A skeptical view of the child-fixing industry
By Jordan Riak

An exchange of e-mail on a listserv, September 1998:
I have just completed a fourteen week study with my students on teaching respect through literature. I am searching for information on the following subjects:
a. Research showing how character education programs have affected students over the long-term.
b. Specifically, how long a program needs to be in order for it to have a significant, long-term positive impact.

Any direction or information with respect to these subjects that you could help me with would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much!

Hello Mr. B.,
I am puzzled by your phrase "teaching respect through literature." I have great respect for William Faulkner, Arthur Miller and Toni Morrison. I also have great respect for sulfuric acid. Clearly, the two kinds of "respect" are worlds apart. You are aware, of course, that in your state, Missouri, school administrators and designated staff are legally permitted to batter schoolchildren in their pelvic area with a wooden board. Can there be any doubt as to the kind of "respect" being taught by educators who exercise that option, with or without the benefits of literature?
Jordan Riak
Dear Mr. Riak,
Aside from your first sentence, your response to B. seems to serve your own purposes rather than answering the questions posed. Can you give B. help in the areas requested?
J.L., Headmaster
The ------ School
Agreed. I did not give Mr. B. the advice he requested. But I think I gave him useful advice and I stand by it. It seems to me that the logical way to begin fixing the moral character (whatever one means by the term) of young people is to stop damaging it in the first place. This approach entails, among other things, an honest, critical assessment of the behaviors of children's earliest caretakers and role models: parents, baby-sitters, nannies, school teachers. Their moral character, good or bad, is the dominant factor in determining the child's moral character. Children who have the misfortune to be born into families where they will be subjected to unrelenting brutish treatment, then subsequently attend schools which compound the mischief, are going to fare poorly by anyone's standard. I think I am safe in claiming that within the science of child development none disputes that early trauma has life-long negative consequences. The earlier and the more severe the mistreatment, the worse the outcome. This subject has been under serious study for more than half a century and every new piece of evidence confirms what has been learned before. Even as early as the first century AD, Quintilian recognized that corporal punishment is "likely subsequently to be a source of shame, shame which unnerves and depresses the mind and leads the child to shun the light of day and loathe the light."

Of course, some people emerge from horrid circumstances to belie their heritage and evolve into caring, fair-minded, clear-thinking, high-functioning adults. Fortunately for the species, these exceptions to the rule are always present. They tell us more about the resilience of the human spirit than about the efficacy of programs in schools aimed at teaching citizenship and the like.

I shudder to think how many trees are sacrificed in the course of a year for the sake of the promotional literature that arrives at my office touting programs and products that promise to fix everything that's defective with the youth of today. Business must be booming. In all this material there is scarcely a word said about halting the most destructive practices to which children are routinely exposed. Teachers won't criticize teachers and the behavior of parents is sacrosanct until they commit a felony. Parenting literature, with rare exceptions, is an exercise in pandering to the sensibilities of the customer--usually a disappointed, fumbling, frustrated individual who wants to be soothed and reassured, and given easy-to-follow recipes that yield instant good results. To be told that one must confront one's own bad behavior before one can hope to understand a child's (or a student's) is a message few parents (or teachers) are prepared to sit still for. There is a virtual blackout with regard to critical self-examination. Dr. Alice Miller puts it this way:

"Frequently, however, [we] run up against a wall of almost unimaginable ignorance. This wall is especially impenetrable in intellectual circles, whose members have armed themselves with all kinds of theories against the return of the repressed and barricaded themselves behind them. All kinds of superannuated, though as yet unexposed, theories are stylized into intellectual systems and pedagogic models."
And a medical student, now completing his studies, made these comments in a recent letter to me:
"It's always aggravating when people try to do some good for kids while ignoring the great harm they're already causing or allowing to be caused. It's kind of like hitting a starving child on the head with a hammer. Everyone's concerned with feeding the child, but no one bothers to recognize that protecting the child from the hammer must come first. In medicine the golden rule is 'Do No Harm.' Helping someone means nothing if you are also intentionally harming them or allowing them to be harmed."

In the 23 paddling states of the U.S., there is not one teacher-training program that instructs undergraduates about corporal punishment, yet so many of them go on to become credentialed hitters. For every one of the 1/3 million or more times a wooden board impacts the tender flesh of an American schoolchild, there is a teacher at the other end. Yet on every front, the issue of scholastic buttocks-battering is either avoided or cloaked in delicate, practiced equivocation. The message is clear: leave the destructive behavior of adults out of the equation; get back to child-fixing.

Mr. B. asked for information about research showing the long-term benefits of moral character programs and how long it takes them to do what they purportedly do. I am unaware of such research. That's not my field. But I can't help wondering whose interest would be served by such research. What foundation would fund such a potentially embarrassing inquiry? Just think of all the damage that would be done to the wood pulp and printing industry and to the legions of professional child-fixers were it to come out that their programs, if they work at all, work not nearly as well as avoiding damaging children in the first place.

Jordan Riak

Dear Mr. Riak,
Thank you for your reply.
As the Headmaster of The ------ School with some 650 students and the parent of two children, I understand and share your concern about corporal punishment. I also think that useful advice loses much its impact if it is presented either unsolicited or confrontationally.
Kind regards,

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