An International Dilemma

Globalism is great but it’s not without its challenges. Yesterday, for example, I received this email from a young Old Boy who is spending his summer as a teaching assistant in a school in Africa, as part of his university’s social service program. A year ago, he was singing ,“You’ll Never Walk Alone” in Laidlaw Hall. Today he is feeling quite isolated.

If you have any advice for him, please send it along. Thank you.

“Dr. Power,

I have a dilemma: Today a teacher caned several students in the hallway where I was standing. I thought it was a terrible and inhumane form of punishment, and all I could think of was your reminding us that ‘the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who remain morally neutral during a time of crisis.’

I know that caning is a part of their culture here but I completely disagree with its use. I felt like I should stop it somehow, but I wasn’t sure of what I should do. And I know that sounds bad.

So what I did was I left the school. It sounds weak, like I’m running away from it, but I felt like I had to at least be something like a conscientious objector. I couldn’t just go along with the caning.

I’m not going to teach during a school day when they cane here. Using violence as a way of teaching goes against everything I believe.

But I am wondering if you have any advice? I’m pretty far from everyone and everything I know and could use a little wisdom. Thanks.”


11 thoughts on “An International Dilemma

  1. I am not sure I can be of assistance to your Old Boy or not however I wanted to offer my thoughts. I have spent time abroad attending school in Europe.
    I am not sure if any of my suggestions will in fact be helpful because everything is different in practice but here goes:

    1) Unicef ( provides a significant amount of information regarding the rights of the child. There is a section on “what you can do”. This young man, although he feels isolated, is not alone.

    2) There is an interesting initiative in Tanzania called the Acacia Female Leadership Initiative. They have made remarkable progress with the schools they have been working with. It has taken a significant
    amount of commitment and a lot of hard work. .

    3) Look to history. How did Canada rid itself of corporal punishment in schools. I know when I attended primary school the principal used the strap as a measure of discipline. I don’t know much about this but I am happy to research on behalf of your Old Boy.

    4) Prevention
    Can he help prevent the situations where caning is used from occurring.
    If so, how can he do it?
    Perhaps he can gently educate a like minded staff member of other forms of discipline. Explain that humiliation and pain are not generally effective and may not necessarily give the outcome they are hoping for.

    Does the school have a written code of conduct to prevent an expectation gap between the students and the teachers. The students need to be aware of the expectations placed on them.

    Would he be able to offer to provide other forms of “discipline” for the students? For example, supervising detention or study hall.
    Perhaps he could form a running club to inspire the students and redirect their behaviour or an art club to inspire these kids who are being punished. Perhaps he could give them something to be proud of.
    Something to bargain with, something they would miss out on if they don’t follow the rules. Are the rules reasonable?
    Perhaps these types of clubs would prevent the need for caning so it can be avoided altogether and no longer needed as a tool for discipline.

    If he thinks it would be useful then I am happy to send him some art supplies.

    5) Would he be able to offer comfort or counselling to the children who have been caned? Help them to understand and avoid situations which result in caning. I don’t want to sound cynical however, I suspect that it is inconsistent and unfairly applied as a punishment tool.

    The fact that this young man has reached out to you and your community is impressive, courageous and admirable. He is not weak. I am confident that he will make a difference even if he helps one child, on one day. I have learned that that in itself is an accomplishment.
    We don’t always have to think big, sometimes it is the small things that matter.

  2. I’m so sorry to read this story, but I am not entirely surprised.

    It is extremely common to use corporal punishment and I think it’s one of those things that nobody really knows what to do about it. I think talking with the supervisor may actually be his best option – it is highly unlikely that anything will change, but they may be able to talk with a headmaster or someone.

    I think it depends on the policies the school/organization has – if there is a rule against caning, then the director should know. If nothing else, they would be able to offer some insight into his experience and how other volunteers have handled it. Also, encourage him to talk with other volunteers and journal about it and lead by example (i.e. other forms of punishment). When i was teaching, I found that the way I conducted myself with the kids had an effect on at least one other teacher (not all of them, but one is good!).

    It’s not that he should never say anything and just deal with it – its really just that if he were to confront a teacher directly, it could have unintended consequences for him and possibly the kids. I would really not want for him to have a difficult and uncomfortable rest of the summer.
    Depending on the headmaster, that may be an option, but something that the Old Boy would want to feel out in terms of the receptiveness of criticism.

  3. I had the exact same experience in the 1980’s when I was teaching abroad.

    My first day on the job I heard screams coming from the office. When I asked what it was the response was, “oh, just some kid getting beaten”
    It is a cultural thing that goes back generations, and not anything that I could change.

    It was clear to me that the only thing I could do was:
    1. never send anyone to be beaten
    2. help them in their studies as best I could, give them the best educational experience I could.

  4. The previous comment right from an American perspective. But not right from a cosmopolitan perspective. The first makes us feel righteous. The second opens the door to conversation and change. I agree it’s an intolerable situation for a young person. But what a learning experience

  5. A friend sent me this piece of advice:

    I think the Old Boy should be commended for speaking up with you and that he has done the right thing by doing so. He has been put in a terrible position and he can’t possibly be expected to police unacceptable behaviour on the part of the school faculty.

    I suggest he ( hopefully with others in his group) contact the group leader who has organized this service trip and let him/her know what is happening at the school. That is very important information for them to know, as they should not be putting kids in a position, which compromises their values and principles.

    There is a mixed message if schools in Canada and the US strongly endorse an anti-bullying stance and then send students off to situations where bullying and abuse is condoned.

    University organization should always have a Plan B in case of such difficult circumstances. If this kind of behaviour continues at the school, the old boy and his friends should ask to be placed elsewhere. If all else fails, coming home ( with pride and dignity) was preferable to staying in a situation that was so uncomfortable for him and compromises his values.

    In summary, this young man should not be put in such an ethical dilemma and that the onus falls on the organization from his university to either address this with the admin in Afrida or move the kids to another placement.

  6. Guess in Uganda they follow the phrase ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’. Did this Old Boy speak to the students that were canned to try and understand what they felt about the punishment they received?

    No one can stomach seeing an injustice being done, but this form of punishment is such a cultural thing, that it might very well be a way of life in Uganda and the students might not give the incident a second thought the next day…..

    I’ve been canned as a child, both at school and home, and I’m fine today….no emotional scars and still love my teachers and parents. I realized that the canning I received was because my elders cared enough to want me to grow up a rounded person ready to take on whatever came my way in the big wide world.

  7. The cultural aspect of this is so important and makes it tricky. As an aside, it seems to me this should be part of kids’ training before they head into these situations. Thinking ahead of time about helpful responses would be a good idea to my mind.

  8. What a tough situation. I’m surprised that His university didn’t brief the kids on the fact that the school uses caning as a form of punishment. If they didn’t know, your Old Boy should notify them immediately.

    It truly is a cultural thing. Think back to when you were a kid and your parents (at least mine) used a hairbrush or their hand or a flyswatter. We would deplore their use today, but they were culturally accepted and most people grew up fine.

    He doesn’t describe what the caning entails, etc. so that also complicates a response.
    It seems to me that the best approach would be for him to speak with the head of the school about his upset. I think that he should also e-mail/text the University people and share his concern. Perhaps they have experienced this before with students and can give advice.

    If they didn’t know about it, they can note the place as a “no send” next year and still give him advice about how to respond. After consulting and receiving advice, then he would be in a position to decide how he will respond.

    There is the higher good of kids being educated despite the caning. Which is the higher good? His challenging an accepted cultural traditon on the basis of his conscientious belief that it is hurtful and barbaric, or doing the work with kids he is there to serve? How long does he have left? Is this an entire summer experience?
    Sorry — not much help.

  9. Classic case of a cosmopolitan dilemma where there is deep cross-cultural dissonance.

    The best approach is to enter into non-judgmental discourse. “In my culture we regard corporal punishment as immoral and abusive. So I’m curious why your culture finds it otherwise. I wouldn’t presume to judge. – just to learn.

  10. wow…that is tough.
    So…(and this is how I felt when I was in Africa and girls said they did not like going to the bathroom because girls got raped there…sometimes by teachers , sometimes by older students) . I literally was so sick and felt sick for days. I did not want to be in the school…the whole thing disgusted me.

    However…would the old boy think about this…
    He likely can’t change what is happening in his stay there…but he can be himself for the students. Without judgement…you can give a ton of your heart and mind by just being there and listening and observing.

    YOu can still help build or help with reading or with math.
    I actually found beauty and wonderful people in a place that I wanted to run away from and although I know I did not make the rapes of young girls go away , but it was still better to be there and try to do something right.

  11. Poor guy.I know how he feels. I remember so vividly watching boys be hit at school when I was about his age and feeling nauseous as I witnessed the humiliation.

    Is there an advisor there with them from his university..someone who has experience with that culture?

    Hopefully there is and he can talk this through with them. Even if there is no one physically present, I imagine there is someone who acts as the liaison for the programme.

    I’m sure this is an ongoing issue. How do the others in his group feel? This is such a tough one because of the clashing cultures…but I do believe that by being there and treating the students with dignity and respect he shows that there is another way of relating to others.

    There’s no telling where those seeds, once planted, grow. His choice of a “conscientious objector” stance seems to me to be inspired.

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