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Beating and Starving Them ... And Other Ways of Teaching

By Daniel Born — March 27, 2002 5 min read
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Stephen closed his eyes and held out in the air his trembling hand with the palm upwards. He felt the prefect of studies touch it for a moment at the fingers to straighten it and then the swish of the sleeve of the soutane as the pandybat was lifted to strike. A hot burning stinging tingling blow like the loud crack of a broken stick made his trembling hand crumple together like a leaf in the fire: and at the sound and the pain scalding tears were driven into his eyes. His whole body was shaking with fright, his arm was shaking with fright, his arm was shaking and his crumpled burning livid hand shook like a loose leaf in the air. A cry sprang to his lips, a prayer to be let off. But though the tears scalded his eyes and his limbs quivered with pain and fright he held back the hot tears and the cry that scalded his throat.

Other hand! shouted the prefect of studies.

—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

One of the dangers of our historical moment is that we forget that learning stripped of joyful experience is likely to produce little learning at all.

While teaching courses on the British novel over the past decade to undergraduates in Ohio, year after year I have returned to passages in which students encounter the pedagogical horrors of an earlier time. Maybe most famous is Stephen Dedalus’ punishment for failing to write an essay after his glasses get broken on the playground. He receives the pandybat treatment—a leather paddle loaded with lead shot for ballast—from Prefect of Studies Dolan, whose favorite prelude to maiming a little boy’s hands is “lazy idle little loafer!” This phrase has allowed me to work at improving my own poor imitation of a brogue—important when seeking to immerse the class in the world of Clongowes School. Joyce’s extraordinary prose in this scene is so powerful that I have watched students wince and ball up their hands into fists when they hear it.

Of course, the Victorians did not have to look far as they chronicled brutal teaching tactics. We know because Joyce and Dickens and Brontë show us all too well the villainy of schoolmasters bent on beating and starving— literally—their students into an attitude of submission. In Charlotte Brontë's depiction of Headmaster Brocklehurst, who towers over the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, we meet a teacher even less redeemable than Joyce’s Father Dolan. Brocklehurst, a pious fraud who starves the girls at Lowood School, is by his own account a believer in “plain fare, simple attire, unsophisticated accommodations” and an appreciation for the Psalms and Gospels. Jane, all of 5 years old but willing to challenge his authority, earns from him this opening fusillade: “No sight so sad as that of a naughty child, especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?” No wonder students can’t put the book down. Few figures are more fascinating than twisted teachers. Reprehensible in real life, they make for great art.

Our time is marked by less overt forms of punitive teaching, but the more subtle variety does its own kind of damage. The stories are out there to gather if we listen closely. My daughter came out on the porch roof last spring where I was industriously scraping the side of my house in preparation for new paint. It’s the kind of task after the end of a semester that allows for some mental decompression, a blessed mindlessness following close upon marathon paper and exam grading.

But as Liz started telling me about her day at school, my attention drifted from the paint chips. I heard about a substitute teacher who, while shaking her finger over an open book, threatened her unruly class with these words: “If you don’t quiet down, we can read ONE MORE PAGE!

Our time is marked by less overt forms of punitive teaching than the Victorian era, but the more subtle variety does its own kind of damage..

In an era of progressive educational theories, I wondered how so crude a tactic could possibly survive: inflicting, like the lash, some reading on the children. Apparently the education methods courses required of education majors weren’t getting through. I picked up the paint scraper and asked Liz if punitive reading worked. She went on to describe teachers who seldom give a writing assignment except as punishment for transgressive behavior. I concluded that reading and writing taught this way begin to resemble community service: an activity we alternately celebrate as ennobling, the centerpiece of civic virtue, or else as a measure meted out to drug offenders and delinquents. How many teachers still assign writing as a consequence of naughtiness?

Later that week, as I finished the housepainting, I pondered this conversation. In a strange reverie I saw that indelible image of a writer going slowly mad in Stanley Kubrick’s film “The Shining.” No, I wasn’t thinking of how Jack Nicholson’s character comes through the bathroom door wielding an ax, but rather of that most supreme moment of horror when we see he has typed hundreds of pages of manuscript with the single repeating sentence, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Our times are fraught with debates over educational policy, many of them highly contested—and some of them important. Parents, teachers, and politicians split over issues of proficiency testing, vouchers, and holistic reading strategies vs. phonics. At the college and graduate levels, the scholars carry on about whether literature anthologies or W.W. Norton’s new tome of collected critical theory should hold the high ground of the English department curriculum. But a more fundamental and preliminary issue might occupy our attention with beneficial results. That is, regardless of our differences on any of these issues, we need to find common ground in a commitment to literacy for every citizen, beginning with our children.

Teaching methods that deliver reading and writing assignments primarily as punitive measures need not, and should not, be tolerated.

It is true that our schools no longer beat or starve students into learning. On this point Joyce and Brontë, were they alive today, would perhaps take some small measure of comfort. But by the same token, teaching methods that deliver reading and writing assignments primarily as punitive measures need not, and should not, be tolerated. That’s a zero-tolerance policy we could all endorse, a modest initiative for educators of every persuasion.

One of the dangers of our historical moment is that we forget that learning stripped of joyful experience—a new style of Gradgrindery induced partly by a heightened educational climate of assessment and results—is likely to produce little learning at all. (On a related note, is there anyone who believes, as I do, that restoring lunch-hour recess to a real hour, as opposed to the frenzied 20- minute token it has become, might be a step in the right direction?)

After I finished my house painting, I thought of giving that substitute teacher a friendly call, but was too afraid to ask the burning questions: Can you remember the first book you ever read for pleasure? Can you remember any?

Daniel Born is the editor of The Common Review, the magazine of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Beating and Starving Them ... And Other Ways of Teaching

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