The big stick

A while ago, I heard a very temporary untrained teacher announcing that former Education Minister David Coltart’s opposition to beating schoolchildren was a British plot. “It must be; he’s white.”

Ignoring that last illogicality doesn’t leave him with much evidence, since our schools were built on a foreign model and the idea of beating discipline into “schoolchildren” many of whom would have been 20 years old before 1980, was a colonial innovation. Nonetheless, it has taken root in our societies.

I taught for a while in a neighbouring country where beating the children was forbidden, but all the local teachers brought sticks to school and used them. I discovered how that colonial habit destroys any real discipline. Children who are taught to be afraid of the stick will obey just as long as the stick wielder is present and looking at them.

Like the dog that attacked me in the street the other day, they will take any advantage they can when the teacher with the big stick turns his or her back, or when any unarmed adult comes along. That dog obviously had a lot of experience of sticks, stones and kicks.

Since I didn’t have time to stop and undo all the wrong training that dog had received, I threw a few stones at it to clear my way. That did nothing to solve the real problem, but the real problem wasn’t mine. I suppose that temporary teacher was in the same position when facing an unruly class as I was with that dog. He was only interested in cowing the children enough for him to present his lesson. Leave the underlying problem of what they do when you are not looking for those who would have to face it for more than a couple of months.

A classroom ruled by the big stick is a jungle, in a state of constant war. Establishing peace demands that the teacher makes an effort to convince the children that they need to learn and that requires a minimum of good order.

What is true of children and dogs is true of most of us. Look at the number of kombis whose windscreens declare that their crews are veterans of the ongoing war the police are waging against them. In this case, the problem is that, unlike a teacher who wants children to accept a minimum standard of order so that lessons can be conducted effectively and the children who want to learn have a chance to do so, and unlike the householder who wants his/her dog to defend their house against unwanted intruders, there is very little reasonable, legal or moral basis for the exactions of the cops. If they stop you, you know they are determined not to let you go without contributing to this income-generating project – their income, that is. They’ll find some excuse and they’ll use the big stick to back it up.

But – using the big stick is admitting that you don’t have any other authority except the force you can exert with that big stick. The big stick was essential to the colonial system, because it had no moral basis and no other reason than force for people to respect its claim to power. In fact, forced obedience doesn’t leave much room for the respect that a morally justifiable authority can earn. Just because we inherited a colonial police force and a colonial education system is no justification for continuing to use colonial methods. There are alternatives, and they are a much deeper part of our tradition than this modern, foreign-introduced reliance on brute force.

What happened to the traditions of the dare, where everyone was free to speak, decisions were by consensus and more. Answering these questions will take more space. Watch this column.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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