Columnist Castigated: Minority of One?

By Wendy Belzberg

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

My February 7 “Ask Wendy” column on collective punishment was ill received by many readers. Whenever I discover that my opinion is in the minority — a minority of one, it seems — I am prepared to take my licks in public. The points made in the letters below are compelling and valid, and I would have been well served to qualify my original position. Still, I am not prepared to abandon my point about the importance of teaching children that they are members of a community. Below is the original column along with excerpts from the barrage of mail I received from disapproving readers.

* * *

What is your opinion on collective punishment in schools? In my son’s school, the entire eighth grade was punished when some notebooks were stolen and no one confessed. Isn’t there a better way?

Punishing an entire class for the transgression of one child may seem harsh, but it teaches a critical lesson in a world that places more value on the individual than on the group. It has become increasingly difficult — and vital — to demonstrate to our children that they are part of a community. How often does any of us feel responsible for his fellow man? Shouldn’t we appreciate a little help with this lesson?

Your child may well be beyond reproach. However, by letting him know you object to this form of punishment you risk planting the notion in your son’s head that he is an island.… We don’t want to live in a world where our neighbors look the other way when something untoward happens. All of our greatest heroes are the men and women who didn’t, as any grade school student could remind us.

* * *

…do you favor a corresponding collective reward for the entire grade (or school) when one of the students achieves excellence in some manner? Susie or Johnny get straight As for their grades, so we treat the entire class to dinner, including the lazy students who refused to apply themselves and who may have mocked the two achievers for being “bookworms” or “nerds.”… Collective punishment just teaches children that it is permissible to knowingly punish the innocent. Otherwise, why not shoot everybody in a particular neighborhood when the police cannot identify the individual who committed a murder there?

Frank Welsh

Fishkill, N.Y.

I agree with your point that children should be taught that helping our fellow human beings is a good and moral thing to do. However, I disagree that collectively punishing the class is the right way to do it. Justice demands that the guilty are punished — not the innocent. The idea of collective responsibility can be taught without the injustice of collective punishment.

Craig Anderson

Mountain View, Calif.

In response to the woman who asked about collective punishment in the classroom you said that it “teaches a critical lesson in a world that places more value on the individual than on the group.” By the same logic, if there is a murder in a neighborhood and no one confesses, the entire neighborhood should swing. All this sort of behavior teaches is that justice has no meaning — only the convenience of the authorities matters.

Guy Davis

Pennsylvania

In both Jewish and Western jurisprudence, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. In meting out punishment to the entire class in order to be sure of punishing the offender, the teacher also ensured that he punished a large number of innocent pupils. The teacher may have believed that he was showing the class that no crime goes unpunished, but instead — showed the (presumably innocent) majority of the class that innocence is no protection when authority is in a vengeful mood.

The school authorities should have the maturity to realize that not all crimes are solved and not all offenders are caught. Misdirected vengeance is a poor substitute for justice.

Daniel Pfeffer

Ra’anana, Israel

I do agree that we are part of a community, but that same community must respect and protect the rights of the individual…. It is unfair that the whole class was punished for one person’s transgressions. Consider those children who had no idea who the culprit was. What does this teach them? Should they turn in someone, anyone, just so the whole class can avoid punishment? If the fox steals the eggs from the hen house, does the farmer punish all of the hens for not doing anything about it?

Bronson Beisel

Smyrna, Ga.

Write to “Ask Wendy” at 954 Lexington Avenue #189, New York, N.Y. 10021 or at wendy@forward.com.






Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.