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February 08, 2010

So Why Did We Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child? Lincoln Allison fondly remembers being caned

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and author of The Disrespect Agenda: How the Wrong Kind of Niceness is Making us Weak and Unhappy - extols the virtues of the cane.

While researching the background to the development of the Modern Olympics I came across a passage, written in 1887, in which Pierre de Coubertin extols the practice of caning in England:

To help you understand just how popular canes are, need I mention the case in which students revolted at one time because there was a question of banning the practice from their midst? Far from being considered ignominious, canings are deemed a competition in courage, the one undergoing the caning having to fight hard to hold back his tears or his cries.
De Coubertin regarded caning as evidence, along with the development of organised games, of the robust physicality of English life. He thought that this aspect of English culture was good in general (thus the movement for a global games) but essential in the "toughening up" of France, still living in the shadow of its annihilation by Prussia in 1870. I was pleased to come across the passage, not least because in the course of getting students to think about the concept of sport I had listed caning (along with shopping, quizzing, bird-watching et al.) as practices which might be considered to have some of the features of sport. This was because my own experience of caning and attitudes to it was very much as Coubertin describes it.

English schools abandoned corporal punishment about a century after Coubertin extolled it. They did not do so for legal reasons - laws against it mostly came later - but largely because of educational fashion. The headmaster of a leading public school, when I was interviewing him about a completely different subject, told me in the 1980s that he had simply stopped doing it and that it was four years before anyone realised that the practice had been "abolished". The power of fashion is greater than that of reform; teachers, as much as anyone else, dread being considered old-fashioned.

At around the same time as I interviewed that headmaster I published a book on political philosophy which included a short defence of corporal punishment - largely on the grounds that it inhibited the free development of the pupil much less than more insidious forms of punishment. The publisher pleaded with me to leave it out. He said that it made me sound

like an old colonel standing at the end of the bar and braying that caning had never done him any harm.
I didn't object much to the old colonel bit, even though I was quite young at the time. What I objected to was the defensive tone which I was assumed to be adopting when I was clearly arguing positively for caning as a contribution to human happiness.

I was caned regularly from 1957 to 1961, the latter year containing both my fifteenth birthday and the retirement of an elderly, traditionalist headmaster (whose liberal successor we loathed). When I say "regularly" I should think the average was about twice a week. Cheek. Insolence. Chucking things at the staff. Disobedience. I often think that debates about punishment are fundamentally flawed in the same way as debates about hooliganism because they are conducted by nice people who consider bad behaviour as "deviant" rather than by people like me who consider it to be entirely natural.

So what was good about it? The place was orderly, for a start, and gave you plenty of space to work and play. I received a very good education, far better than is even possible in most contemporary comprehensive schools. And nobody tried to reform you or get under your skin: I don't think I could have tolerated being reasoned with. If you don't chastise children you have to shame them, which is bad if it doesn't work and worse if it does.

The underlying assumption was that, of course, a teenage boy faced with the phenomenon of chairs with rubber stoppers on the bottoms of their legs would naturally wish to remove them and hurl them at the nearest figure in authority. But the institution would collapse unless this practice was disincentivised and the cheapest, most effective way of achieving this was a sharp, burning sensation in the buttocks. No stigma attached to being beaten: it was deterrence at its purest.

The personal gain has been lifelong. It starts with pain management; most of us are going to be in pain at some stage and it is good to be able to recognise and deal with mere pain (as opposed to pain which signals something worse).

The trick is . . . not minding that it hurts
as T. E. Lawrence says in the movie; the line is not in Seven Pillars of Wisdom so I assume it must be attributed to Robert Bolt and/or Michael Wilson as scriptwriters. I used to repeat this line endlessly to my own sons, though, having said that I should make clear that I am recommending institutional rather than parental chastisement here: being beaten by someone with whom you have a deeply emotional relationship does not fit the argument I am putting.

From pain management develops a certain boldness for which I have always been grateful when dealing with censorious vice-chancellors or cocky policemen. What can they do, after all? - though serious criminals are a different matter. And from pain management develops stress management, including the ability to enjoy yourself even though you know unpleasant things are going to happen to you.

Spare the rod and spoil the child
was a maxim in Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon and a hundred other languages. The abandonment of a principle which had served humanity well from pre-history until fairly recently should at least be subject to some rigorous, bottom-line, questioning. Why did we abandon it? Are we any better off for so doing? In fact, there never was such a debate and what happened falls, I believe, under the general heading given it by the sociologist Norbert Elias: the "civilising process". Beating ceased to seem civilised.

But Elias and his followers are keen to point out that civilisation is not good in itself, it is merely a different style, marked by sqeamishness rather than a real ethics. Men cease to beat their wives in the public context of the market square, but the possibilities of mental cruelty in private are far worse. And does anyone seriously claim that marriage now is a happier institution than it was in the past?

Twentieth century European civilisation meant that the Vikings no longer show up to rape and pillage, but instead educated men meet at the Wannsee and work out a programme of extermination. One consequence of this is that a rational discourse about right and wrong is replaced by a pseudo-aesthetic discourse couched in terms of the "disagreeable" and the "distasteful", the typical adjectives of "civilisation". It is part of what Sir Tom Stoppard calls

the descent from thinking to feeling.
Incidentally, I have been a victim of domestic violence. I am sure that this phrase conjures up images of screaming and terror and desperate unhappiness. Whereas what happened in this case is that during a fairly boisterous argument my headmistress-wife threw a punch which removed two teeth. As she said, first, I shouldn't have attempted to use irony and, second, I was the only person in the world she could be entirely natural with. The least amusing aspect of it all was the dental bill. As a couple we have been stuck on mountains together, 0-4 down in the opening set and robbed by Peruvians. What sort of partner does one want in such circumstances, one who whimpers or one who can throw a punch? A complete abhorrence of violence is a moral sickness; sustainable ethics can only be a much more qualitative view about what kind of violence is appropriate in what kind of circumstances.

All children should be beaten, though not necessarily as a punishment. The benefits can be extended to the goody-goodies by using beating as a ritual acceptance of authority. Unlike (say) Rugby Union or skiing it raises no health and safety issues.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor of Sport and Leisure at the University of Brighton. His two most recent books are The Global Politics of Sport and The Disrespect Agenda: How the Wrong Kind of Niceness is Making us Weak and Unhappy.


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Funny to hear opinions like these in this day and age by an obviously intelligent person. Strangely enough I agree entirely. I also agree with what you say about parents spanking sons. It is impossible and something I never attempted.

Posted by: anony mous at May 22, 2011 11:37 PM
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"All children should be beaten, though not necessarily as a punishment. The benefits can be extended to the goody-goodies by using beating as a ritual acceptance of authority."

My father used to think this way. My childhood was a disaster.

Posted by: adilbookz at November 13, 2011 09:33 AM
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