Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble





Deliberate distress








During the second world war David Wills ran the Barns Hostel for evacuees from Edinburgh and Glasgow too disturbed to be lodged with an ordinary family. He was a Quaker, and disapproved of any form of punishment. He gave the following reasons:

      1. It provides a base motive for conduct.
      2. It has been tried, and has failed; or alternatively, it has been so misused in the past as to destroy its usefulness now.
      3. It militates against the establishment of the relationship which we consider necessary between staff and children a relationship in which the child must feel himself to be loved.
      4. Many delinquent children (and adults) are seeking punishment as a means of assuaging their guilt-feelings.

But that is not all. When the offender has 'paid for' his crime, he can 'buy' another with an easy conscience.

The Barns Experiment, p 22

David Wills gives a another reason for not using punishment in a report to the Scottish Council for Research in Education, written 1942 and revised in 1943. Punishment 'shifts responsibility for behaviour onto the adult, instead of leaving it with the child.'

This last idea is not immediately obvious. It is worth reading it again. What it means is that adults who use punishment assume responsibility for the behaviour of the children supposedly under their control, and any breach of discipline is a result of their own weakness. A boy who throws books around in the classroom, for instance, is out of control, and that is not the boy's fault but the fault of the adult in charge of the class. Where there is no system of punishment, it is the boy himself who has to bear the responsibility for his behaviour.

At Mirambika, the school in Delhi based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, they give other reasons for avoiding punishment.

Punishment does not help the child to surmount difficulties. It builds a wall, creates divisions and an atmosphere in which it is very difficult to listen to the inner truth. Answering negative behaviour of children crudely with restrictions means that at that very moment we give up our belief in basic goodness. Let us remember that sometimes the child has to experiment a little with a dark corner in himself in order to consciously choose and own life.

Mirambika prospectus for 1994-1995

And at the Barbara Taylor School in Harlem in New York their reasons were different again. This is an extract from an account written in 1993.

There were absolutely no punishments, for profound reasons. Most schools try to take credit for their children's successes, but to blame the children themselves for their failures; when the children fail they punish them by imposing extra work depriving them of privileges or excluding them from school. This is inappropriate because, firstly, we are all responsible for each other, so the failures and the school's, not the child's; secondly, to exclude children is to deprive them of the one environment that is therapeutic for them; and thirdly, people who punish avoid having to discuss, and discussion is what leads to change.

Gribble, Real Education: Varieties of Freedom, p 185

Tony Barnes, former head of Aller Park, the Middle School at Dartington, once remarked that it was not right to say that there should be no rules, but there should be no rules that the children could not understand the reasons for. Pointless rules can only be enforced by punishment. There was no need for punishments at Aller Park.

Punishments, as is shown by the quotations above, cause much damage without actually achieving their objective. The very fact that it is usually the same children who are punished over and over again demonstrates its ineffectiveness.

Punishment is also the deliberate infliction of suffering, which seems an extraordinary example to set, particularly as it is often followed. One of the conclusions to be drawn from Royston Lambert's book, The Hothouse Society, is that where the staff of a school are violent, the children are likely to be violent too.

However, perhaps the most distressing effect of a culture of punishment in schools is that it teaches children that the only reason for doing the right thing is to keep out of trouble. This means that their common-sense morality is driven out of them, self-discipline is replaced by imposed discipline and when they find themselves in situations where they think they will not be caught they have nothing left to guide their behaviour.