Corporal Punishment and Infantilism: Why Haven't US Schools Changed Since the 1850s?

Nikhil Goyal examines the flawed US school system, bringing to light a lack of democracy, still-legal corporal punishment, and neglect by the media and presidential candidates.

Nikhil Goyal:  I found it really quite odd that in the 2016 presidential election there’s been very little talk about K-12 education even though there are over 50 million people in our society that are affected by the decisions made by policymakers regarding public education. And I think what happens, what we’ve seen especially in the media in the past couple of years there has been a massive discussion around issues in education. I wish that the presidential candidates would address these concerns. And there’s been issues around charter schools and standardized testing and teachers unions and pay for performance. There are documentaries such as Waiting for Superman, The Race to Nowhere, The War on Kids. And so there has been quite a bit of discussion around education but I argue that some of the discussion has not been as authentic and rich as it could be. What the media journalist often frame the conversation around education is charter schools versus against charger schools. Pay for performance against pay for performance. Are you for standardized testing or are you against standardized testing. And I obviously believe those are important issues and they need to be talked about and debated. But there is a more important issue I think that is above all these kind of issues all together which is the American education system and the structures and the anti-democratic nature of this system.

And I think we have not talked about the teaching and learning practices of American schools. Why is it that 18 year olds who are about to go to college have to ask permission to use the bathroom for example? Why is it that corporal punishment is legal in 19 states in this country? Why is it that children have very few freedoms and rights in school? There was a study done by Robert Epstein, a psychologist and another psychologist who found that schoolchildren are put under two times as many restrictions as inmates imprisoned. So they have very few freedoms and autonomy in schools and nobody’s talking about this. Nobody’s addressing these concerns on a national scale. And so I think obviously we need to talk about standardized testing and charter schools and the like. But we also need to address the learning and teaching practices of modern schools. And why is it that schools have largely remained the same ever since their inception in the 1850s? So those questions I think need to be posed to our policymakers and I wish people like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as well as the republican candidates – I mean Donald Trump has talked a little bit about issues around common core. But even on the democratic side I think there has been an astonishing lack of discussion and an agenda around K-12 education and I strongly urge the presidential candidates to discuss this issue.

Because you have millions of people who are affected by these decisions and I think the media has to do a better job enforcing this conversation onto the national stage. Oftentimes education journalists have very little experience in education or very little experience actually reporting on the schools themselves. Education is just kind of like one of those other beats and I argue that if you want to become an education journalist, if you want to report on education issues you just can’t go to that beat from the transportation beat or the national security beat. You have to do a lot of research and understanding of the history of public education, the structures that we have in place, policies. You just can’t go into this without having a strong idea of how the system was created and the purposes of it. And I find that most education journalists, one of the reasons why there has been such a poor quality of education journalism in the past couple of years and decades is because the education journalists have not had experience in schools, talking to students and teachers and they don’t have any idea of the history of the system.

So I mean one of the things I wanted to show in my book Schools on Trial was that I wanted to elevate the voices of the students and the teachers and the parents to show that their perspectives are basically not considered by policymakers, that they need to be part of this conversation. And the most important stakeholders which are the students and the teachers need to be part of this discussion and listened to very seriously because their concerns are legitimate and need to be put into action. 

I think one of the reasons why there is such a binary kind of position of the way we look at education and charter schools versus public schools, standardized testing versus no standardized testing is because a lot of education journalists don’t have the context of what are these issues like. I mean the issues around standardized testing and, for example, charter schools are – I mean they’re not new. I mean these battles have been happening for decades. And if you want to take the issue of charter schools for example. I have somebody who is a supporter of some charter schools but have critiqued the charter school movement all together. And if you actually looked at the history of charter schools the original purpose of charter schools was to create publicly funded schools that were going to be innovative and given flexibility in terms of their standards and curriculum and testing. And if you don’t know that history, if you don’t actually have looked at where the system was created you can’t understand why the movement has been designed the way it has, structure has been operating today. And I think charter schools is an excellent example because you can’t – I think oftentimes the media kind of paints it with a broad brush.

I think there’s a lot of major problems with charters schools. The corporatization of charter schools. I mean for example Success Academy and allegations of child abuse and other concerns. But there are charter schools, for example, like High Tech High in San Diego, a project based learning innovative school that happens to just be a charter school. And so it is not a black and white kind of situation. It’s much more nuanced and the media oftentimes kind of pits one group against the other when I think a lot of people who support public education, who support many of my ideas would support charter schools if they actually were founded and wedded to the beliefs that we want to see for all schools all together.

This has been a rollercoaster of an election year, and it’s not even over. From Hillary Clinton’s tweets demanding Donald Trump delete his account, the 1000 Bernie supporters that sat on CNN's doorstep with #OccupyCNN trending (which CNN refused to cover), and pretty much everything Donald Trump has said going viral, it’s been a busy year for the presidential candidates.


While there are many issues that they have covered in debates and interviews, one issue that hasn’t been squeezed dry is education. In fact, it’s hardly been touched. There’s been a lot of talk about the Mexico-America wall being built, the Orlando shooting with a military-grade weapon, and immigration rights. But the issues of standardized testing, bettering our science classes, and charter schools hasn’t been discussed quite so thoroughly. These are not unimportant issues, they affect 50 million Americans, and if you consider education as a building block, in the broader scope of things it affects the future world of all Americans.

Education is important. Having our children’s minds cultivated to the best of each kid’s ability is the key to ensuring that the next generation can do better, build smarter, create more. But no one is talking about it.

Filmmaking has led to some awareness. As mentioned by Nikhil Goyal, the author of Schools on Trial, a few documentaries like Waiting for Superman, The Race to Nowhere, and The War on Kids has led to more open discussion about the problems with schools and modern education. It brought the tough issues to the forefront of many parents’ minds, however momentarily. But the problems are still rampant. Just this past April, Shana Perez filmed her own five-year-old son screaming and wailing as he tried to escape being paddled by a school official for truancy, and she was shocked at the rampant violence. Somehow, corporal punishment is still legal in 19 US states.

Nikhil Goyal's book is Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice.

Goyal argues that education journalism doesn’t often capture the full story, usually content to pit one kind of school against the other. With broad brushstrokes like this, not enough is really learned about the deeper systemic issues, and the students’ stories are left untold. The students know why standardized testing doesn’t work for them, and they’re the ones who can describe why corporal punishment doesn’t teach them. Instead of pitting charter schools versus public schools, Goyal believes journalists need to undertake more in-depth research about the problems in the US education system to fully understand and report on it. The education system hasn’t changed since the 1850s, frozen in time while progress has marched forth in most other societal arenas. Why is that? These are delicate subjects that need to be handled with thoughtful and studious journalistic reporting. With some hope, the presidential candidates will discuss this much needed topic with as much care as it deserves.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.