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.
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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.
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…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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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