Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spare the Rod?

Disclaimer: Saw this picture, which got me thinking. Am not advocating anything here, one way or another. Just trying to follow a line of thought.

Here's an arresting image from the cover of a 1931 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It was posted on the Art Educator's Blog as one of the a sequence of covers by J. C. Leyendecker, who apparently was an influence on Norman Rockwell.

What are we looking at here? There's an elderly woman who has a nine or ten year old boy (presumably her grandson - she looks too old to be his mother, one can hardly imagine this kind of punishment being meted out by an employee of the family) straddled across her lap as she spanks him with a shoe. He's crying, but even as he's crying he seems to be reaching out toward the spilled jam on the floor which is presumably the reason he is being beaten. The puppy behind looking on woefully from behind the chair seems to be a tonal cue: this scene is to be read as sad, but cute. Amusing. Something to chuckle at, perhaps.  In 1931.

I cannot imagine that such an image would be created today, nor, if it were, that it would appear on the cover of any major American magazine without provoking a firestorm of protest. Seeing this picture 70 years later is a reminder of how much our culture has changed in its grounding assumptions about how children should be treated. There was a time in America when spankings and other forms of corporal punishment were completely acceptable, even endorsed, in the home and at school. The principal of the elementary school I attended in the early 1950s, run by the Sisters of Charity, of all people, had a wooden board with a handle in her office, and she frequently used it to paddle the behinds of miscreant students. And that wasn't the worst of it. I wrote a poem, some years ago, about one of my clearest memories from fifth grade. With the exception of one minor invention (Carolyn Halstead was not in my class, but she was the sister of my best friend up the street who went to the same school as I did, and I decided to give her a bit part in this drama), it is pretty much an exactly literal rendition of the events I witnessed in class. This would have been, let's see, probably 1957:

Sisters of Charity    

Sister Mary Vincent was 80 years old,
and wore rimless glasses to keep her aim
with the thimble she had attached to a string.  

(She was good with that thimble: she'd mount
it on her finger and let fly from fifteen feet:
thwack!  She'd never miss.) Well, anyway,  

when Ermino Spadino, the janitor's son,
turned around to pick up a pencil
Carolyn Halstead had dropped on the floor,  

she let loose with the thimble as she swept
down upon him, and in raising his arm to fend her off
he brushed her habit with his hand.  

"How dare you hit a religious?!" she screamed,
and grabbing him by the hair,  she raised him
from his seat and dragged him to the board,  

against which she smashed his head again
and again until he could no longer stand.
Then she dropped him back into his seat  

and strode to the front of the room.
Glaring at us, she straightened her rosary, took up
her catechism, and went right on with the lesson.

The last week or two for some reason I've been thinking about a lot of questions the answers to which tend to present them along a continuum. I've even had some dreams where I'm visualizing a series of essential questions with sliders attached to each one, sort of like a Likert Scale or an equalizer turned sideways:

The numbers to the right could be replaced by questions of the sort that come up all the time but do not present themselves as being amenable to binary yes-or-no, black-or-white answers. A short list of questions that have come in readings I've done and discussion I've had just in the last week or two would include:

What's more important in teaching and learning, content skills or process skills?
Content -------------------------------------Process

What is my responsibility to those less fortunate than I am?
Nothing at all ------------------Give all I have away.

When is it acceptable to sacrifice the life of one person to save that two others?
Never ------------------------------------------ Always

How much of what we do as teachers should be oriented toward developing a respect for alternate points of view and tolerance for ambiguity?
Not our job -------------------- Only job that matters

Are human beings by nature essentially good or essentially evil?
Right Wing --- Conservative ---Moderate ---- Liberal --- Left Wing

When is it acceptable to strike your child?
Never ----------------------------Anytime you feel like it.

The useful thing about sliders of this sort is that they invite you to think about where you would place yourself on a continuum, and what reasons you would be able to articulate for doing so. The not-so-useful thing about them is that of their very nature they are one-dimensional and perhaps encouraging of glib thinking.  It's clear to me that all of the questions above, for example, are related to one another in complex psychological and philosophical ways, and that the "answer" to any one of them would most often start with some variation on "Well, it depends..."

With regard to spanking, I'm opposed to spanking on principle, because I think spanking conveys in a perhaps unintended by nevertheless very powerful way that ultimately differences of opinion are enforced by violence. That's what I took away from my year with Sister Mary Vincent, the old battle-ax, and it's just about all I do remember of my year with her. And I don't think that's that's the kind of memories we want to be searing into the minds of children. On the other hand, I have seen all to often that parents who cannot bring themselves do discipline their children create havoc in the lives of their children, their own lives, and the lives of everyone with whom they come in contact. Spanking may be extreme, but I wouldn't want to say it is never called for. Would I take a shoe and beat my grandchild with it if they got into the jam? No way. But there are more subtle gradations. Is it okay to gently slap the hand of an infant reaching for a knife, or a flame? Especially if s/he was doing so after considering and deciding to ignore a verbal "No?" Now, I'm not so sure. I did it with my own children, who as adults now seem none the worse for wear. Kids do need to learn that sometimes "no" really does mean no, and it seems to me a lot easier to inculcate that message with a young child before they get old enough to see every occasion of decisionmaking as a gateway to boundary testing followed by prolonged negotiations.

So, it's a bit of a muddle. I don't like what I see in Leyendecker's picture. But I think it serves to pose a question worth thinking about.

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