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THE ENGLISH VICE: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian Britain and After
by Ian Gibson
THE FULL TEXT of Caning: Educational Ritual is now available for download here as a single PDF file (1.5 MB).
This is a most extraordinary book. All 189 pages of it are devoted to an academic study of the single topic of caning at one particular school in New Zealand, Christchurch Boys' High School.
How did this come about? The author was an American university postgraduate research student, and in 1969 he gained a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to New Zealand, a place he seems to have chosen at random. Once there, he conceived the notion of persuading a school to let him inhabit it for nearly a year so that he could observe its disciplinary customs and write a thesis about them.
Mercurio sets out his reasons in the Introduction:
" ... no one has ever taken a lengthy, detailed look at corporal punishment as practised under the conditions of school life - that is to say, no one has yet gone into a specific setting in the role of disinterested participant-observer and studied corporal punishment over an extended period as an ongoing, 'working', institutionalised practice. Consequently, scant attention has been paid to an entire series of questions such as: What does the practice of corporal punishment in the schools look like from the point of view of the participants? How do pupils and teachers not only view, but react to its administration in live situations? In other words, what is the meaning of corporal punishment to those involved with its practice? What is the relationship of the practice to the values, expectations, and demands of the larger school community? Does the practice itself serve purposes of an extradisciplinary nature? If so, what are these purposes?...."
He's not quite right about nobody ever having done this before. Royston Lambert and Spencer Milham were "disinterested participant-observers" at many English boarding schools a few years earlier, investigating very similar questions (though not confined to corporal punishment). The result was a fascinating book called "Hothouse Society" (1968).
New Zealand is renowned for being more traditionally English than England, and Christchurch Boys' High is a very traditional school. It was founded in 1881, and at the time of the study had 1,093 pupils. It takes boys between the ages of 13 and 17, all of whom in 1969 wore grey short trousers ("of reasonable length and reasonable fit -- width to be 17 inches or above at cuff") with long grey socks ("no lower than two-thirds up the leg") and caps (to be "worn squarely on your head with no hair showing at the front"). A host of similarly detailed rules covered haircuts, punctuality, no hands in pockets, manners, parts of the building out of bounds, standing to attention when talking to a master, and so on.
Mercurio starts with a definition:
"Corporal punishment is defined as chastisement inflicted on the body in order to cause physical pain, usually for the purpose of modifying behaviour. The instrument of corporal punishment considered in this study is the cane, a rattan or bamboo rod approximately three feet long and one-half inch in diameter. It is administered to a pupil's backside (i.e. buttocks) while he is in a 'touch-your-toes' position."
(At least, so Mercurio says. Other anecdotal evidence from Christchurch High suggests that the boy was usually required to rest his hands on his knees, which produces a much less tight but arguably more stable bending position, and seems to have been something of a New Zealand speciality.)
It turns out that in this particular school the canings could be administered by any teacher; there were formal beatings in the head's study, but most canings took place in the corridor outside the classrooms, the culprit being taken out of the class for the purpose and returning to it immediately afterwards. This custom provided what the author calls "semi-privacy, in the interests of sparing a boy unnecessary humiliation" such as would occur if he were caned in front of his classmates. I find this a bit odd; is it worse to have one's classmates witness one's punishment than to risk it being seen by any master, boy from another class, visitor, school secretary, delivery man or American academic researcher who may happen along at that moment?
The author's method during his nine-month stay was to attend classes, sit in the staffroom, hang around with boys in their lunchtimes, visit the pub with teachers -- talking all the time, gaining the confidence both of pupils and of masters by being resolutely impartial. Naturally the subject of caning came up quite often, enabling Mercurio gradually to collect opinions and anecdotes on the subject. (Nobody except the headmaster knew that his real interest was in punishment; they thought he was researching the school in general.) It is upon these many conversations that most of the book is based, together with some meetings which the school arranged for him with parents, many of whom also were old boys of the school.
What the book amounts to, then, shorn of its sociological jargon, is a sort of non-statistical opinion survey. And indeed it is the many quotations which make it worth reading. A few examples of quotations from boys:
"I think they should keep caning. I mean this is a boys' school. There has to be some form of discipline here." (Fourth form boy)
"You bend over. You get your whack. It's a wee bit hot for a while. But it cools off." (Fourth form boy)
"I didn't mind it. I usually got caned for something I knew I did wrong. I only didn't like it when it was unjust ... my Math teacher once told me I would get one lick for every five points I was below a passing grade on my exams. I got three licks altogether before I made my grade." (Sixth form boy)
"You really respect a teacher more who canes," Tony offered. "Well, Mr Jamison canes a lot," I said. "Do you respect him?" Michael acknowledged, "No. He canes all the time". "But take Mr Pierce", John now asked the other boys. "Would you like him as much if he didn't cane?" The other six agreed that they really wouldn't. (Third form boys)
"Some of the masters around here are cane-happy.... Say Mr Moss wanted to cane you. So he sent you to Mr Watson to borrow his cane. Well, Mr Watson would give you two of the cane himself before sending you back to Mr Moss for two more." (Fifth form boy)
"You learn after a while that six of the cane from one master are worth three of another's or only one from a really good caner". (Fifth form boy)
And one or two quotations from masters:
"If I do have to cane a boy, I cane him at the time of the offence. And I hit him hard, because I don't want to have to do it again. I do it while I'm hot, and while he's hot ... while we're both hot.... it's quick, it's clean, it's cathartic."
"They don't like it ... mostly because it hurts a hell of a lot: I know I've hurt a kid or two with the cane ... although some of their backsides are so thick from caning that they're almost impervious to it".
"Caning is a personal relationship. A boy places himself in the position of a son to his father .... by bending over, a boy shows he can stand up to his punishment and take it. It's tribal. Of course it is." And then, referring to an Australian boy whom he took into his home for one year as part of a school exchange program, he went on: " ... he wrote his parents about .. how I punished him on occasion. And he said, 'But Mr Walker cared for me enough to give me a hiding'.
"If it is an accepted part of things, then it is viewed differently in the school than it is viewed from outside, and this is what I don't think the public realises. I have certain cut-and-dried things that are a caning offence .... if a boy is found smoking in a public place, he will get caned by me .... If a boy gets more than four detentions in a term, then I cane him. I would be sure in this case there's no malice toward anybody ... the amount of caning I do will depend entirely on how many such cases arise or whether or not a boy has broken the school rules. And I would say that I might deal with three or four cases a fortnight.... that is the established pattern in this school, and if they break it, they get punished." (Headmaster)
Addressing himself to the problem of quantifying the amount of caning going on at Boys' High, Mercurio is up against a difficulty: there is a Masters' Caning Book, but most masters can't usually be bothered to fill it in. For the whole of 1969 there were only 76 entries in it, and yet Mercurio reckons from his own observations that there were actually about 5 canings per day on average, which would make 950 in a year! He also establishes that it was fifth-formers who got caned most (those aged 15/16), closely followed by 3rd and 4th year boys. This suggests a slightly higher optimum age for being whacked than contemporary average practice in Britain, where it was nearer 14 according to the official figures. In 1969 it was also not at all unknown for sixth-formers to be caned at Boys' High, and occasionally even members of the Upper Sixth (three cases recorded in the book in 1969).
The author also did some historical research, and found that one of the earliest headmasters (1884-1920), who set the tone and traditions of the school, "swung a good hefty cane"; his successor (1921-1940) extended the power of caning to monitors (= senior prefects):
"One of those blokes belonged to the First Fifteen and could really lay into you. They used to line boys up outside that little office. The object was to have you bend over for your whacks at the entrance to the corridor and see how far down the length of the hall they could make you fly." (Old Boy)
And during the same headmaster's reign, on a winter's day in 1930,
"three boys were publicly given twelve strokes of the cane each, in front of a turnout of the entire school, and suspended for a week, for smuggling and consuming wine ... The incident is discussed to this day".
What Mercurio concludes from all this (mainly anecdotal) evidence is that the question of corporal punishment cannot be divorced from the social/cultural assumptions and traditions within which it operates; that as a traditional and authoritarian symbol within a mini-society whose values are traditional and authoritarian, it is accepted by more or less all concerned as an effective and sensible thing to do, and expected by boys when they misbehave; and that because it is accepted and expected, it works -- in that particular setting. All of which will seem, to those of us who are familiar with the subject, like not much more than obvious common sense. But nothing is that simple for the American sociologist: he inflates this fairly commonplace perception into a great edifice of complex value-systems, with names like "The CIE/CIA Perspective" (for Caning Is Expected/Caning Is Accepted) and "The CINTHA Perspective" (for Caning Is Nice To Have Around).
But we must not mock too much. The author has quite a few interesting insights on the subject as an intelligent and non-judgmental outsider. He notes the various ways in which CP has a highly symbolic significance, the astonishing amount of folklore surrounding it, the fact that it has a lot to do with manliness (third-formers notch their canings on their belts to see who can get most whackings in a term; it proves how tough they are), its status as a tribal ritual, its tendency to be self-perpetuating, and the part it plays as a social bonding process.
For anyone interested in the wider, especially cultural, aspects of corporal punishment, this book is well worth searching out.
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