View from Here - Connoisseurs of retribution are disarmed

7th January 2011 at 00:00
Seoul bans corporal punishment in schools, but teachers in the rest of the country remain free to be creatively cruel. Michael Fitzpatrick reports

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

And what punishment they took . standing students on first-storey window ledges seems to be a good one, while having pupils bang their own heads against a concrete wall 10 times appears to be another. It's not corporal punishment if the 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 no doubt, are protesting vehemently, suggesting the move will encourage indiscipline.

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 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 which has long championed corporal punishment, while their brothers in the North 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 a ban on corporal punishment. There are reports of making children strip in class and then sending them out into the snow for 10 minutes. Is it little wonder that South Korea's kids are some of the most miserable?

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 finds that 94 per cent of school children 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.

Over 70 per cent of South Korean schools use corporal punishment today. According to World Corporal Punishment Research, parents even ceremonially present their sons' and daughters' 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 rely on discipline without the cane.

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