January 17, 2008

creeping relativism

A student got suspended last week for being disruptive in class, then not showing up to detention. He came in with his father today. The father is an African immigrant - Nigerian, I think - who speaks perfect school English and wears a collared shirt and a wool coat every time I've seen him. He's deeply concerned about his son's education. He asked what the school could do if his son misbehaved, and was dismayed to learn that his son could not be physically prevented from leaving the school building, nor could we beat him. He quoted Proverbs - "train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" - and told me that when he was in school, a student who misbehaved would be held down by eight other students and whipped. He told me he had never embarrassed his father as his son was now embarrassing him.

I can't agree with him, really, and I'm obviously not going to beat the kid, but I don't judge him for it. I'm surprised to feel that way - with an American parent, I don't think I would. But this is a man who obviously cares about his son, and wants what is best for him, even if what is best for him in the long run involves some short term pain. My parents would have said the same thing, only the pain would have been mental rather than physical. It made me wonder: Americans often think that caning or other physical punishment is barbaric, and sometimes laugh at traditional cultures that punish wrongdoing with a specified fine (especially if the fine is denominated in livestock), but is it really worse than jails as we use them? We look away from the damage caused by confinement: the loss of productive years, the internal violence, the gangs that form on the inside, the physical damage caused by infections, rape, and assault in prisons. Who's to say it's better?

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