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


It has become usual for social commentators to proclaim the present as the time of greatest change in man's history. While not denying the tremendous number of innovations, particularly technical, that multiply around us, the present writer would suggest that the 20th century is rivalled by the nineteenth, at least in education. In Europe, and countries with similar traditions such as North America, literacy of the few was replaced by almost universal elementary education, and the methods which had changed little since formal education was first established, were replaced by techniques much more similar to those still in practice today.

5.1 The Schools of England in the Nineteenth Century

The methods of discipline in the Great Public Schools of England at the beginning of the 19th century have been well recorded. Cyril Norwood, headmaster of Harrow, writing in the 1920's described them thus:

They flogged their way through term after term with a high sense of duty accomplished, flogged if a lesson were not known, flogged for inattention, flogged for vice. Often they did not know who the boys were whom they flogged, or why they flogged them. (Norwood, 1929, 62)

After a visit to England in the 1850's, a group of French Commissioners arrived at the following conclusion:

The rod is one of those ancient English traditions which survive because they have survived. A foreigner can hardly conceive the perseverance with which English teachers cling to this old and degrading custom. We have read in Dr. Arnold's works an eloquent dissertation in favour of flogging, which has not at all convinced us. One is astonished at seeing English masters remove a garment which the prudery of their language hesitates to name. (quoted by Cooper, 1912, 445)

New Boys, Boys, Old Boys:
1935 Punch cartoon.

Some of the names of these great beaters have come down to posterity: Udall of Eton, Busby of Westminster, and Keate of Eton, of whom it was said he used "to know the posteriors of his pupils far better than their faces" (D'Olbert, 1967, 50). It is recorded that one night he left a dinner to flog eighty boys (Adamson, 1930, 56). But it was not just the masters who flogged the boys; the ushers had a hand in it, and the cruelties meted out by the older boys on the young, either as part of the system of "fagging", or as simple bullying, at least rivalled those of the masters. One of Arnold's great reforms at Rugby was to stop the bullying with the system of "praeposters", whereby the Sixth Form were given official power to control the students and to prevent immoral conduct. These senior boys were expected to be firm but just, to control the younger boys, but also to protect them from excesses. It appears to have been a considerable improvement over the anarchy of the earlier times.

Whether the harshness of the masters was necessary to control undisciplined boys, or whether the harshness bred rebellion in their hearts is difficult to say. Probably both reflect the general brutality and indiscipline of the time. That the boys did not always take it without protest is shown by the number of rebellions. Rebellions became almost a tradition in Winchester, where, in 1818, authority had to be restored by a company of soldiers. The riot act was read at Rugby in 1797. As late as 1851, Marlborough broke into open mutiny.

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) in one of his essays, "Christ's Hospital 35 Years Ago," gives us a picture of the punishment methods used in this well known English school.

I was a hypochondriac lad; and the sight of the boy in fetters, upon the day of my first putting on of blue clothes, was not exactly fitted to assuage the natural terrors of initiation. I was of tender years, barely turned seven; and had only read of such things in books, or seen them but in dreams. I was told he had run away. This was the punishment for the first offence. As a notice I was soon after taken to see the dungeons. These were little, square, Bedlam cells, where a boy could just lie at his length upon straw and a blanket -- a mattress, I think, was afterwards substituted -- with a peep light let in askance, from a prison-orifice at top, barely enough to read by. Here the poor boy was locked in by himself all day, without sight of any but the porter who brought him his bread and water -- who might not speak to him; -- or of the beadle, who came twice a week to call him out to receive his periodical chastisement, which was almost welcome, because it separated him for a brief interval from solitude: -- and here he was shut up by himself of nights out of the reach of any sound, to suffer whatever horrors the weak nerves, and superstition incident to his time of life, might subject him to. This was the penalty for the second offence. (Lamb, 1952 edition, 29)

The punishment for the third offence was expulsion, accompanied by a severe beating, and general humiliation.

There were governors; two of whom by choice or charter, were always accustomed to officiate at these Ultima Supplicia; not to mitigate (so at least we understood it), but to enforce the uttermost stripe. Old Bamber Gascoigne, and Peter Aubert, I remember, were colleagues on one occasion, when the beadle turning rather pale, a glass of brandy was ordered to prepare him for the mysteries. The scourging was, after the old Roman fashion, long and stately. The lictor accompanied the criminal quite round the hall. We were generally too faint with attending the previous disgusting circumstance, to make accurate report with our eyes of the degree of corporal suffering inflicted. Report, of course, gave out the back knotty and livid. (Ibid., 30)

Interestingly, these procedures, according to Lamb's editor, Malcolm Elwin, had been devised by John Howard, remembered today as a prison reformer. Elwin says of the tribute to Howard in St. Paul's Cathedral, "I could willingly spit upon his statue" (see Lamb, footnote, 29).

Lamb contrasts his own teacher, Matthew Field, who caned not at all, but whose students learned no Latin, with another master, Boyer, who constantly caned, and whose students learned much Latin.

We saw a little into the secrets of his [Boyer's] discipline, and the prospects did but the more reconcile us to our lot. His thunders rolled innocuous for us; his storms came near, but never touched us; contrary to Gideon's miracle, while all around were drenched, our fleece was dry. His boys turned out the better scholars; we, I suspect, have the advantage in temper. His pupils cannot speak of him without something of terror allaying their gratitude; the remembrance of Field came back with all the images of indolence, and summer slumbers, and work like play, and innocent idleness, and Elysian exemptions, and life itself "a playing holiday." (Ibid., 33)
Coleridge, in his literary life, has pronounced a more intelligible and ample encomium on them. The author of the Country Spectator doubts not to compare him [Boyer] with the ablest teachers of antiquity. Perhaps we cannot dismiss him better than with that pious ejaculation of C. -- when he heard that his old master was on his death-bed -- "Poor J.B. -- may all his faults be forgiven; and may he be wafted to bliss by little cherub boys, all head and wings, with no bottoms to reproach his sublunary infirmities." (Ibid., 34-35)

Lamb seems to betray a reluctant acknowledgement that, however undesirable it may be to inflict suffering on children, beating is a most effective teaching device.

We have a picture of St. James's School, a preparatory school for Eton, almost a hundred years later from Winston Churchill in his autobiographical My Early Life.

Flogging with the birch in accordance with the Eton fashion was a great feature in its curriculum. But I am sure no Eton boy, and certainly no Harrow boy of my day, ever received such a cruel flogging as this Headmaster was accustomed to inflict upon the little boys who were in his care and power. They exceeded in severity anything that would be tolerated in any of the reformatories under the Home office. My reading in later life has supplied me with some possible explanations of his temperament. Two or three times a month the whole school was marshalled in the Library, and one or more delinquents were hauled off to an adjoining apartment by the two head boys, and there flogged until they bled freely, while the rest sat quaking, listening to their screams...
How I hated this school, and what a life of anxiety I lived there for more than two years. I made very little progress at my lessons, and none at all at games. (Churchill, 1941, 25)

We must not be misled into thinking that all students objected to these methods. Norwood recalls how he was frequently rebuked by "old boys" for his "regrettably infrequent use of the rod" that "sacred right of chastisement" (Norwood, 1929, 62). It happened on at least one occasion that it was the students themselves who prevented its curtailment.

In 1818 (relates one of the former pupils of Charterhouse) our headmaster, Doctor Russell, who had ideas of his own, resolved to abolish corporal punishment and substitute for it a fine. Everybody resisted the innovation. The rod seemed to us perfectly consistent with the dignity of a gentleman; but a fine, for shame! The school rose to the cry: "Down with the fine! Long live the rod!" The revolt triumphed, and the rod was solemnly restored. Then we were glad-hearted over the affair. On the next day after the fine was abolished, we found, on entering the class-room, a superb forest of birches, and two hours of the session were conscientiously employed in making use of them. (quoted by Compayré, 1887, 203)

As noted before whether corporal punishment is shameful or not seems to depend as much on a particular social group and its attitudes, as upon the act itself.

One of the best revelations of the attitudes of "old boys" is to be found in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1858), based on his own experiences at Rugby School, by Thomas Hughes, M.P. (1823-1904). Despite the frequent floggings, the boys respected and even felt affection for the headmaster and school.

Up to this time, Tom had never wholly given in to or understood the Doctor. At first he had thoroughly feared him. For some years, as I have tried to show, he had learned to regard him with love, and respect, and to think of him as a very great and wise and good man. (Hughes, 1934 edition, 303)

Dr. Arnold is quoted:

"A gross case of bullying ... and severe physical pain is the only way to deal with such a case." ... Years afterwards, that boy sought out Holmes [the Sixth Former who had thrashed him], and thanked him, saying it had been the kindest act which had ever been done upon him, and the turning point in his character; a very good sort of fellow he became, and a credit to his school. (Ibid., 293)

Manliness is a virtue often proclaimed in this book: manliness in games, in honour, and in taking punishment.

One attempt at eliminating the senseless cruelties of the Public Schools was made by the Hill family who opened an experimental school at Hazelwood, near Birmingham, in 1819, in which self-government by the students, a broad curriculum, and the organization of students on the basis of aptitude and attainment in each subject were the basic principles. The following, written in 1825 by a member of staff, is a description of the methods of punishment.

Our punishments are fines, and sometimes, though very rarely, short imprisonment. Impositions, public disgrace, and corporal punishment, have been for many years discarded. (edited by Gosden, 1969, 168)

One cannot help but feel, however, on reading the description of the school by the sons of the founder, that it must have been a rather humourless place in which the relentless competition may have been as much a burden on some of the pupils as punishments would have been. In any case, Hazelwood was not to set any sort of pattern for the typical school of the century.

So far we have examined the schools for the upper classes; what of the lower classes of English society? Many did not even attend school but were the sweated labour of the mines and mills.

They come forth: the mine delivers its gang and the pit its bondsmen; the forge is silent and the engine is still ... troops of youth -- alas! Of both sexes -- though neither their raiment nor their language indicates the difference; all are clad in male attire; and oaths that men might shudder at, issue from lips born to breathe words of sweetness. Yet these are to be -- some are -- the mothers of England! But can we wonder at the hideous coarseness of their language, when we remember the savage rudeness of their lives? Naked to the waist, an iron chain fastened to a belt of leather runs between their legs clad in canvas trousers, while on hands and feet an English girl, for twelve, sometimes for sixteen hours a day, hauls and hurries tubs of coals up subterranean roads, dark, precipitous and plashy. (Disraeli, 1923 edition, 142)

These were the children that increasing public concern, and finally government regulation after 1870, brought into the schools. We have a picture of one of these groups in their new found circumstances.

They were a wild lot gathered in the Willow Alley shed. Not one boy had experienced any but parental discipline before, and most of the little fellows had been used to blows. When the teacher spoke to a lad the youngster's hands were instinctively made ready to protect the head. Their minds were in a turmoil; their curiosity was at fever pitch. Some were hardy enough; some were very intelligent in appearance; some were cowed and sly but vicious, and some were dulled into semi-imbecility by hunger, disease, ill-usage.
They had no conception of the meaning of an order and the teacher was obliged to drill them again and again in the simplest movements. The power of paying attention was almost wanting in them. So far as attainments were concerned, the boys were tolerably level. No one knew the entire alphabet and those who had picked up a slight idea of the letters from street hoardings were decidedly vague. The teachers found it impossible to interest them in any subject for more than five minutes. They had the fluid mind of the true barbarian and it was quite useless to attempt any species of coercion. (quoted by Lowndes, 1937, 13)

With the considerable numbers of almost barbaric children that each teacher, usually untrained, was expected to handle, and the results demanded if he were to improve financially under the system of "payment by results", it is no wonder that harsh methods were used. In fact Lowndes defends the system of the time as expedient in changing the standards of such children. "The child population of England and Wales found a new discipline and a sense of membership of a social community under these ... impartial rigours" (Ibid., 12).

The following rather lengthy extract is from a Report of the committee of Council on Education, 1845, by Her Majesty's Inspector, the Reverend F. Watkins. It shows more clearly than any isolated reminiscence the extent of use of corporal punishment in England at this time. It may well be the first semi-scientific attempt to judge the merits of this form of punishment.

It has long been a question whether such punishment be necessary; very different opinions are held on the subject: 'Adhuc sub judice lis est'
Now the answers made by 163 places are these: That in 145 of them it is made use of. That in 18 it is dispensed with. Of the 18 places in which there is no corporal punishment --
6 are schools of girls only,
2 are schools of infants and girls,
2 are schools of infants only,
5 are schools of boys and girls mixed,
1 is a school for boys only,
2 are schools for boys, girls and infants separate.
Of these only three are large schools. In the six girls' schools the discipline is admirable; in four of them the children's progress in their studies is highly satisfactory. The same may be said of one of the infants' schools, the other has only lately be reopened, and cannot be judged fairly in these respects. The two schools of infants and girls are equally pleasing in these to points.
Of the remaining eight schools, one is excellent in all respects, two are tolerable, the five others are wretched in discipline and very deficient n progress.... I turn now to the other side of the question and take the 27 places where corporal punishment is used most frequently, and as far as I can judge, the most severely. What is the result?
At 20 of them are schools notoriously lacking in discipline, some of the worst, if not the very worst, in the Northern district.
Of these, 15 are in an equally wretched state, as to moral tone and intellectual progress.
At the other seven places, the schools of three are in a satisfactory state in all respects, and may be called good.
The remaining four are only tolerable, with a discipline of fear rather than of love; where the children are not making great progress in their studies, but are not remarkably backward in them.
There are, I think very few of these offences which would not be much diminished by an increase of the number and an improvement in the character of teachers, by inclosed playgrounds, and by cheerful companionship of the teachers with the children during their times of relaxation.
In boys' schools it is doubtless more difficult to dispense with it. There are natures amongst the wretched, uncultivated, and almost brute-like occupants of some of our boys' schools to which this 'last appeal to force' seems the only one to which they will attend; but it is plainly the duty of the master to attempt to win them by all other means; and it is plain that the charm of the rod loses its power in proportion to the frequency of its use. (edited by Gosden, 1969, 18-20)

This selection is notable for a number of reasons. It is the first attempt that the present writer was able to discover in which concrete evidence was used to support or oppose the use of corporal punishment, as opposed to personal opinion or an individual case history. The author's method is simple: in most of the schools he has observed, where corporal punishment is used greatly, behaviour and achievement are poor; in most of the schools where it is not in use, behaviour and achievement are good. While his work may not meet the requirements of a modern empirical investigation, the basic approach is similar.

In the list of reasons for the use of corporal punishment that were given by the masters, there are only moral offences. Can we assume that this type of punishment was not used to stimulate learning. The master who "never lays the cane down" but bestows "a smart tap with it here, and a sharp cut with it there" seems likely to be using it for this purpose. Perhaps what has happened is that even at this early date, few teachers are willing to acknowledge that they are using it for intellectual motivation for they are not sure of its appropriateness, or its acceptability by authorities.

The Reverend Watkins is clearly opposed to corporal punishment except in extreme cases. It is of importance that he is pointing out to the authorities, that if corporal punishment is to be done away with, factors which contribute to its use must be remedied: there must be more teachers (thus, presumably, smaller classes), better quality teachers, better facilities, and so on. He clearly recognizes that the matter cannot be dealt with in isolation. Generally the passage indicates that there is a small but determined group at this time in England which is not only not using corporal punishment, but is actively working to bring about its reduction or elimination.

Why did corporal punishment continue so long in England as the standard classroom procedure? One reason, no doubt, was insufficient feeling against it; it was used because it had been used, and most people expected it to be used. This seems to be the main reason in the schools for the middle and upper classes. But there were other factors as well.

Lower class pupils came from harsh backgrounds and inherited from their parents, an antipathy for authority, any authority. Perhaps with smaller classes, some other methods could have been used, but the classes were huge, and not just in the monitorial schools. With the best methods and the kindest heart, only the rarest of teachers could have controlled such unruly masses of children. And the best methods were not used, for few teachers had any training and often they were the discards from other occupations.

They had been semi-skilled craftsmen, shopkeepers, clerks, or 'superior' domestic servants, all occupations which either required a knowledge of reading and writing or offered opportunities to acquire such knowledge. Then, as now, teaching was often regarded as a respectable second best, although a few had a ''call'' to teaching as a religious duty. The amount of training was small, and although some became competent and diligent teachers, all too often they were complete failures. (Tropp, 1956, 10-11)

Gradually, means of training teachers were established, such as training colleges, "organising masters" who travelled from school to school, and the use of the "pupil-teacher" system. Between 1849 and 1859 the number of pupil-teachers rose from 3,500 to over 15,000 (see Tropp, 1956, Chap. II). The difficulties were compounded by the compulsory education acts from 1870 to 1894, whereby the number of children at school in London doubled, and the increase elsewhere was even greater. These Acts "had, as it were, placed the State in a position of responsibility to a huge conscripted army of quite young children." In twenty-five years accommodation and teachers were provided for over two million additional pupils (see Lowndes, 1937, 4-5). It was no wonder that the teachers resented the restrictions placed on them by the middle- or upper-class laymen who were to be found on School Boards, and who had no conception of the difficulties of classrooms over-populated by children brought up in brutalizing slum conditions.

5.2 North American Schools of the Nineteenth Century

While the schools of North America were different in origin and organization from those of England, the teaching methods were very similar. J. Marion Sims, a famous American surgeon tells of his schooldays in South Carolina in 1819.

This teacher [Quigley] had a remarkable peculiarity in regard to the admission of small boys to his school. It made no odds whether a boy was good or bad, he invariably got a flogging on the first day. The teacher always sought some pretext to make a flogging necessary, and when he began he seldom stopped until the youngster vomited or wet his breeches. (edited by Knight & Hall, 1951, 48)

In 1841, Superintendent R. Shunk of Pennsylvania spoke on the need for improved methods of teaching.

The barbarous system of governing the mind by the infliction of stripes upon the body, would, like the penal code of other times, soon be ameliorated by a correct illustration of this science of teaching; and the schoolroom, under a proper system of government, adapted to this enlightened age, would be the delight, instead of being, as it now often is, the terror of our children. (Ibid., 420)

Not everybody, however, welcomed change in methods. Edward Eggleston, who popularised the phrase "no larnin' without lickin'" in The Hoosier Schoolmaster, reminisced in 1873:

When I recall the old-time school, I cannot but think that, if its discipline was somewhat more brutal than the school discipline of today, its course of study was far less so. Children did not often die of the severity of the old masters, though many perish from the harsh requirements of the modern system. (edited by Fuess & Basford, 1947, 557)

William Phelps also had doubts about the methods which replaced the birch-rod. In his opinion it was quickly over and to the point, whereas the detentions, additional assignments and verbal admonitions were harsher because they were so drawn out.

I remember one boys' school where the teacher was famous for these interviews, and the remark of one young villain, "Say, I'd rather he'd lick me any day than talk to me." (Ibid., 59)

Robert Coffin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1936, summed up the influence of the old-time teacher:

They caught a nation eager,
They caught a nation young,
They taught the nation fairness,
Thrift and the golden tongue.
They started at the bottom
And built up strong and sweet,
They shaped our minds and morals
With switches on the seat.
(Coffin, 1943, 28)

One of the best sources for anecdotes about schooling in the 19th century, is the 28 volume A Documentary History of Education in Upper Canada, compiled and edited by George Hodgins (1821-1912) who had been first assistant to Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882) for most of the latter's career as Chief Superintendent. Hodgins includes excerpts from newspapers, diaries, and personal letters to himself from "worn-out" teachers describing the customs and conditions of the day. It is remarkable how, when the memory is of the writer's experiences as a pupil, the use of the rod or its substitute is shown to be great, but when it is the memory of an experience as a teacher, the emphasis is on how little the rod was used.

A Mr. John Findall, writing in the Kingston Gazette in 1818, commented on the typical teacher of the day.

I have, in Canada, heard a good old British Officer's observation, on the subject of education, that he still recollects, with indignation, the treatment he received at school, and that he would as readily have marched into a field of battle, as he would entered his schoolroom, or as soon have met a musket ball, as have faced his schoolmaster, and I have conversed with many others who still retain similar feelings. (Hodgins, Vol. III, 133)

In 1829, the "Old Blue School" at York, when the Rev. Dr. Strachan (who was, as we shall see later, one of the first to lay down regulations on punishment) was head-master, used the following methods:

Studious lads were commended by the Master. Those who struggled and persevered were strengthened by a kindly word, while the perverse youth, who could but would not digest the mental diet, was invigorated and quickened into activity by the aid of rods, cut from the McGill and Jarvis property which lay north of Lot Street, and at a later day by the assistance of the strap. (Hodgins, Vol. I, 106)

William Johnston, writing of his childhood experiences in Blanchard Township describes the use of the "tawse".

The "tawse" was a great institution in those days. It was thought that the knowledge which could not be crammed into the memory, or reasoned into the head, could be whipped into the fingers or the backbone. Pupils, -- girls as well as boys, -- were flogged for being late, although some of them came two miles through the woods; climbing over logs and often wading through steams, to get to school. They were flogged for whispering in school, or for making pictures on the slate, or not being able to recite correctly such barbarous lists of words of speech as above indicated. And worse than all, they were flogged if they failed to recite the Shorter Catechism. Oh! How the Presbyterians envied the other Religious Denominations for their privilege of exemption from the Catechism. (Hodgins, Vol. VII, 295)

"The Birch Switch",
from Children's Delight,
Boston, 1889

The tawse, a piece of rawhide, its use no doubt imported from Scotland, gradually replaced the "pandies", or leather switch with nine tails, the switch of birch or blue beech, and the ferule. Presumably it is the ancestor of the rubberized strap usually used today.

In describing a school near Simcoe in the 1840's a Mr. W.W. Pegg shows us some of the infinite variety of refinements that could be achieved. One teacher used to throw his silk handkerchief at the offending child, who upon returning it to the teacher received a castigation. Boys who were caught fighting were required to "cut jackets", that is, stand about three feet apart and whip each other. If either boy was not sever enough, the teacher would apply his own rod to the back of the delinquent. "The cure was harsh but generally effectual" (Hodgins, Vol. IV, 320).

Quite a different picture is given, however, when it is the teacher reminiscing. Typical is the comment of a Patrick Downey on the methods in Guelph before 1842. "Children were remarkably quiet and obedient, and the best of order was maintained without resorting to any corporal punishment" (Hodgins, Vol. IV, 317).

That the use of the rod was an inseparable part of the schooling of the time was, in large part, a reflection of public attitudes and the need on the part of the teacher for self-protection. One retired teacher recalled:

The trustees of the section near West Zorra came to see me if I would take the school, saying that they had engaged four or five teachers in about a year; one had been thrown out the door by the pupils, another had taught a few days and was thrown out the window; but they thought that I could manage the big boys, since there was a swamp close by where I could get any quantity of 'beech bitters' if the pupils needed any floggings, and they were not in favour of sparing the rod and spoiling the boys and girls. (Hodgins, Vol. VI, 306)

The primitive learning conditions, and the untrained teachers certainly did not help matters. A Mr. Boyle writing in 1896 of his experiences at "Scarboro" in its earliest days said:

Given therefore, from a dozen to a score or more of precocious backwoods boys and girls crowded into a small log building, and no wise characterised by commodiousness within, we may cease to wonder why the grandparents and great grandparents were less amenable to discipline than the young folk of our own day.
But this was not all. The old-time Preceptor had no knowledge of educational principles; he entered the school and left it a tyrant in the worse sense of the word. His professional creed was summed up in the easily understood and easily applied dogma "No larnin' without lickin'." (Hodgins, IV, 132)

This was no exception; Carniff Haight described a school thus:

In the centre of the Room was a Box Stove, around which the long Benches, without backs, were ranged. Next to the Walls were the Desks, raised a little from the floor. In the Summer time the pupils were all of tender years, the elder ones being kept at home to help with the work. I was one of the lot of little lads ranged daily on hard wooden seats with our feet dangling in the air for seven or eight hours a day. In such a plight we were expected to be very good children, to make no noise and to learn our lessons. It is a marvel that so many years had to lapse before Parents and Teachers could be brought to see that keeping children in such a position for so many hours was an act of great cruelty. The terror of the Rod was the only thing that could keep us still, and often that failed. Sometimes, tired and weary, we fell and tumbled off the bench, to be awakened by the fall of the Rod. (Hodgins, Vol. XXVIII, 307)

Despite this gloomy picture, by the end of the century a great change had been brought about. What were the factors involved in this? It was, of course, part of the general improvement that was occurring in the conditions and attitudes of society. Schools became physically more pleasant places and equipment became more varied and stimulating. Along with the reduction in class sizes, this meant that the need to control bored, tired or hostile children was reduced. The attitudes of the people changed considerably, so that as they found a greater need for education in their daily lives, greater respect was given to education and its representatives.

This improved support for education was reflected in one of the most important factors, the improvement in the quality of teachers. In Upper Canada, for example, A Normal School was established in 1847 for the training of teachers for Common Schools, and after 1858 it was desirable for Grammar School masters to have teacher training as well as a university degree. While the change was slow, trained teachers who had had not just higher ideals instilled into them, but also more practical methods, were gradually replacing the untrained. The ideals and methods of the great educational reformers discussed in the previous chapter slowly but surely were introduced into the classroom.

The influence of the superior and contrasting conditions in Europe is worthy of special treatment, for the contrast was to be an important weapon wielded by the reformers. It has already been noted how western European countries such as France had reduced and in some places even eliminated the use of corporal punishment by the early 19th century. As English-speaking countries became conscious of the need for improved systems and methods, they looked elsewhere for guidance; and so there developed after 1830 one of the more interesting and important phenomena that contributed to educational improvement in England and North America: the educational grand tour of Europe.

Ryerson of Upper Canada looked back in 1869 and listed some of the more important reports that resulted. From the United States there was in 1837 Dr. Bache of Philadelphia who compiled a 600 page report, in 1838 a Professor Stowe, and in 1843, perhaps the most influential, Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Dr. Barnard, who was to become head of the National Department of Education in Washington made a comprehensive tour and report in the early 1860's. Other reports were translated from the French such as M. Victor Cousin's of 1831 which was "repeatedly printed in both England and the United States." Others which received similar treatment were those of M. Rendu in 1854, and M. Baudouin in 1865. Note has already been made of the influence of Continental methods on Matthew Arnold. In addition to this, an Education Commission which was appointed by the Queen in the 1850's to report on all aspects of education in England including methods, visited the Continent and was greatly influenced by what was observed there. Ryerson himself made such tours including one before taking up office in 1845. He said "in the course of foreign educational enquiry, we have but followed the example of other educating Countries" (Hodgins, XXI, 54).

Many of these educators probably were not so much changed in their views on education, as reinforced in already existing views. Both Ryerson and Mann, for example, had already shown dislike for corporal punishment, but in their reports they describe the European methods as a worthy contrast to what they deplored in their own countries. Here we have Ryerson's description of a public school he visited in Holland, which was (he quotes from the Secretary of the Privy Council Committee of Education in London) "the best instructed country in Europe."

I have never witnessed such quietness, order and attention in Schools, as in those of this Country which I have visited; yet a law exists here prohibiting any School Teacher, Public or Private, from using the rod to his pupils. The sort of feeling which pervades both parents and children -- the sort of influence which constitutes the mysterious power and mainspring of government in these Schools -- may be inferred from the fact, of which I have been assured by more than one Inspector and Head Master, that the punishment felt by delinquent pupils to be the most severe is the prohibition of them coming to the School for a shorter, or longer, period. The government of the heart, by the heart, as well as by the head of the Master, is substituted for that of the rule and the raw hide. Whether the whipping abolition law of Holland be not an extreme act of legislation, I will not take upon me to say; but the law itself, and the facts to which I have referred, are interesting phenomena in the School history of the present age. (Hodgins, Vol. V, 238)

Later he describes his visit to Germany.

Still, in almost every German School into which I entered, I enquired whether corporal punishment were allowed or used, and I was uniformly answered in the affirmative. But it was further said, that, though all Teachers had liberty to use it, yet cases of its occurrence were very rare, and these cases were confined almost wholly to young scholars. Until the Teacher had time to establish the relation of affection between himself and the new comer to his School, until he had time to create that attachment, which children always feel towards any one, who day after day, supplied them with novel and pleasing ideas, it was occasionally necessary to restrain and punish them. But, after a short time, a love of the Teacher, and a love of knowledge, became a substitute, -- how admirable a one! For punishment. When I asked Doctor Vogel of Leipsic [Leipzig], he answered, 'that it was still in use in the Schools of which he had the superintendence.' But, he added, 'thank God it is used less and less, and when we Teachers become fully competent to our work, it will cease altogether.' (Hodgins, Vol. VI, 203)

Tom Sawyer punished for talking to Huck Finn: by Norman Rockwell

In the 1830's and 1840's, the controversy over the use of corporal punishment was to become heated in parts of the United States. Henry Barnard, who had studied the work of Pestalozzi's disciples in Europe and who was at the time the first Secretary of the Connecticut State Board of Commissioners for Common Schools had offended teachers by speaking out publicly against it in 1838. In the same year a petition was presented to the school committee of Boston, urging that it be prohibited for girls. A resolution was passed by the committee "to strictly enjoin upon the several instructors of the public schools never to make use of corporal punishment until every other means of influencing the pupil shall have failed" (quoted by Williams, 1937, 259). The following year the teachers were required to administer such punishments in the presence of witnesses, and to keep a record of them for examination.

The controversy was to reach a high point in the clash between Horace Mann and the teachers of Boston. After visiting Europe in 1843, Mann, in his Seventh Annual Report, made a number of recommendations based on what he believed to be superior in European schools. Four of these were reacted to strongly by thirty-one masters and principals, who published a pamphlet opposing him. In Mann's own words,

It was numbered among my sins that I indulged the hope of seeing corporal punishment more and more disused in our schools, as its necessity might be gradually superseded, by substituting the pleasures of knowledge and high motives of action in its stead, until, at some future period (which I never attempted to fix), it might be dispensed with, except, as I was accustomed to express it, "in most extraordinary cases." (in Cubberley, 1934, 195)

His argument had been basically that punishment is a substitute for good teaching, the corollary of which, in the minds of his audience, could be that where there is punishment, there is poor teaching. He urged

.... the idea of intelligent, gentlemanly teachers; of a mind-expanding education; of children governed by moral means; of more teaching and less flogging .... At all times and in all countries, the rule is the same; the punishment of scholars is the complement of the proper treatment of children by parents in the home and the competency of the teacher in school. Where there is less on one side of the question, there must be more of the other. (quoted by Williams, 1937, 260)

It was no wonder that the teachers reacted as they did, for Mann clearly lays part of the need for the use of punishment on the teacher, on his lack of ability, rather than on anything the child has done. The teachers probably over-reacted, though, for he also acknowledged that poor or undisciplined homes could result in undesirable behaviour at school. While his ideal was no doubt the complete abolition of corporal punishment, Mann recognized that in the state of society at that time, it was premature.

By 1863, the Board of Education in the State of Massachusetts held an attitude that was little different from the rest of the English speaking world. They stated in their annual report as follows:

The Board has a word to say at this time on the subject of School discipline. There are two extremes in the management of Children, -- one is the line of corporal punishment, the other is that of moral suasion, -- which are to be avoided. An excess of beating was the special vice of former ages. The strong reaction of public sentiment was sometimes carried to the injudicious extreme of totally discarding the Ferule and the Rod. Love is the power which was thought to be omnipotent in control. In later years, a healthful medium has been more generally attained. But, either because the tendency to the old system of flogging has been increasing, or from other reasons, the subject has come up again in some quarters for renewed discussion. The board are not of the opinion that scolding and beating are the most efficient modes of government, or do they believe that large numbers of Children can be permanently controlled by any measure of mere love and tact which the largest hearted teacher may possess....
It is moreover well for Children that they should learn to obey and submit themselves, without questioning, to legitimate rule. But irritating remarks, in dealing with them, and excess of penalty, should be avoided. The same scriptures which say "children, obey your parents" and "Chasten thy son while there is still hope," say also "Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath." The counsel applies to School Teachers. While they insist in obedience, they should make the School-room pleasant, and the Children happy.
But, when Teachers depart from these principles of humanity and justice, when they are suspected of severity and excess of punishment, care should be taken by Parents, and especially by Committees, if they must criticise the School Management adversely, that they do not weaken the hands of its authority, and by license unconsciously given, multiply occasion for penalty. If children corrected are allowed to suspect that the public sympathy is with them, and not with the master; that committees look upon him as a tyrant, who needs to be restrained, and upon them, to some extent, as his victims, reprehensible behaviour and moral deterioration will be the consequence.
The only safe course is to invest the Teacher with authority and restrain him in the exercise of it. If he abuses the trust, and is incorrigible, when advised, let committees exercise the power which the Commonwealth has given them to dismiss him quietly and obtain a better. (quoted by Ryerson in his Report for 1864, in Hodgins, Vol. XVIII, 239)

Obviously when, by the 1840's, teachers were being dismissed for the severity of their corporal punishment, change would come (Hodgins, Vol. II, 100). Teachers were exhorted by Superintendents and Inspectors not to use it. We have already seen Ryerson's attitude to it in Upper Canada, and in British Columbia, Superintendent Pope deplored the use of it in 1890 (British Columbia Department of Education, Annual Report, 1890, 215) and in 1895 suggested that trustees should curb its excesses by dismissing the teacher (Ibid., 1895, 201). British Columbia in that decade went so far as to publish the school returns on corporal punishment, a fact which may have shamed some into a reduction. In 1880, Victoria Boys' High School reported 1100 corporal punishments, with an enrolment of 274 (Ibid., 1880, 334).


Home Next


Suggestions or comments to the author:

Mail to rmw@island.net


©  Copyright 1997-2003 Robert M. Wilson