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Bruce Logan

The Rise of Violence in Schools

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It’s not always a good idea to base an argument on personal experience but I will risk it.

In 1989, just before the abolition of corporal punishment in schools, I was a member of the PPTA executive and invited to appear on a TV programme with Russell Marshall, the then Minister of Education. I commented that I was not convinced the majority of teachers were in favour of abolition.

A couple of days after the interview I attended a PPTA meeting along with about 200 other teachers. To my surprise, on an overhead at the front of the hall was a statement accusing me of ‘ethical misconduct’. Although at no point during the interview did I openly challenge or disagree with PPTA policy, what was said was sufficient to bring the so-called ‘ethics charge’. The ‘crime’? To dare to think differently and suggest that doubt publicly.

Like most teachers, I had believed that the PPTA stood for the greater good of education. I also – naively – believed that being a generally literate bunch of individuals, that its leadership would value the ability of members to articulate different points of view. Not so.

Most classroom teachers are simply too busy to realise that the deeper one looks into the ideology of the teacher unions, the more individual differences are subsumed into the collective will. Pay and conditions are surface concerns. When some well-placed ideologues desire nothing short of a new social order, lobbying around school policy are their levers for bringing about the change. The luminaries of the liberal left today, even more so, position themselves as the champions of tolerance, but to disagree with their views is to invite the sternest censure.

In my experience, some members of the PPTA executive were so convinced of the virtue of their own ideology that any kind of disagreement was unacceptable. Although the charge against me was to eventually fall down the hole it deserved, the blindness remained.

The claim made at the time, which suggested a link between corporal punishment and violence in schools has been proved wrong. Violence in schools has increased tremendously since abolition. Of course there may be no actual causation either way, but the argument linking punishment and violence has now been extended and forged between violence and parental smacking.

Every age has its blind spot. The late 20th century and early 21st century have been and remain very spotted indeed.

Objectively speaking, violence is neither good nor bad. Its morality is determined by its purpose. For example, a surgeon may cut open a patient’s abdomen; we usually do not call that violence although strictly speaking it is a violent act against the body, which could (if botched) cause death. Similarly, a brutal tackle on the rugby field is, to most participants and observers, what goes with the territory, and grabbing a child’s arm when he is about to run onto the road, could result in physical harm (bruising) if it was done quickly or aggressively. If however, someone breaks into a house and beats the occupant about the head, most of us would rightly see this as a violent act warranting opprobrium and severe punishment.

When physical force occurs in legitimate contexts, the people concerned usually take care to ensure that suffering is kept to a minimum. The surgeon is a highly-trained and experienced professional, as is the franchised rugby player, and even the responsible parent. The wider context reminds observers that the primary aim in each of these examples is not to inflict pain and suffering, but nevertheless, pain may occur as part and parcel of what is going on. None of us like to impose pain; and even today, sadism and masochism remain perversions even in a morally relativist age (it is still possible to confidently make this claim unless one finds oneself at a dinner table with liberally lubricated academics).

A pervasive ideology has developed which assumes that violence, by definition, is evil. A moment’s reflection should suggest however, that this is not the case. But such is the power of the ideology that we are ready to label corporal punishment in schools and smacking in the home as ‘violence’. So, consequently, the corrective smack on the child’s hand is put on the same plane as beating a householder about the head. No wonder there is confusion. Certainly the proponents of ‘reform’ would permit a quantitative difference but not a qualitative one – the point of context and purpose is lost on them.

This is evident in the argument, which is frequently put; “I cannot hit my wife or a friend so why should I be permitted to smack my child?” Such an argument is only possible when contemporary understandings of human rights are considered the moral foundation for any judgment about human relationships.

The relationship between parent and child is morally different from that between two adults. Why? Because, while in the best of all possible worlds, it might be true to claim that we are all responsible for each other, it is certainly true that parents are responsible for the nurturing and teaching, which means the disciplining, of their children. Children learn, and all learning involves discipline: a word with the same root as disciple. Interestingly, university subjects are still referred to as ‘disciplines’, presumably because one who studies in any particular area is learning the proper conventions for that subject, and is committed to a course of study even when they don’t feel like it. The unspoken assumption is that the nurture and teaching will, as time progresses, produce maturity in graduate students. Much of the ‘pain’ of producing lengthy research projects and sitting examinations will prove invaluable in the ‘real world’ of work, but it’s all necessary.

The dynamic is similar in parenting: discipline in the home helps to instill character, which will be tested in almost every adult decision. Restraint or light smacking will form part of the arsenal in the parental toolbox, but in saying this, let’s not confuse this with abuse or a license to beat children with implements. That is very different.

If we are to understand the proper nature of the parent’s responsibility for his or her children we also need to come to grips with the role of the state and its relationship to its citizens and the families of those citizens.

The state, even after 50 years of social welfare, is not a surrogate ‘parent’. It has a responsibility to make sure that the weak and vulnerable are protected from harm and that, of course, includes children. But the state has neither the responsibility nor the right to interfere in the relationship between parent and child when no permanent harm is being done. And to claim that smacking is harmful is wishful thinking of the silliest kind. There is no reliable evidence either in history or sociology to establish that connection. The only connection is to be found in the head of the anti-violence ideologist, and it is this same ideology that gets in the way of commonsense in the business of disciplining children in the home and in schools.

It is revealing to observe the invective frequently hurled at ‘right wing fundamentalist Christians’ (which, by the way, is code for anyone who dares to disagree) in the debate around the repeal of section 59. No one is proud of New Zealand’s high rates of child abuse, but neither should our legislators confuse the real problem with a phantom one. Real child abusers need to be caught and punished, and one suspects that repeal of section 59 will not help identify them one jot. What it might do, however, is cast aspersions leading to the prosecution of responsible parents who employ the occasional use of a smack for correction. The real agenda behind such emotive labels is a perceived threat – much like I experienced as a teacher all those years ago – anyone who challenges the prevailing liberal orthodoxy gets ideologically placed in the ‘nasty’ bracket. Their views need to be jeered at and promptly dismissed.

But on this issue the electorate is making its opposition clear. And what’s more, it’s not just those of a religious persuasion who are concerned; it’s other ordinary New Zealanders who rightly sense not only what Green MP Sue Bradford’s bill if passed, may mean for raising their children, but also the way the Labour government and its allies are going about their task.

As the Greek General Pyrrhus wrote in 270 BC when his armies scored a victory over Rome, ‘One more such victory and our cause is lost’; it may well be the case that Helen Clark and Sue Bradford ‘win the battle’ on the smacking bill (i.e. get it promptly through parliament), but it is by no means certain that the electorate will forget in 2008.