Not too many years ago, corporal punishment of students by their teachers was common. A popular song recalled, “School days, school days. Golden rule and school days. Reading and writing and ’rithmetic, taught to the tune of the hickory stick.” Since the 1970s, however, corporal punishment in any form has been outlawed in 28 states. In the remaining states, it is allowed but generally requires parental consent.
A recent case in North Carolina, where corporal punishment is still legal, has revived national concern about the practice. Parents gave permission for a teacher to paddle their “knuckleheaded” son. The spanking was so brutal that it turned the child’s backside into a mix of black and blue and red and other discolorations. The parent who had given consent now wants to outlaw corporal punishment.
A moment’s reflection suggests why corporal punishment is dangerous. Suppose the teacher is a sadist who enjoys using torture — as did some in our armed services who used such methods to extort information from detainees. Even worse, suppose the student is a masochist who enjoys the torture.
As I pondered the subject, I recalled a story from Yiddish folklore about the handling of an insolent student in a Talmud Torah school. The teacher turns to Irving and asks him, “Who tore down the walls of Jericho?” Irving answers, “I didn’t do it.”
The teacher is enraged by Irving’s insolence. He says that he wants to speak with Irving’s father. When the teacher meets with him and tells him what happened, Irving’s father says, “If Irving says he did not do it, you can believe him. He is very honest.” The teacher feels doubly insulted. He goes to the head of the school who calls a conference of all the parties, including the officers of the synagogue that sponsored the school. The meeting turns into a brawl. Finally, the president of the shul steps in. “Enough quarreling,” he says. “Let’s fix the walls. I’ll pay for it myself out of my own pocket.”