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With Corporal Punishment, Religion, and United States Public Schools, Jane Hall Fitz-Gibbon offers us a welcome addition to broaden and further nuance our understanding of education in American schools. While the United States admittedly falls far behind other developed nations in the academic quality of its public education system, few scholars as yet have specifically addressed the methods applied to "school" American children for behavior modification, which as Fitz-Gibbon demonstrates, is often deeply rooted in religious belief, as opposed educational philosophy. Since the mid-1800s, Western societies have increasingly frowned upon the use of, and ultimately legislated out of practice, corporal punishment across many regions of social exchange, including in the military, prisons, in the home, and in schools, recognizing its limited effectiveness as a tool for altering behavior and the paradox of its likelihood to undermine the moral high-ground of the punishing agent or institution. However, schools in the United States once again lag sadly behind much of the developed world in its continuing use of physical violence, in the form of corporal punishment, against the most vulnerable of their society, the children.
Fitz-Gibbon writes from a stunningly rich background as: the abbess of a faith community; a foster mother who has seen more than three decades of foster kids successfully pass through her home; a teacher of enlightened approaches to fostering; and a full time educator of special needs children—all this while completing a doctorate in Theology, enriched by three years as a Visiting Scholar at the SUNY Center for the Development of Human Services Research. Only a rare life such as this could offer a thinker the breadth of experience and the richness of theory to address this thorny social issue with philosophical and ethical rigor, yet a deep appreciation for the complex nature of the problem and a standard of care that does not demean the religious convictions that underlie the continuing use of violence in schools.
Fitz-Gibbon's argument essentially follows Plato's: that harming people never makes them better. Further, corporal punishment, by definition a form of violence, administered by adults in a position as carer, to children who are in their care, cannot help but cause emotional, as well as physical harm, and psychological confusion to the victims. Corporal punishment detracts not only from the wellbeing of the students but places in question the moral status of the punisher, since it requires that they fail in their ethic of care. To fairly and sympathetically judge the matter, Fitz-Gibbon applies what she calls "a redemptive hermeneutical triad," which draws together a more nuanced reading of sacred texts, the theological tradition of nonviolence, and the Eastern philosophical principle of Ahimsa or "no harm-doing." Taken together and argued with philosophical delicacy, Fitz-Gibbon delivers a damning argument for the abolition of corporal punishment in United States' public schools.
© 2017 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. (Philosophy), North Carolina A&T State University.