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

by Robert McCole Wilson

table of contents


1.1 A Continuing Controversy

Probably no issue has been such a continuing centre of controversy in education as the use of corporal punishment, and no classroom method has as long a history. For thousands of years the rod or its substitute was the emblem of the teacher, yet today few educational leaders support its use, and those but reluctantly.

There is now a general acceptance that corporal punishment for failure to learn is unacceptable. Much of the defence for this view is ostensibly psychological (that is, it is an ineffective motivational device), but on closer examination, the arguments used are frequently a mixture of psychological and ethical. Other arguments are used also: that it is unfair, for instance, in that children do not have equal innate ability so the less able ones are likely to suffer more than the more capable ones. There is also a tendency for there to be a confusion in the support or opposition to corporal punishment for failure to learn, and for unacceptable social behaviour. The issue is further confused by the emotional approach of many writers, or by their particular views of the nature of the child, indeed of man.

This controversy is not a new manifestation. Ever since educational commentators have questioned the methods used in schools, the matter of punishment, particularly corporal punishment, has been controversial. In the first clear objections to it, among Greek and Roman writers, we can find arguments very similar to those used today.

The issue is reported with regularity in the popular press. No other educational problem is likely to receive as much attention or to excite the public as quickly. In fact, this is part of the problem: it is so quickly confused by emotion, or is made disproportionately important by a sensationalist press.

The problem of use or non-use frequently becomes a very personal one for a teacher or school administrator. While his success is judged on many things, a basic one is his class control or discipline. One way that this can be achieved is through fear, and the traditional instrument of fear has been the rod or its substitute. Despite much protest and many arguments, our schools and society have not yet seen fit to abandon its use altogether.

1.2 Previous Investigation

One would think that such a continuing problem and one which so readily excites concern would have received a large amount of investigation, but this is not so. After a lengthy search of all available sources, the writer found only one which could be ranked as a thorough study of the use of corporal punishment in schools. In England, the National Foundations for Educational Research investigated the reasons given by teachers for their use of corporal punishment, the extent of its use, and the reactions of students. The report, published in 1952, also incorporated a chapter on its recent history in England and made certain recommendations.

A 1930s illustration
by Norman Rockwell

Some mention is made of corporal punishment in most general histories of education, but usually only in passing. Lluella Cole's A History of Education, Socrates to Montessori (1965) contains the most information, but here, too, the treatment is brief. Two popular or "journalistic" type books had the most extensive treatment, D'Olbert's Chastisement Across the Ages (1965) and Scott's Flagellation, A History of Corporal Punishment (1968). Each of these was a history and discussion of corporal punishment in general, with a separate chapter on its use in schools. Psychological studies have been of two types: empirical investigations involving pain have been on animals, but on people other types of punishment only have been used; clinical studies have drawn their conclusions from individual case histories and the speculative theories of the investigator. The majority of prominent figures in the history of education have had something to say on corporal punishment, but these have almost invariably been personal opinions based on their attitudes towards children and their own experiences.

1.3 The Procedures

This work will be primarily an historical survey of corporal punishment as an issue in education. The emphasis will be on attitudes, but the actual practices will occupy a prominent part. The main body of the investigation will be an examination of notable educational writings to see what development there has been since the earliest times in the approach to the problem. Other contemporary literature will be used to show what the actual attitudes and practices have been, and what forces have been instrumental in bringing about a change from an almost universal acceptance to an occasional use only, of corporal punishment. Wherever possible, the original words of the writer will be used so that the reader may judge for himself the accuracy of the interpretation and the fairness of the comment.

The scope of the study will be to trace the beliefs and practices of the Western World from the earliest times to the present situation in the English-speaking world. Standard divisions of the history of western civilization will be followed. Beginning with the Hebrew and Classical Civilizations of the ancient world, attitudes will be traced through the Middle Ages to the great intellectual and social changes which occurred in Europe after the fifteenth century. The 19th century, which, in the view of the present writer, was the watershed in the development of educational attitudes and practices, will receive fullest treatment. England as the Mother Country will receive much attention, and Canada itself will be stressed, with the important influence of the United States touched on where necessary.

The study will be subject to the usual limitations of documentary source material, where evidence of past practices is based upon the statements of a few. The loudest voices are frequently those of people who object to current practices, while the majority who accept a situation are silent. Frequently, also, the situation can be exaggerated by those who seek reform. The reader should constantly keep this possibility of distortion in mind as the views of the various authors are presented.

1.4 Questions

After a preliminary reading, certain questions were formulated and kept before the writer as the investigation proceeded. These were, of course, questions which were considered to be significant in themselves, but they were also useful in giving the work greater cohesion and clearer direction.

1.  Has there been a significant advance in the approach to the problem of corporal punishment since the earliest commentators? That is, have the problem and possible answers changed significantly in the last two thousand years, and if so, in what way?

2.  What distinction has been made by each writer between the use of corporal punishment as a stimulation to learn, and as a stimulation to remedy unacceptable social behaviour? Or does he combine or confuse the two?

3.  In his support or opposition to the use of corporal punishment, how clearly does each writer distinguish between motivational arguments (it doesn't work) and ethical arguments (it's morally wrong)? Or again, does he combine or confuse the two?

4.  To what extent is the use of corporal punishment as a classroom practice a philosophical (or ethical) issue, and to what extent is it a psychological (or motivational) issue, at the present stage or research?

To put these in a more general form, who has supported or opposed corporal punishment in schools, to what extent, and for what reasons?

This study is in no way designed to bring forth any irrefutable proof either for or against the use of corporal punishment, if indeed any such study were possible. It is an attempt to help clarify the issue by looking at the historical development of the attitudes which are currently held.


Home Next


Suggestions or comments to the author:

Mail to rmw@island.net


  Copyright 1997-2000 Robert M. Wilson