Bravo, IPSDavid Hoppe

A lot of people like talking about school reform, but last week's decision by the Indianapolis Public Schools board to abolish paddling comes closer to the real deal than most of the efforts we've seen around here. It's not that the kid on the receiving end of this punishment doesn't learn anything from it. No, that kid learns a lot of things: about how being small is worse than being big, about how big has power over small, about how hitting is what the big ones get to do to the little ones.

On the surface, this might seem like a no-brainer. As board member Marianne Zaphirou put it, "Hitting children is unacceptable." But then you stop and think about the society we've created for ourselves and you have to admit that, for many people, the idea that hitting children is unacceptable isn't as obvious as it seems.

On the Monday night before the board made its final vote, eight people stood up to speak their piece on this issue. Five of those people spoke in favor of corporal punishment. This should not be surprising. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" is one of those bits of so-called folk wisdom that goes back to pre-literate times - which says something about the staying power of the dope slap, but hardly recommends it for use in a classroom.

Anyone who has ever tried to teach an unruly bunch of kids - or one unruly kid, for that matter - can surely sympathize with the overwhelming desire to put words aside and, à la Homer Simpson, wring a little neck from time to time. But it shouldn't take a lot of research to know that, even as a last resort, this kind of action doesn't really work.

It's not that the kid on the receiving end of this punishment doesn't learn anything from it. No, that kid learns a lot of things: about how being small is worse than being big, about how big has power over small, about how hitting is what the big ones get to do to the little ones.

Are kids who have to put up with this abuse ruined for life? Again, the answer is no. There is plenty of testimony from upstanding, successful folks who swear that they were made better by being paddled when they were young. But as sincere as these folks may be, there is something defeated about what they have to say. Not only do they seem stuck in the past, intent on inflicting what happened to them upon another generation, they're convinced that this is the way the world works. It's a harsh place - get used to it.

It's hard, though, to summon much optimism for the transforming benefits of education so long as schools are thought to be reflections of a dog-eat-dog society. One of the primary reasons for creating a public school system in this country was the bedrock belief that for a representative government to work you needed an educated populace - people who could read and write and felt empowered enough to participate in the life of their communities. Public schools were intended to be places where kids learned what it took to be citizens.

Unfortunately, our schools don't, in practice, look very much like the representative democracies they are supposed to serve. Every aspect of a student's life is monitored, categorized, judged. You think the Patriot Act is draconian? Kids leave virtually all their rights at the door when they cross the threshold of an American public school. Students - and their parents, for that matter - are invited to offer their "input" in support of school policies. But their ability to challenge these policies and effect change from the ground up is virtually nil. The combination of federal, state and local school bureaucracy is an Orwellian dream come true.

We are told that without this structure anarchy would reign. Kids would not be educated, that is, would not grow up to be productive workers. Nor would they be safe.

In the meantime, we wonder why fewer and fewer young adults vote.

We complain about the coarsening of public discourse and the swamp of sex and violence we watch every day on TV.

And we wonder what on earth our soldiers were thinking as they snapped their photos and shot their video in the concrete hallways of Abu Ghraib.

It's a harsh world, to be sure. But unless we teach our children a better way to be citizens in it, we can guarantee that harshness not only continues but gets worse. This is why what the IPS board did last week is so welcome. For once we weren't hearing about some new program to better train some kid to take a job that will be obsolete before he's middle-aged. Instead, the IPS board was taking a necessary, if elementary, step toward teaching kids that even though they're small, they are citizens, too.

I'd like to think that, through this process, the IPS board was also sending some of us bigger ones a message. Though we insist that they're important, the world we've created doesn't serve kids very well. Just about everything that matters is adults-only. The trouble is, it doesn't work that well for us, either. If we put kids first maybe, just maybe, the world would be a kinder place for their adults.

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