Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Little Red Madhouse: Rethinking Corporal Punishment Be Revived


Paradoxically, kids from less 'humane' cultures than ours often long for the relative safety of their homeland. They are more terrorized by the disorder in their inner-city American schools than they were by the threat of corporal punishment in schools back home. 

A teacher recently told me that her elementary ESOL students are uniformly repulsed and frightened by the disorder in their Philadelphia elementary school. One day, when the sound of cursing and fighting grew so loud in the hallway that her ESOL kids could barely hear their teacher, a quiet little girl from Ghana suddenly said, "These kids are just so bad. In my room (meaning her every-day classroom) I cannot learn!" 

She paused, then said longingly, "In Ghana they hit you if you're bad." The ESOL teacher asked, "Did that make Ghanaian kids behave?" "Oh yes," the girl replied, "it wasn't anything like this place!" "Do you think kids in this school would behave if they got hit?" the teacher inquired. "Yes!" the girl replied, momentarily brightening, "Oh yes, I'm sure they would!" Then her smile faded as she realized this was not going to happen.

When we compel children to attend school we incur a non-negotiable obligation to insure that they are safe and that those who want to can learn. This must take precedence over everything including well-intentioned social reclamation efforts, racial pride building, condom distribution, and the thousand and one other non-academic things schools are unwisely charged with doing.

Similarly, teachers must be free of the threats and assaults of disturbed or malevolent youngsters. Likewise, no one should be allowed to destroy their lessons. In short, serious disruption, threats, bullying, extortion, and predation, simply must not be tolerated if schools are to fulfill their function.

To restore order, however, school officials must command meaningful sanctions that tough kids respect. If this can be accomplished without inflicting physical pain on bullies and budding sociopaths, so much the better. But what if resources are inadequate for a more refined approach? Or what if we can't find a more refined approach that works reliably? Should we continue to compel well behaved children to attend unsafe schools where they are bullied unmercifully and denied the opportunity to learn? Should we continue to prate about holding teachers accountable when they are not even safe in their own classrooms?

In the "good old days" if you made other people's lives miserable or learning impossible it cost you a red behind and a one way trip out the door if you persisted. Today, these options have pretty much been ruled out. What has taken their place? Pious sermons, ineffectual detentions, suspensions that the kids view as vacations, forced transfers that spread the chaos, and, more recently, structured efforts to persuade sociopaths not to use the violence that pays off so handsomely for them. All of this is well intentioned. But all too often sneering recipients of these social services continue to lay waste to everyone's safety and learning.

In the best of all possible worlds, pain would never have to be inflicted on anyone for any reason. And a lot can still be done to make schooling more palatable and more effective for a broader range of kids. But the world is far from perfect, school resources are strictly limited and order is necessary for any reforms to take hold. Tough penalties, then, are still required. 

Educators relied on corporal punishment for nearly 6,000 years. Must we now revive what has only recently been set aside? Is there an affordable alternative that tough kids won't laugh at? Perhaps. But in the meantime far too many children — good kids who would dearly love to learn — are compelled to attend mad houses rather than school houses.

For more on this see


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fairness, Equal Opportunity and Overlooked Handicaps

Fairness, Equal Opportunity and Overlooked Handicaps

Numerous people now benefit from affirmative action programs that are intended to make up for past wrongs, insure the disadvantaged get a fair share and promote diversity.  The trouble with this approach is that many genuinely disadvantaged people are left out. Consider the following.

Physical Attractiveness
In a study entitled "What Is Beautiful Is Good," researchers from the American Psychological Association showed photographs of attractive, average, and unattractive people to university undergraduates. The students were asked to rate the people in the photos on various personality traits and behavioral tendencies, based solely on their appearance in the pictures.

Compared to unattractive people, attractive people were assumed to possess a higher number of positive traits. The students rated them confident, strong, assertive, candid, warm, honest, kind, outgoing, sensitive, poised, sociable, exciting, and nurturing. The physical-attractiveness stereotype has been replicated in several different experimental paradigms. As Aristotle noted, "Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction."

Weight is another physical characteristic that results in discrimination and unfair treatment. Research shows they are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive. Several studies also demonstrate that such negative attitudes toward obese individuals contribute to discrimination in the work place. Specifically, obese people are not hired as often as people of normal weight; are less likely to be promoted; and often report being discriminated against by managers and peers.

Short Stature
Height, particularly in men, is another physical attribute associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination. A 1992 study by researchers from Michigan State University demonstrated that short men are often judged inferior to tall men in several personal attributes. People tend to judge taller men as more socially attractive, higher in professional status, more masculine, more athletically inclined, and more physically attractive than short men. Similar studies have found that short men often experience discrimination in professional settings. For example, short job applicants are not hired as often as taller applicants; short employees earn less, on average, than taller employees; and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates.

Some Other Factors
Research also demonstrates that people with red hair color are often stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird." Negative stereotyping based on language and dialect (i.e., Southern accents, ebonics) also is a common occurrence. Additionally, children who wear brand-name clothing and shoes are judged "popular," "wealthy," and able to "fit in with their peers" compared to children who do not wear name brands.

What does such research have to do with affirmative action? The answer is "Everything." If unattractive, obese, or short people, for example, experience discrimination in a broad setting shouldn't we be prepared to apply compensatory measures for anyone victimized by prejudice? Why should some qualify for fair share treatment (positive discrimination) just because their particular group has more political muscle?

Instead of focusing on skin color or other group differences, perhaps we should embrace the character-based vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. and focus on each person's individual humanity, rather than his or her race,ethnicity, or what have you. After all, in the end, isn't character, not group membership, the most important difference of all?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Schools: America's Face in the Mirror

The thing about mirrors is they reflect reality with remorseless accuracy. Do we exercise and watch what we eat? There it is in the mirror, flat belly, taut muscles, and all. But if we sit on our duff and gobble Twinkies, the less flattering consequences are also reflected with implacable exactitude. 

America's public schools provide a similarly accurate mirror image of our nation. Like it or not, what's wrong with them is, for the most part, wrong with us. And what is right about America is generally right about our schools, too.

Public schools didn't used to provide this accurate an image if our nation. In the  'good old days,' most of the kids from the 'wrong side of the tracks' dropped out of school long before graduation. Consequently, public schools provided a more flattering reflection of America. Today children from this "other America" tend to stay in school. As a consequence, public schools now accurately more reflect America's failings as well as its successes.

Look at today's public schools and we immediately see the consequences of the growing social inequality that is one of America's least handsome aspects. The U.S. has the most uneven distribution of wealth of any major industrialized nation. And the richest Americans dominate our economy and our government. These are the Americans that write the rules that usually end up favoring the privileged and powerful.And this is why Congress stands idle while real earnings decrease, average family income erodes, and deregulation demolishes housing values, industries and lives. This is why millions of American's jobs are being sacrificed to "right-sizing," job exports and mergers — all without government challenge.

As the rich get richer, the rest of America gets left behind and an unacceptably large number of America's children end up poor in shattered neighborhoods. And the social consequences of this whole sad mess ends up in those chronically underfunded classrooms that serve America's poor where their teachers bravely try to keep destructive social conditions, inadequate resources and public criticism by dishonest politicians and their apologists from destroying even more kids.

Ironically, those who benefit most from economic and social inequities, preposterously overpaid corporate CEO's for example, scapegoat public schooling to dodge responsibility for the social consequences of their own excesses and heartlessness. Meanwhile many of the nation's governors bash teachers, issue bromides about the need for educators to raise their expectations, caution against "throwing money" at school problems, and emphasize the "need" to "break the public school monopoly."

To be sure, our public schools reflect all of America's sins, not just those of the corporate power elite and their government lackies. Consider parents, for example. Far too many of them are stupid, selfish, cruel or foolish; and too many believe that material possessions equal the good life. And like the finest plate glass mirror, our public schools reflect the melancholy consequences of all of this.  

For more on this see