Violence at School: Contradictions in the classroom

Every ruling class has a two-faced attitude to violence. When the members of a ruling class think their interests require it, they will use violence of a most extreme kind, dealing out death and injuries to “enemy” soldiers and civilians, and destruction to “enemy” cities. The American and British invasion of Iraq is a recent example. In its own territory, however, a ruling class will often aim at preventing physical violence. The more non-violent its own home society is, the fewer interruptions there will be to the steady production of surplus value for the ruling class – the more peaceful will be the labours of the waged and salaried workers for the benefit of the owning class.

Children, of course, learn much more from example (when they see how adults behave) than precept (when adults tell children how to behave). So they will probably grow up to be more docile workers in capitalism’s factories and offices if they are not beaten at home or school. That, at any rate, is how the British ruling class sees it, and thus there has been a “statutory ban on the infliction of corporal punishment in schools” (Times, 18 December 2002).

Shortly afterwards the same Government which had kindly stopped teachers hitting children joined with America to attack Iraq, with the result that some thousands of adults, and children, were killed or badly injured: like Ali Abbas, the boy whose family was killed, while he was left with many burns and no arms. It is also the same Government that locks up families who have come here without official permission – such as the Kurdish Ay family, a mother and four children, who were kept imprisoned for over a year before being forcibly sent out of the country (Independent on Sunday, 22 June, Times 15 August). (The father of the family, sent back to Turkey despite Turkey’s repression of the Kurds, has not been heard of since.)

Capitalist education - more corpse than corpus?
Capitalist education – more corpse than corpus?

The banning of corporal punishment didn’t please everybody. Some devout Christians felt that the Act took away their religious freedom. A number of “independent schools providing a Christian education based on biblical observance” (Times, 18 December 2002), supported by parents of children at the schools, went to court to establish their right to continue beating their pupils. They argued that the law took away their religious liberty to hit children, and so broke the European Convention on Human Rights, which established that “everyone has the right to freedom of . . . religion”. (Why shouldn’t children claim to belong to a religion that outlaws physical violence? And shouldn’t their right not to be hit take precedence over adults’ “rights” to hit them?) The schools asserted that “physical discipline” was “an integral part of the teaching and education of their children, whether in school or in the home”, and “citations from the Book of Proverbs were provided in support of the claimants’ beliefs, those being regarded as biblical precepts”. The Court of Appeal rejected these arguments, so the Christian schoolteachers will sadly not be able to thump their scholars. They won’t be able to bring back the days the present writer can recall – when the Scripture teacher lost his temper with a boy who could not remember the next verse in the Bible passage the class was supposed to memorize, and attempted to knock it into his pupil physically – “The next verse, you blockhead, is ‘God is love’!”, whack! “God is love!” whack! – and so on.

But of course teachers are in many ways the first line of capitalism’s propaganda army: at least they are the first organized part of that army that many of us come across. So they cannot avoid the many inconsistencies and contradictions which are inherent in capitalist propaganda. I remember standing in the school playground in the thirties, in the rain, facing the flag on Empire Day, while the headteacher explained to us how lucky the other countries in the British Empire were that Britain was ruling over them. Then, when the war broke out in 1939, the head explained that we had to go to war to prevent one country ruling over other countries. What was very good when “we” did it was all wrong when others did it.

At the same time the teachers (although they would have indignantly refused to accept that they were part of “the working class”), were – as workers – under the constant strain of having to produce results in order to justify their salaries. One “Assembly”, at the beginning of morning school, when we had a religious service, as required by law, ended with the headmaster praying piously “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us . . . Amen”. Then his face became red with anger, and he shouted – “I saw some boys out of my window yesterday playing round my car, and they deliberately scratched it! Who was it? Who was it? I’ll get them!” When the miserable miscreants had been terrorized into owning up, they were sent to the head’s study to be caned immediately after Assembly, and the head clearly had no idea that there was any discrepancy between praying “as we forgive them that trespass against us”, in theory, and his rampant desire for revenge, in practice.

It is strange that it is only the more vulnerable members of the human race, children, who are supposed to gain from being beaten. Why did not these Christian schools claim that the headmaster could beat the house-masters, and the house-masters beat the ordinary teachers? Or why shouldn’t all the teachers beat the parents who haven’t paid their bills on time? It is quite true that texts from the Book of Proverbs advocate the beating of children, but there is no reason to stop there. If these Christian schools insist on following biblical instructions, why don’t they insist on their right to execute from time to time some unfortunate eccentric old woman, on the ground that the Bible (Book of Exodus, chapter 22, verse 18) says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”? Not to mention another half-dozen denunciations of witches and witchcraft in the Bible. And don’t say there aren’t any witches: how could the Bible mention witches, and lay down what ought to happen to them, if there weren’t any?

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