I’ve recently been fascinated with the idea of how society punishes its children. This was triggered by a strange story I read in the British press, but more on that later.
My impressions were given further material when I had a nostalgic conversation with a group of friends who, like me, had gone through the ruthless machinery of the Ugandan education system.
Indeed ‘nostalgia is not the most accurate way to depict our conversation-it was a horrified shared insight into the kind of disciplinary methods we had been subjected to from teachers.
We were talking to a few Americans at the time, people whose experience of discipline was as far removed from ours as to seem like an alien civilization.
For us, there were regular beatings and an endless array of humiliation in front of the class, including verbal abuse. One of my friends was especially sad about being dragged to a dingy saloon near Nakivubo stadium to have her ponytail forcibly snipped off by the school without even a warning note to her mother.
That was light punishment compared to what other options were on offer, but she felt quite rightly that this approach was an assault on her dignity and was purposely done to humiliate her as much as possible.
There was never any sense of proportionality- you could be flogged just as ruthlessly if you had failed a homework question or if you had damaged school property.
My friend reflected that the approach got the best out of students in an academic context, but she wondered at what cost. She had a point. Underlying all that ruthlessness was also a fairly obvious aspect of sadism. Violence and humiliation was always the first resort.
Teachers did not just want to mould us- they wanted to break us. Quite how the two concepts were supposed to be compatible was lost on us.
Ultimately we were seen as more of a menace than anything else- Whitney Houston’s plea ‘I believe that children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way..’ was not the kind of rhetoric that would have cut the mustard with our teachers.
(Many justify this by saying that it works out in the long-term and turns the children into mature adults. It would be interesting to carry out a study comparing crime rates of countries using that kind of approach to punishment to those which do not use corporal punishment. The results are unlikely to be comforting)
Too frequently, the education system sees children as pests and they are treated as such (In our case, ‘prisoner’ may have been a more apt.)
This strikes me as an inappropriate way to educate children and turn them into responsible and emotionally balanced adults. Of course in the Western world, more often than not there is no punishment of students in any meaningful way.
In some media circles, they are disparagingly described as ‘precious snowflakes.’ Children get treated in the completely opposite way and the concept of punishment becomes so diluted as to become meaningless. In fact, the balance of power swings to the other side and in favour of the students.
However that also transforms the role of students into pests, just in a different way.
The story I was referring to in the opening paragraph was about kids at an English school being given detention and then having Mozart played through the loudspeakers into the room as a way to enhance the punishment.
Classical music- one of mankind’s greatest achievements- was being used to punish children in school- there is something perversely wrong about that.
Instead of engaging with kids on a higher level, classical music was being used as the weapon to deter further bad behavior. The use of kid gloves or punishments designed to increase their ignorance and alienation is a similarly unenlightened approach to punishment.
Ultimately it could be just as damaging as the take-no-prisoners approach taken by our teachers in Kampala. The approach to deterrence may be vastly different, but students are still seen as a problem and a menace.
With either approach, education then becomes adversarial rather than cooperative.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer