullies would back off if they found out you were willing and unafraid to fight back.

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Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 16 2004, 8:11 AM 

Bob - I'm afraid I have to differ on the idea that you can't teach someone not to hit other people by hitting them. You can. I've seen it happen. Repeatedly. Bullies who stopped - because they didn't like what happened to them when they were caught.

I guess it's not really teaching them not to hit people - because they already know that what they are doing is wrong. They just don't care that it's wrong. I'm not talking about little kids - I'm talking about kids who were at least ten years old, often older - and they had a pretty clear idea of what was right and wrong by that age, and were under no illusions whatsoever that hitting other people (absent conditions like self defence, etc) was wrong. The thing was - they didn't care that it was wrong. They did it because they enjoyed it.

When they had to face up to the reality that if they were caught, they certainly would not enjoy what came later - most of them stopped. Not all - and not always instantly. But the vast majority of them rapidly worked out that the pleasure they got out of hitting other people, wasn't worth the pain they suffered a few minutes later. The few who didn't get that message - they needed other things to be tried - and at my school, that happened. Often they'd even try the other methods first - and only resort to corporal punishment if other things didn't work. It depended on the situation.

And it did work. I saw it from both sides - and I expereinced schools where this happened - and when it didn't.

I also don't think you don't fully understand the situation I faced. I did fight back - and I fought back pretty effectively actually - my father was a pretty reasonable amateur boxer - and when he died, his former coach took a paternal interest in me and wound up coaching me for years. I eventually wound doing pretty well for myself - not really professional, but I was good enough to fight some of the country's top professionals (they beat me - but I was in the fight). So even as a young kid, I could fight effectively - maybe 1 in 100 of my classmates could stand a fight with me. And when that happened with a bully - maybe 50% of the time, they wound up backing off eventually.

Thing was - while I could fight one of them at a time if they were my own age - that's not how they came at me. They used to come at me mob-handed - groups of at least four, often three or four years older than me. Sometimes even larger groups. And these blokes were the ones who weren't that cowardly - OK, yes, they had to come at me in a mass, so they were on one level - but they were the ones who'd taken the one on one fight and come back again. They didn't mind if they got a little bit burt.

They didn't just hurt me a little bit - they put me in hospital four times. When I talk about bullying, I'm not talking about a bit of playground fun and games. I'm talking about assaults that if they'd been adults could have put them in prison for years. Back then - it's changed a bit now - that type of thing wasn't an option. The law didn't get involved in schoolboy fights - they expected schools to deal with them.

It also wasn't just physical bullying. I was a bursary boy - only at the school because my fees were covered by the school. This wasn't an ordinary school - it was one of Six Great Schools of Victoria. One of the elite. Exclusive, expensive. And while my fees were covered, other costs weren't. Everybody knew part of my background - and most didn't care. But the bullies cared - or at least they used it as a way of getting at me. My uniform cost more than a week of my mother's wages - so when they shredded it during sports, that was a pretty big problem. When they destroyed my science project while it was on display in the library. When they pulled my religious studies folder, handed in at the end of the year, out of the pile to be marked and covered all my work with obscene and blasphemous - not to mention totally obscene at times - graffiti mostly directed at my teacher. When they faked a newspaper - and put up cutouts all around the school claiming my mother had been arrested as a prostitute. And most of the time - I didn't even know who was doing it.

And after the first time someone called my mother a whore and I found out who he was, and performed some dental surgery on him - even when the teachers found out who was doing it, they wouldn't tell me anymore. They punished them - and it had no effect whatsoever.

And the people who did this - with one notable exception, as far as I can tell - not one of them had been through the prep school experience. The 90% of us who had - didn't bully.

I'm not weak. I survived all this abuse - and I did well at school despite it. It got a bit better over time - basically because most of these people grew up.

But not everybody I know came through these experiences unscathed. Some were badly hurt - both physically and mentally.

You know - it seems to me that those who oppose corporal punishment are often very eager to talk about the risks of adults abusing children - but often nowhere near as concerned about kids doing it to each other.

Yeah, I survived. And I stood my ground. And I did well.

But I didn't go to school to learn how to protect myself. I didn't go to school to develop resilience to those who'd do me harm. I didn't go to school to learn how to put a man down before he put me down.

I went to school to learn maths, and English, and science, and history, and Latin - and I should have been free to do that in an environment where I wasn't constantly the victim of bigotry and bullies.

It shouldn't matter that I could defend myself. I shouldn't have had to.

And it's getting worse. After I finished school, and university, I went into the Army for a few years - something my father had wanted me to do. I guess my experiences in East Timor helped remind me why it's so important for those of us who can to protect those people who can't - that's a digression.

In all honesty, I was a merely adequate soldier - and I spent the last couple of years of my service doing fairly unmilitary stuff. But one thing I did get involved in - and I volunteered for it when I heard about it - was a program where servicemen and women went into schools to talk to kids about self-respect, and how it's not good to abuse the weak, and all sorts of things like that.

And I got to see bullying in schools today - and it's even worse (especially in state schools - private schools seemed much the same) that it was when I was a kid - and I'm only 29. I'm a historian by training (what I did at uni, before I went into the army) so I know how to read reports and records, and I did some checking.

Since 1983, when corporal punishment was abolished in state schools here, bullying has been on an absolutely constant rise. And I think the reason why is pretty clear - it's not so much because corporal punishment was abolished by itself - it is the fact that it was abolished and wasn't replaced with anything else.

And when I talk about bullying in schools - I'm not just talking about little things - there's plenty of those - but we're talking things up to and including pack rape. And I hope you wouldn't say that you "don't have a lot of sympathy" for a girl who goes through that.

Where steps have been taken to introduce other ways of dealing with the problems - they've actually worked pretty well. And that's why I'm not totally opposed to abolition - as I said, I can support abolition - in cases where something is put in place to replace it.

But not just abolition without thinking of the consequences.

There are worse things that corporal punishment - far, far worse.

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Bob T

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Blessed Birch (stranger than fiction)

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March 16 2004, 6:02 PM 

Dean; Obviously your experience was much more serious and should have been prosecuted. It sounds like the sort of things that the street gangs in Chicago would do. I had an experience similar to yours with a gang called the Latin Eagles in 1973 and ended up in Hospital. I was able to catch some of them by themselves on different occasions and get some revenge because low and behold they didn't fight very well by themselves. But of course that is why they joined a gang in the first place. The trouble with prosecuting gang members is wittnesses don't want to testify.

The state that I live in still has not abolished CP in the public Schools but most of them have banned it voluntarily. It is mostly the rural backwater type school districts that still employ it. If you were to see some of the residents of these areas, they would call to mind the characters in the movie "Deliverance" who abused the character played by Ned Beatty. And that is fairly representative of most areas in the U.S. that still employ CP in their schools.I'm not trying to cast aspersions on you personally Dean, you are obviously well educated and have studied the issue extensively. I just think that you are misguided by your own personal experience (as am I), and continue to advance your own agenda and choose to minimize the negative effects of this type of abuse. Two wrongs do not make a right even when it comes to Bullys.

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Great posts

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March 16 2004, 11:29 PM 

Just wanted to say that it is a pleasure to read these thoughtful posts from Dean and Bob T. Despite their opposing views on CP, the posts are always respectful of the other's point of view. It is rare to find such courtesy in real life, let alone on an internet message board.


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Just to get rid of all the Re:s

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March 16 2004, 11:46 PM 

Yes - well prosecution wasn't an option. It wasn't done back then - police and the courts did not get involved in things that occurred in schools. It just started to happen as I was leaving school - I was assaulted (not really bullying as much as a deliberate attack) in my final year and the police were called. In that case, I probably could have gone to court over it - but on that occasion, what the other person had done didn't seem to warrant the amount of time it would have taken at a time when I was concentrating on university entrance.

A couple of observations - there's a big cultural difference operating here. Here in Australia, in the jurisdictions where it is still legal, the schools that have retained corporal punishment tend to fall into one of two categories. The elite private schools - supposedly the best schools in the country - and a few smaller and new 'parent controlled Christian schools' which I know very little about.

Here it most assuredly is not backwater schools - but the precise opposite. If it was poorer schools, or schools deprived in other ways, I'd see more reason to want to see it abolished.

But it's not. It's the schools that produce - on the whole - our best citizens. Those who take on society's responsibilities at a young age. Those who - out of all proportion to the numbers who attend such schools - tend to take leadership positions in our society. Disproportionate numbers of doctors, lawyers, engineers, surveyors.

In a very real sense, our best and brightest - and in many ways, those who we most rely on to be hardworking, decent, honest, and honourable.

A significant number of them, of course, come from family backgrounds that give them access to power and that helps to explain their success. But most don't. Very few are from poor families, but vast numbers are from normal working families who make immense sacrifices to send their children to these schools - and their children are among the most successful.

These schools do help children to achieve their potential in a very real sense. They helped me, and they helped many of my friends.

They create close relationships among their pupils, and we talk about our schooldays and our experiences and our lives. And because being a historian gives me a kind of legitimacy when I ask questions of others, I've been able to discuss these experiences with dozens - maybe in the low hundreds - of people who went through these schools over the years. I will point out here that it's not just corporal punishment I discuss with them - but the whole social and educational fabric of their school experiences. I hope to put all that in a book someday.

The thing is - you talk about the negative effects of corporal punishment... well, if these effects were serious and significant, I'd expect to see more sign of it. Out of my close acquaintances who attended schools like mine under the shadow of the cane and the whip - none regard their experiences as negative. Many think it had a very postive effect on them - others no net effect, positive or negative. If there were serious *general* negative effects, I'd expect to encounter some mention of them.

Moving further afield, outside of my own close acquaintances into more general discussions with people I know less well - I *occasionally* encounter someone who regards their experiences with corporal punishment in schools like the ones I attended with negativity.

Maybe 1 in 50 of them have a view that they suffered from it.

When I balance that against the fact that at least 15 in every 50 feel it was positive - well, it brings up the dilemma.

Whose rights do you support - the 15 or the 1?

Another point of interest - sports play a huge role in these schools, so sport often comes up in these discussions.

Fully a third of those I talk to have negative views associated with the place sports take in these schools. If I ask them what is the thing most would like to have done without at school, sport comes out way ahead of anything else.

So if I was looking to support the banning of something in schools because of the negative effect it had had on people, it would be sporting activity.

Of course... if I did that, I'd be ignoring the views of the roughly equal number who felt sport was a positive (it's roughly a three way split - positive, negative, neutral).

All the above is mostly anecdotal. I've often thought I'd like to study this properly - and I hope to one day, if I can get the money I will need to together from somewhere. My new employer is actually somewhat interested in the idea - but I'll need to produce some decent quality work for them before they'll be willing to give me serious support in pursuing my own pet project. Five years minimum I suspect - and probably a lot longer.

But I think my experiences are valid - and I know of no data to oppose them.

Those studies that have been done on corporal punishment and its effects - with one exception, they have looked at very different cultural and educational environments to the one I experienced.

As an historian, I don't trust the idea of extrapolating general research to specific groups. It rarely works. And a lot of the research into corporal punishment hasn't even looked at general populations anyway - but rather discrete groups. As one example, I'm not prepared to automatically accept the validity of research involving poor urban American kids (research specifically undertaken because the researcher felt there were special issues involved), as applying to privileged suburban Australian ones.

I know some people have suffered negative effects from corporal punishment. But I also know some people have gained positively from it.

And that's the dilemma.

I'd love to be able to research this. I dream of the chance to do a social and educational history of the APS/GPS schools of Australia, and of their students, and former students, and being able to survey thousands of them and produce the definitive report.

But until that dream comes true, I need to go with my gut. And I know what my gut tells me.

I mentioned there was one exception to the way I described research into this field. There is - but even that's not perfect.

It's a study by Mercurio into a prestigious New Zealand boys school around 1970, and the corporal punishment practices in vogue at that school at that time. It's not a perfect match to the type of research I'd like to do - it's now over 30 years old, and it's New Zealand rather than Australia - but it's the type of research I think would be seriously useful in this regard - looking at *specific* environments - rather than generalities.

If you'd like to see it, Bob - I think it would interest you - e-mail me at kostkalad@fastmail.fm - I went to a fair amount of trouble putting together an electronic copy of it last year (the original is rather hard to get hold of) and a lawyer friend helped me identify a way of legally distributing it under certain conditions.

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Bob T

Re: Just to get rid of all the Re:s

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March 17 2004, 12:44 AM 

Dean; I thought you were aware of my policy concerning statistics. In case you overlooked it in a previous thread, it is closely aligned with a quote from a book by S.Clemens "There are three kinds of lies. Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics". So, thanks for the offer but I don't trust the results from these studies. As for your informal poll among people you know, you have had an amazing response considering that I have tried something similar and found that most men don't want to talk about their experience and women are even more reluctant. In this country, most men have a sort of macho attitude about these things and are unwilling to say if they were negatively effected by it.

As you know, I also attended one of those 'elite' Military Schools and apart from the fact that for my first two years I had a sadist for Commandant of the school it was a great place to learn. Today, most of these 'elite' schools have abolished CP because attitudes have changed and progressed. Parents don't want spend $15,000 or more per semester to send their children to a school where they use CP.

I was very involved with sports in school and don't know how I would have spent my free time without that outlet for my energy.Sports were what made all the hard work worthwhile. Bad grades = no sports. There were other incentives for getting good grades such as 'Dorm Study' which ment that you were allowed to do your evening studies in the comfort of your own dorm room rather than going back to study hall for 1.5 hrs every school night. There were other benefits for being involved in sports, such as the 'lettermens club' which had a pool table and other amenities that other cadets did not have. The ones who didn't like sports had to endure intramural sports which I would not have liked either.

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Re: Re: Just to get rid of all the Re:s

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March 17 2004, 8:02 AM 

Well, Bob, if you don't trust statistics - and I can understand that to an extent because they can be manipulated - you're basically left with your personal experiences on most issues. That may have value for you - but it's very dangerous for people in positions of authority and decision making to rely on only those feelings.

Statistics can be manipulated - and often are - but personally I don't see much sign of that problem in Mercurio's - because it isn't a statistical study for the most part. It's a social science type work that steers away from too much statistical analysis - kind of the opposite approach to the British survey results, I've been posting here recently.

Mercurio also tries to maintain balance in what he writes. I think it's pretty clear he opposes corporal punishment - but he tries to look at the specific situation he finds himself in fairly and objectively.

You don't want to read it - that's fine. Personally I tend to read these things on both sides, even if I think they are likely to be biased, or flawed, or faked - I'd rather know they are after reading them, than merely suspect. As an historian, I really have to think that way - I can't dismiss a source without reading it.

As for response to my questions - I have a huge advantage of most people - and that is that I a trained historian. That allows me to ask questions based on historical interest - and people are more likely to answer them than if they came from somebody at random. I have a couple of published articles on the history of the APS schools of Victoria, and I've contributed information to several school's magazines and annuals. Most of the time when I've first spoken to people - it's been at some function associated with the schools, and there's somebody around who can introduce me and tell others about my historical work. There's also the factor that we are a pretty tight knit group - even if I don't know someone personally, there's a good chance we have a friend in common.

I also have to admit I acquired some of my best information by making a mistake - a piece I wrote was published in an appeal one school sent out for donations to their Old Boys. About fifty people e-mailed me to point out a fairly minor error - and because they'd "helped" me with my research, most proved happy to answer some other questions for me.

Machismo isn't a major problem because of our shared experiences. I guess we assume that others who went through the same experiences are already worthy fellows - and we know it, so we can be pretty open. I wouldn't expect the same type of success outside the fellowship of those schools.

Most of the top schools in Victoria have now abolished corporal punishment, by the way - or at the very least use it so infrequently it's virtually abolished (I know of one school where it hasn't been used since the mid 1980s - but it's still officially an option open to the headmaster). But in those cases, they have replaced it with something else - in the best cases they did this at the same time - in a few cases (as is true of my own old school) it took a few years of problems before they got the message.

Whether society has moved on or not is questionable. In the two cases I know of from the late 1980s or early 1990s, when it became public knowledge that two particular private schools in Victoria still used the cane, both were inundated with enrolment inquiries. That's one of the reasons they don't publicise anymore - they really don't like being a magnet for desperate parents with children they've failed to control.

I suspect most boys at the schools that still use corporal punishment still find out about it the same way I did back in 1985. I was under the impression it had been abolished - and only found out it hadn't, when I started realising it was being used at my new school.

The thing is, here, at least since the Second World War (prior to that, at least, things were a little different) the elite private schools that used corporal punishment for the most part ensured it was used appropriately. Someone like your Commandant would not have survived in those schools. While punishment could be severe - it wasn't sadistic, and every reasonable effort was made to ensure it was just. They did that - because as private schools, their reputation was critical to their success. Schools did collapse - they did go under, for various reasons. Even very rich, very successful, very established schools. I don't know of any that collapsed because of use of corporal punishment - but it was certainly something to be aware of. These schools didn't take chances with their reputations. They needed to find the balance.

The Military School is an interesting institution - one we don't really have here in Australia. It's an idea that never really caught on here. I think partly because of the requirement we had here in the early part of the twentieth century that all teenaged boys and youths engaged in military drill to be ready to defend the Commonwealth. Universal military instruction moved things out of the realms of the schools - the elite schools tended to have Cadet Corps, but so did so many other schools - it was something you did as an extracurricular activity, certainly not a major part of the school life.

As for sport - personally I had no problem with it. I enjoyed it - I sometimes resented the time it took out of my studies especially in my senior years, but for the most part I'm one of those who felt it was a positive thing.

My point is, though, many people who went to my school, and to schools like it, do regard it with extreme negativity. As the worst part of their childhoods - far worse than the punishments they received.

Yet, banning it would negatively impact others.

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At last a real debate

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March 17 2004, 2:26 PM 

High class stuff Bob T and Dean. Thanks. If I can stick my neck in at this point... I agree with Dean to this extent - I think most school pupils under a reasonably well regulated corporal punishment regime saw it as something to be a little apprehensive about, but also perceived that they would get a slapped leg which would hurt but only for a short while. There were limits on the pain which they could gauge and take risks with, much like giving blood and knowing there will be a sharp prick when the needle goes in. And this was less threatening than the possibility of being singled out by a bully during a play period and taken away to a concealed spot. This is true in my experience.

However I must side with Bob T and say just because the above is true in my experience this not of itself a good reason for keeping corporal punishment. Bob has cited many reasons why there are dangers keeping it and I largely agree with his analysis. The fact that 2 things are wrong (bullying and controlled spanking)doesn't make the lesser wrong right.

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Bob T

Re: At last a real debate

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March 18 2004, 11:27 AM 

Dean; I quess we will have to agree to disagree on this subject.

P.S. I did not enlist the support of 47David.

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Re: At last a real debate

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March 18 2004, 10:44 PM 

I suppose I'm very much a believer in the idea of the lesser of two evils.

Yes, in an ideal world, I think corporal punishment can - and should - be abolished.

But we don't have an ideal world.

When making decisions you need to consider the world as it is - not the world as you'd like it to be.

If a decision to abolish corporal punishment is taken in the context of replacing it with something that should work at least as well (preferably better, but at least as well), that's fine.

But if the decision is just taken to abolish for the sake of abolishing, without considering the vacuum that may be created, that's not.

I've seen too many kids hurt by decisions taken on ideological grounds without regards to how the world really works.

What happened here in 1982, for the start of school year 1983, was a decision to simply abolish corporal punishment in state schools without any consideration as to what would happen in schools where it was the primary form of discipline in use.

Teachers weren't even given the most basic of suggestions as to how they should deal with students now.

And the decision was a total disaster for many schools, and for many children.

It didn't have to be - if the decision had been taken along with a decision to train and inform teachers about workable alternatives - it wouldn't have been.

But as it is, it was.

Abolition without thought is a bad idea - even if abolition itself isn't.

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Bob T


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March 24 2004, 2:23 AM 

Dean; I think I may have written about this before,but I think it bears repeating. There are teachers who never have to resort to using CP in their classrooms even though it is an option. One of my teachers had such a force of presence that everyone paid attention to whatever he was saying.Discipline was not even an issue in his class. He simply had a way about him that we all just wanted to do our best. It became a competition to set the Bell Curve on every assignment. Another teacher I had was such a nice person and put so much enthusiasm and energy into her classes that she rarely had a problem with anyone. She had the ability to take whatever the class clown or joker would say and incorporate it into what she was teaching which would put the spotlight on him and effectively bring him into the lesson killing two birds with one stone.

I think the real problem is the pay that teachers receive or lack of. If teachers were paid as much as most executives are paid, then we would attract the best of the best. As it is in this country, teachers salaries are not high enough to attract people who would like to teach but also want a higher standard of living so they go into the corporate sector. If the job paid more,we would get more of the type of teachers who don't seem to have disciple problems in their classrooms effectively ending the need for CP in the schools.

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Re: Teachers

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March 24 2004, 3:24 AM 

There certainly are teachers who can control a classroom without any need for corporal punishment, or, in some cases, without any need for punishment at all.

I had more than a few teachers who were like that during my schooling.

But I also had a few who I think honestly were incapable of controlling a class without the use of corporal punishment - but who were excellent teachers in other ways.

I'll just talk about one of my teachers.

In my second last year of school, I was privileged to have an absolutely incredibly gifted history teacher. She was, quite simply, brilliant. She had been teaching senior history for around 35 years by that time, and was quite renowned for her skills as a teacher.

Unfortunately in this particular year - look, I'll have to explain a bit of background just so you can understand the dynamics of this class. At the time, my state had a socialist government, and had had such for 9 years I think. The person who had been placed in charge of 'reforming' our education system when they took office was one of the most radical left wingers among them - and she set out to completely redesign the education system in line with her socialist ideals. As an aside - this was also the government that's first act in education had been to ban corporal punishment in all state schools for purely ideological reasons, but that's not particularly relevant here.

Anyway - for years, students in Victoria had sat their HSC exams at the end of their final year of schooling and these had determined what universities they could go to. This woman (and by the time I was in Year 11, she had risen to Premier - basically equivalent to a state governor in the US) didn't like that system because she saw it as elitist, and so she designed and implemented a new system. The VCE - the Victorian Certificate of Education (we tended to call it the Very Cruel Experiment). My year at school was the first to go through the complete VCE program.

Now - some of the changes in the VCE weren't too bad - in fact, a few were quite sensible. But one of the most hated and controversial changes was the introduction of a new subject called 'Australian Studies'. By long standing tradition, the only compulsory subject in Victorian schools for senior students had always been English - every other subject was an elective, you had to choose certain combinations - but there wasn't any other single compulsory subject.

Until this year - when Australian Studies was made compulsory for every Year 11 student in the state.

Australian Studies, was - well, it was political education, that was really intended to try and persuade us to vote Labor - to vote for this governments party. Subject matter consisted of classes on how great trade unions were, and great Australians - all of whom were prominent Labor leaders.

Now my school was a rich, elite, private school - most of were not exactly sympathetic to the socialist cause. We had, on average, four hours of homework a night (this was an unintended consequence of the VCE, which they later fixed). Our grades were going to determine our entire academic future. And we were having to deal with this claptrap.

And this wonderfully, brilliant teacher was lumbered with teaching Australian Studies.

Now she truly was a brilliant teacher - for teaching two classes of twenty boys each who had chosen to study history. Boys who wanted to be there, with an interest in her subject.

Teaching 8 classes of 30 boys, a subject none of them cared about, and which most actively resented having to do - that was a totally different ball game.

This woman had never even needed to raise her voice in class before. She didn't have any of the necessary skills needed to enforce discipline.

Her classes became a total disaster, very quickly. People were not paying any attention to her - those who wanted to learn weren't getting the chance. And she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Eventually she took a day off work.

That day, one of our teachers - I can't remember his title, but he was officially in charge of all discipline in the senior school came into our class carrying a strap.

We were 16 years old at this stage - and almost certainly none of us had been strapped in over two years. While the strap was in regular use in our prep schools - at the senior school, it was used only extremely rarely and in total privacy. I never got it, and I don't know anyone else who did - the threat existed, we all knew that - but it was hardly ever used. In all honesty, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it was *NEVER* used in my time at the senior school.

Most of us - probably 90% of the class - had been to the prep schools, and most of us had been strapped while there. We knew what it felt like. We remembered.

He put the strap down on the desk - and he read us the riot act. He tore us to pieces for our behaviour in class - in actual fact, I'd behaved myself - he made me feel seriously guilty though that I hadn't taken a stand against the behaviour of others though. We sat there and we listened to his every word - at least I did, and I think mostly everybody else did. We could see the strap and none of us were going to provoke him into doing more than talking. He didn't yell. He didn't scream. He didn't need to. At the end of that class, I felt absolutely wretched - far worse than I would have from a strapping.

And from then on, our classes behaved.

Because of what happened that day, we got the benefits of a truly gifted teacher - gifted in every sense except she did have problems with maintaining discipline. That's a failing in a teacher - but we got so much more from her in other areas, that it would have been an incredible loss to teaching and to us, if she hadn't continued.

Now - why did I write this... I can't remember why I started to tell this story.

Oh - yes, now I remember.

I take your point that there are teachers who don't need to use corporal punishment in class. That's great - but there are plenty of other teachers, who are gifted teachers in other ways - who simply aren't good at discipline.

And losing those teachers on that basis alone is a loss to the teaching profession and to their students.

At the one school I attended where corporal punishment was in regular use... I don't think I can recall a single bad teacher. They were absolutely brilliant teachers for the most part - at least one I know has since won an Australian Teacher of the Year award, and it's richly deserved.

Some of those teachers used corporal punishment. Some didn't. Out of those who did - I don't know if most of them could have done without it or not. I've no way of knowing. But I know that in every case, I am glad they taught me. They were extremely effective teachers - and I'm not the only person who thinks so. One of them is actually quite hated by many of his former students (I don't hate him myself - but I'm not a fan either) - but even those who hate and despise the man regard him as one of the best teachers they ever had.

As I've said numerous times now - I've no real problem with the abolition of corporal punishment. Provided all the consequences are considered and steps are taken to ensure any negative side-effects of abolition are avoided as much as possible.

You say that you think teacher salaries are an issue - very possibly they are where you are. And, yes, it's possible that increasing remuneration would attract better teachers who would be less likely to need to use corporal punishment. Excellent. Wonderful.

That's a great argument for abolishing corporal punishment once you've raised teacher salaries to the level that will encourage these people to enter the profession, and after enough of them have joined for these newly effective teachers to replace the less effective teachers.

But it's not, in and of itself, an argument to abolish it unless you can make those other things happen as well.

My problem with abolition is when it occurs - as it did in state schools here - without any consideration being given to dealing with any side-effects of that abolition.

If you can get better teachers who are less likely to have problems with discipline, that does address a potential side effect.

But just saying you want them isn't enough.

If money is needed, you need to put the money in first - or at the very least, at the same time you take the other steps.

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