Connoisseurs of retribution are disarmed

17th December 2010 at 00:00
South Korea Seoul bans corporal punishment in schools, but teachers in the rest of the country remain free to be creatively cruel

Like the northerners from the famous Monty Python sketch, who reminisce about hard times - "Our Dad used to come home, kill us ..." - older Koreans love to look back at the past pedagogic beatings they took at school.

And what punishment they took. Forcing students to stand on first-storey window ledges seems to be a good one, while making pupils bang their own heads against a concrete wall 10 times appears to be another. It's not corporal punishment if pupils are doing it to themselves, right?

But all things change and finally connoisseurship of such retribution, in Seoul at least, appears to be over. A ban on corporal punishment in all schools in the South Korean capital has now come into force.

Many teachers, their canes twitching in expectant fingers, are protesting vehemently, suggesting the move will encourage indiscipline. And most parents support them.

The government, run by high-flyers who probably never endured a thrashing for daring to fail an exam, is behind the ban, declaring such violence against children to be barbaric.

Seoul's children should get down on their hands and knees to thank them. Or perhaps not. For that is the odd position pupils used to assume while awaiting a wallop with the cane.

Interestingly, it is democratic South Korea that has long championed corporal punishment, while their brothers in North Korea put away the birch and cane long ago.

Perhaps it says something about democracy that when the population is filled with never-did-me-any-harmers, it is best to ignore the voices of the misguided majority.

But as I write, I hear reports of teachers already getting around the ban on corporal punishment. There are reports of teachers making pupils strip in class and then sending them out into the snow for 10 minutes.

It is little wonder that South Korea's children are some of the most miserable in the world.

Take for example a recent survey of middle and high school students. Around half said: "If I were reborn, I would want to be from a different country." One where it hasn't taken this long to realise that young flesh is not best used for experiments in minor torture, perhaps?

Nor were these acts of cruelty used sparingly. Another survey found that 94 per cent of schoolchildren had experienced some sort of "physical punishment" meted out by teachers. And, of course, despite the Seoul ban, the rest of the country is free to flog its powerless youngsters.

More than 70 per cent of South Korean schools use corporal punishment today. According to World Corporal Punishment Research, parents even ceremonially present their children's teachers with symbolic canes - "the stick of love" - at the beginning of the school year, signifying a handing-over of responsibility for the students' discipline to the school.

From now on, though, Seoul's teachers will have to learn to discipline without resorting to the cane.

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