Sunday, April 26, 2009

Punishment in Education

Shanno is dead. It is terribly sad that a child had to die due to unnatural causes. It is sickening to note that the teacher considered the physical torture commensurate with the inadequacy in remembering the alphabet. Somehow, it seemed all normal to me and I didn't feel a reaction in me surge and burn my brain into a wrath which usually culminates in a post. Perhaps I am becoming more of Earth having encountered great indecency and vulgarity in human beings - nothing seems to shock me anymore. As a friend quotes in her email signature: The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.

There were articles (1 and 2) in today's Sunday Magazine which dwelt upon the matter of physical abuse meted out to children in school. I wonder how the public response would have been had the mother of the child ordered her to stand in the sun. I agree with some points that they raise. One thing that I hold in spite of all that is said, thought and shared (including this post) is that children (who eventually grow into becoming human beings) are the most beautiful creatures around and there is so much to learn from them and share with them that all this coarse, irresponsible and ignorant behaviour towards them is appalling (and I am somewhat mild today).

Since enough has been written and telecast about the cruelty in the Indian education system, I do not wish to search my mind for related points. I would like to, instead, look at the source of this cruelty and toss in my hand the possibility that it is inevitable and actually encouraged by those who condemn it.

What was done with Shanno and the boy whose knuckles were rapped (and I always wondered why Rap music was called that) and the girl who was made to write the answer to a question 100 times are nothing more than examples of responses to deviations from the norm. Somehow, responses of the following sorts are considered acceptable:

  1. Writing an imposition
  2. Standing on the bench
  3. Standing in the corner of the room facing the wall
  4. Standing outside the class
  5. Passing on a complaint sheet from teacher to parent
  6. Having the parent accompany the child to meet teacher and parent
  7. Suspending the child for a while
  8. Demoting the child
  9. Expelling the child
These are considered "normal" until the child responds by being "overly" disturbed to any of these and committing suicide. They are considered normal because the school needs some means of ensuring and establishing order. One cannot run a school based on wisdom because such wisdom is rare to collect in one campus and children are rarely ever the keepers of wisdom. So one must have rules and the violation of rules must have clearly stated consequences in order to establish the value of those rules (else, who would respect those rules!?).
Presentism renders the following responses "barbaric":

  1. Physically striking the child (slaps, raps, kicks, pushes, etc.)
  2. Child performing physically exhausting tasks (running around the campus 100 times, 200 situps, etc.)
  3. Standing for hours in the sun
  4. Standing for hours in biting snow (a problem largely irrelevant to India)
  5. Contorted positions for long durations
The common thread amongst these is the physical damage/breakdown of the child. The earlier category targeted the psychological damage/breakdown of the child. I wonder which is more valuable: psychological damage, which might scar the child for life (as the doomsday child psychologists like to say), or the physical damage, which might lead to death (as demonstrated in certain incidents). One might say what is left if the child dies and the other might argue that what is left of life if the spirit is broken. Such debates can continue endlessly.

As I said earlier, I am not interested in presenting my views about the evils of punishment (physical or psychological) but about their inevitability in society as it stands today. You might claim that we need to always talk in terms of a society that we should strive for but the issue is that talk and that strife have been on for several millenia, sufficient for me to conclude that talking about anything beyond what is, is merely an escape from what we are faced with. It is like someone not caring about the pollution in the air today and planning on baking a cake on a Sunday when there will be no pollution at all. Sorry: yes pollution, no cake.

Social order is vital for society to function. Order is not a dirty communist word. Nature has order and that order is established and maintained effortlessly. Amongst humans, order can be established organically amongst like-minded individuals or delineated and enforced amongst a heterogeneous collection. The latter is most commonly found example of realising order. We have law, police, military and the judiciary system along with its prisons for establishing order. Surprisingly, we do not have a reward system for someone who has never broken the law. If we set aside that observation, we realise that society cannot function without laws and punishment for violation of that law.

If you start a business with a few other friends and soon one of them starts using business money for household expenses then what do the rest do? They can speak with him, help him understand it is not acceptable, warn him, oust him or hand him over to the police. Ramalinga Raju is an educated man. Why don't we consider speaking to him and explaining to him that what he did was wrong and that he should never repeat it and let him go?

How different is a school? No, I am not taking the cynical stance that a school is hardly different from a corporate enterprise. We can visit that later. A school too has an ecosystem which needs to be maintained. A child refuses to behave and hurts her classmates and lies and cheats and steals and what do you do? Patiently explain and attempt educating the child. Very well, and if it still doesn't help? You will turn strict. And still? You might call the parents and complain about the disruption caused. Here three things can happen - the child might be taken off the school records (which is nothing more than passing the responsibility to another entity, the parents would simply refuse to do anything since they are "paying" the school to educate the child (which is fair since the school always takes credit for the child's "successes" and hence should also be responsible for the "aberration") or the parents drag the child back home and spank the hell out of her. The latter might lead to death and we would hear about parenting being on the decline and possibly blame BPOs and the Nano for it.Punished

Given limited time (12 years) and limited resources (only so many teachers and facilities for scores of children) what is the solution? You might think that unruly children are merely an exception and cannot justify cruelty towards children. I am not calling for cruelty towards children. I am demanding a revisit of what drives us all. Secondly, Shanno's teacher might call her unruly which might justify her behaviour.

As I had stated elsewhere and often, I believe that the Right approach to education is not to constrain it with time. If the child takes 20 years to learn cooperative and constructive conduct as well as the rudiments of the world around us then so be it. If the child takes less, then that is fine too. The focus is the education of the child and not our metrics and externally imposed frameworks. Point is, not a single educator (even those who are concerned enough to write articles in newspapers) is willing to accept and adopt that. No parent will accept that for their child (it might seem wonderful for other children). They'd rather spank the child into straightness.

Hence, the reasons for such educational systems include the following:
  1. Our deep desire for conformance
  2. Society
  3. Limited resources, esp. patience
  4. Complete disregard to Rightness
Not surprisingly, (4) above features in every observation I have to make about the human specie. I think the assembly line and mass production is basically the most grand manifestation of the human want for conformance. Conformance has its benefits. There is lesser dissipation of energy and much lesser re-invention of the wheel. It would be weird and difficult to operate in a society where two individuals who have passed high school be as different as an apple and a pebble. What if one knew algebra and calculus and the other didn't know how to add? Or one could read and write while the other couldn't? Is education all about learning subjects? It is largely about learning and understanding the rudiments of life and the operating world around us. Hence, math and language and science count as do physical exercise and soft skills. Other subjects count too but we need to draw the line as to what are the basics and I think these suffice as a rudimentary foundation. Hence, we need some conforming amongst people who cohabit. Let me not dwell longer on the need for conformance. It should be clear to the intelligent reader.

Society creates strata of respectability and utility and we can address this outside the purpose of this post. Punishment in school is primarily a response to aberrations from what society calls acceptable. In a society where questioning is evil a child is forbidden to do so. In a society where mathematical genius is treated as vulgar every Ramanujan will be considered an outlaw. Hence, in a society which doesn't tolerate inefficiency or slow learners, every Shanno will be punished. I still recall a friend of mine complain that he should have done his engineering as in Andhra Pradesh a groom without a B.E. or B.Tech or M.B.B.S is not wanted. Bihar seems to prefer people working for the government esp. IAS officers. Why does it surprise us that educated engineers and students commit suicide because they couldn't live up to the "standards"? Teachers don't wish to be blamed for not ensuring that the pupils lived up to the "standard" and hence, resort to any means in order to keep everyone in the straight line to respectability even if that requires beating the child. After all, the teacher has only this much energy and only few hours in school every day. He might instruct once, explain once more and then raise his cane. Why blame the teacher when what he is expected to deliver is a pack of students who score 100%? We never blame the assembly line worker for picking the bolts which are outside tolerance limits placed by customer and employer and casting them back into the furnace.

In the "alternate" or "wise" schools that I have visited, I have observed that even the so-called "good" teacher snap and lose her cool. I was once in a discussion with teachers, educators and fellow jobless folks like myself. One of the teachers, considered to be very wise and intelligent, lost her cool when I repeatedly asked a question because I simply did not understand. I would ask her a question, and she qould give me some circuitous answer (because not having an answer is a sign of incompetence) and then I would use her answer and present a doubt that continued to plague me and she would try once more before snapping for the third and asking me to shut up. Physically beating me is simply out of question for many people (though I have taken a beating from kids one-third my size) so the nearest to that is asking me to shut up. On lighter reflection I seem to have brought hell to a lot of people with my incessant questions and probing and stubborn refusal to accept half-hearted responses and in most cases the lies that accompanied them. I have lost friends and relationships due to that and I am relieved that I have lesser foxes to deal with! Back to the post, patience and genuine belief in education is vital but teachers being human and parents being parents do not have a good measure of either. Time and energy are limited. The teacher might have had a bad day with her family and/or colleagues. He might have faced a misfortune. She might have been cheated. Anything is possible and we need to understand that they are human too or we insist that people act objectively and leave their personal influences behind when they enter the school. I haven't seen one single school where the teachers are gathered in a room, before their teaching day starts, and are asked to meditate over certain issues and in complete silence so that they are mentally prepared to tackle the responsibility of teaching that day. This might create conformance which is good; conformance with the ideals of education if one needs ideals for something as fundamental as that. There are prayer sessions, 1 minute silences (where children are busy nudging each other and a teacher glares at them) and such excursions, but nothing exclusively for the teacher to allow them to leave the vulgar world behind. Why not? Do we have conscious sessions where a teacher reminds the others that there will be several occasions in that day when children will behave in ways which make them resort to "taming" them but physical assault should be avoided as that is not to be permitted in the school? No.
As an aside, I do not believe in sparing the rod. I think it is a useful tool in imprinting unacceptable and dangerous behaviours. Climbing over parapet walls, playing near snake pits, playing with sharp objects or fire all deserve a warning and a spank, for the child remembers such sharp responses and will not venture into such dangerous practices. When used as an escape from explaining instructions/decisions/thoughts/ideas/etc. to the child they are vulgar as is every form of escape from having to deal with realities.

Finally, we haven't a sense of Rightness. The child's education matters. The child's happiness matters. The child's well-being matters. The completeness of education matters. In the face of these truths what else should matter? These don't feature in the agenda of parents and teachers alike. Lazy teachers take this to another extreme and avoid guiding the child from the fear that they might come across as old-fashioned. Again, it is closely tied in with the earlier reasons because a teacher is often the product of society (unlike as in the Vedic ages when the teacher and his gurukul were situated far from the city/village usually in a forest where child and teacher can be one with Nature) and hence, cannot be expected to be radically different. Schools which claim to be "new-age" do not have the patience to employ such teachers and tend to staff their schools with those who can teach a subject and leave for the day. Most schools simply have a good martinet for a math or physics class and they live in the belief that they have a good school because the students always score more than 90% in a subject. If that is all that is required of an education system then Shanno and others would be collateral damage and we should come to terms with that.

My biggest concern is with the hypocrisy inherent in arguments against punishment in schools. Though everyone might agree with extreme punishment being excessive, punighment per se is part and parcel of society. Even if we establish a school where no one is punished and everyone is free to do whatever they please, how do they come out and coexist in a world of laws and prisons? They will be quite a misfit. Schools are not educating children on the need to conform as a basis for coexistence. They either take it to an extreme and make it a frightening matter or simply ignore it. In society, as it stands today, conformance is inevitable (esp. as long as human beings are going to remain essentially ignorant and incapable of aligning with the Divine Will) and aberrations have to be dealt with. Punishment is a response to deviations. If punishment should be removed, so must the need to conform and still further, the need for a society. Once society is abolished, the need to conform will crumble and so will the necessity to punish.

Making a case for less violent or consequentially less disastrous punishments is a matter of gambling with chance (which is a funny play of words). As mentioned earlier, making a boy stand on the bench for a homework he didn't complete could make him feel humiliated and lead to an asthma attack. Making her write an imposition could leave her so exhausted or utterly embarrassed that she jumped off the fourth floor and committed suicide. When will it stop? If the teachers shouldn't whack them who stops the parents from walloping them? Should we bring in laws like in the US which only aim at proving that human beings are incapable of doing anything right and hence it must be the government, police and law that will establish... what? Uniformity and conformance!!?

Punishment in human life and society is vital and inevitable as long as there is a need to make living and coexisting less tiresome and more organised. One doesn't have the time and/or energy to stop everything and carefully and patiently explain things to every single individual. If this is accepted then schools too would have their own form of punishment in order to establish uniformity and stability of the school ecosystem. It might help to have a Teacher of Punishment (though s/he would hardly be teaching anyone anything unless we are talking Abu Ghraib) to whom the students are sent to be punished. This teacher will consult medical records and other matters before deciding on the punishment commensurate with the fault. S/He will know how hard the rap should be and how long the imposition. Frankly, I am laughing my head off here. In the absence of Right education, how does anything matter? For anyone who doesn't believe in the Rightness of education, talking against punishment is ridiculous. Only the world of animals and Nature can be without punishment because in there is Rightness.

And still I am not impassioned enough to rebuke those who caused Shanno's death or the society in general. Perhaps between love and indifference lies impassioned caring (three points always lie in a plane and hence, the notion of "lying in between" can always be formulated).


  1. Parvati10:01 AM

    You had to write one of the longest posts of this blog in order to say nothing at all except for reporting accurately as to what is and hence what has happened is only a natural event from what is?

    What a mammoth waste of space and time!

    # The only worthwhile idea is your unbeatable one of Punishment Teacher, albeit suggested in mirth. A specialization that begins at the eleventh class and go on to do a PhD even in punishment and all that is connected to it should be a must for all these teachers who will be in many numbers with a head of that department too...

  2. Dear P,
    Sometimes retracing our steps and going over the evolution of things helps bring clarity and lends perspective.