Have Public Schooling and Teaching Changed Over Time? (Part 3)

If noticeable classroom changes in teachers’ and students’ dress and having access to computer devices in daily lessons have occurred in recent decades, far less notice has been taken of the disappearance of one practice common in schools and classrooms for nearly a century: corporal punishment.

Regularly used in classrooms and schools for decades to exact acceptable behavior before, during, and after lessons, striking students physically in 2021 garners newspaper articles and protests. But not decades ago.

Corporal punishment is a euphemism. In Latin, corporal means “of the body” hiding that it is basically physical punishment. Rather than speak of “corporal punishment,” administrators and teachers commonly call it “discipline” or “classroom management.” Its purpose is to correct and deter what teachers and administrators define as student misbehavior. Misbehavior can be anything from chewing gum, one student hitting another student, disobeying teacher directives, writing on bathroom walls or destroying school property (and many other examples too numerous to include here). All of these fall into the broad definition of “misbehavior.”

Even as childrearing practices, especially in middle-class homes, had lowered the frequency of spanking and hitting children in post-World War II decades ala Benjamin Spock’s influence and media attention to child rearing practices, keep in mind that corporal punishment om schools has been legal by state law and viewed as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1977 decision, Ingraham v. Wright, the Court ruled that corporal punishment the eighth Amendment banning “cruel and unusual punishment” does not apply to schools hitting students for breaking rules.[i]

Much variation in spanking, paddling, and other physical punishments marked practices across schools over the past century. In many districts, then and now, teachers were allowed to administer the punishment. In other places, teachers sent students to the principal’s office and if the principal believed that, say, paddling was appropriate for the offense, he or she would give the swats. Much evidence exists that hitting students in schools has occurred in southern states and that minority, poor children and youth got punished in school in the 20th century more than white, middle-class students. [ii]

Physical punishment covered the age range from kindergarten to high school seniors, although the size of secondary school boys and girls often reduced the frequency of such punishments. Alternative in-school penalties became more acceptable than physical punishment such as staying after school, losing recess in elementary schools, and, yes, writing on blackboards what you will not ever do again.

Like increases in the use of new classroom technologies and reductions in physical punishment, other teaching practices changed. Formal student recitations declined in favor of oral book reports, short summaries of projects completed in school, and occasionally students serially reading paragraphs from their textbooks. Many teachers sought whole-group and small-group discussions from “show-and-tell” circles in kindergartens to analyzing voter returns from the previous presidential election in senior government classes.

Why all of these changes in teachers and teaching over time? The most obvious answer is that public schools, heavily dependent upon local financing, are (and have been) vulnerable to political, social, cultural, technological, and demographic changes in the larger society. Schools mirror society. Cultural changes toward authority, for example, say in the 1960s and 1970s filtered into school and classroom practices as each generation of parents raised their children—remembering how their parents reared them—and each generation of new teachers walked into their classrooms for the first time also recalling their student days.

Amid all of these documented changes, however–there is usually a “however” when it comes to the history of schooling–stability persisted in the age-graded school structure, political and social beliefs in the importance of tax-supported public schools, and patterns of teaching practices. Among many incremental changes, constancy in schooling and classroom practices continued. A lovely, if often ignored, paradox.


[i] U.S. Supreme Court decision can be found at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc5766273/

[ii] Wikipedia, “School Corporal Punishment in the United States,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_corporal_punishment_in_the_United_States

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