Rhyme And Punishment

Shiyu Zhou demonstrated in China's Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. Now he's a computer scientist in the U.S. working to keep the Internet open for Iranians during the protests and government-imposed Web and media crackdown there.
I went to high school in England in the so-called good old days when a minor misdemeanor meant a painful punishment.

Our teachers were authorised to hit us with a nasty device called The Ferula. The Ferula is shaped like the sole of a shoe. It's made of whalebone, covered in leather and – so, we always joked – was manufactured by the Sisters of Mercy.

Well, the dreaded Ferula was banned years ago, along with canes and any other sort of high school torture. At the time it looked like a big step in making education a more civilised process. But now quite a lot of teachers in this country are beginning to wonder.

These days in England the only weapon available to teachers is talk therapy - reason and logic. That's fine if the errant youngster is also, basically, "fine." But what if he, or she, has already been identified as someone with "behaviour problems?" What if the youngster is violent? Troublesome kids are just as common on your side of the pond, but I doubt if American teachers are expected to do what English teachers are ordered to do.

This is the official advice. If a difficult child attacks you with an iron bar – hand him a Hershey bar. The theory is that a bit of chocolate today might stop a riot tomorrow. The law forbids hitting back, you can't use reason, so the only defence is bribery. It's a mad solution, and it's come about because a few years ago the British Government scrapped special schools for children with special needs. Instead thousands of those same, often difficult, children were put into normal schools. The idea was that if you included them with normal children some of that normality would rub off.

The reality is that children with special problems tend to hold everyone else back, and the special cases don't get the help they need. The only winners are the hard-nosed accountants who run this government and all governments. Because shutting special schools saved a great deal of money. So teachers are angry and confused. They remember Prime Minister Tony Blair's passionate promise that his number one priority was education, education, education.

But all they get to educate the hard nuts now is candy, candy, candy. And they even have to buy it themselves.

By Ed Boyle