Collective Punishment

There’s an image doing the rounds on Twitter, wherein a girl, asked about “things my teacher can do better,” replies with “collective punishment.”

“It’s not fair,” she says, “on the many people who did nothing wrong.”

I get it. I do. I understand the unfairness; I also understand that for a certain type of pupil, the meek and the geek, it can be particularly difficult. Maybe they didn’t even know that the event occasioning the punishment happened; or maybe they did, and feel pressure from the more dominant members of a class to keep quiet, whether or not that pressure is articulated.

And yet I’m not convinced.

Yes, I know, I’m a monster, unfit to be responsible for the education of the young.

But is this always and everywhere the case? Really?

Let me give you a case study. It happens to be a true story of something which happened earlier this term.

Imagine a class of fourteen-year-old boys. They’re in a Chemistry lesson, doing a ‘practical.’ And one of them, in direct defiance of an explicit instruction, pours water over a chemical compound, thereby causing a minor incident.

No, the school did not blow up. There was a fizz and a stench, a little disorder and a number of angry Chemistry teachers and laboratory technicians.

And no, none of this is the teacher’s fault. I know that’s what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong, because even if you think that there’s no way what you just read could possibly be true, I didn’t ask you to believe that I’m telling you the truth. I just asked you to imagine. So imagine.

Now. I want you also to imagine that this happened on one of those long science-lab benches, with a third of the class gathered around the incident. One boy knows who committed the offence, because he did it. Several others know who committed the offence, because they witnessed it.

Still with me? Good.

Right, a little more imagination is required. I want you to imagine that the Chemistry teacher then asked the boys around that table who was responsible for the incident, and that all of them shrugged and indicated that they did not know.

Do you believe them?

Nor do I.

Look – in the real world you’ve won on this one. I know. As it happened, the Chemistry teacher kept those boys back at break and detained them for some time while they refused to identify the malefactor. As the boys’ tutor, I confined them to the form room at lunchtime while they persisted in their observation of omerta.

I’ll tell you what I told them, which is that in being so unreasonable I was actually giving them the opportunity to be the perverted heroes they clearly considered themselves to be, standing by their preposterous little Code of the Schoolyard in not ‘grassing’: for this to be morally praiseworthy, I said, they did actually have to suffer somewhat for their principles.

No, I don’t think they were persuaded either.

And sure enough, nor were their parents. Or at least nor was one mother, who angrily telephoned me that afternoon, complaining that her son had been punished for something he hadn’t done. I don’t think she liked it when I told her that actually he had at the very least concealed the identity of a boy who had been at the very least grossly negligent in what must be one of the most dangerous parts of the school. Fortunately I have a terrific Head of Year to support me, though (as far as I’m aware) it never got that far: I conceded on the telephone to her that while I did not consider this punishment to be wrong, I was well aware that this is no longer the conventional wisdom, and that consequently I would not be extending this period of collective punishment.

This means that the offender has essentially got away with it. He had a few minutes in a classroom instead of the full school detention which his conduct would, if uncovered, have incurred.

You disapprove of me, I can tell. But what’s your answer here?

It’s better that a hundred guilty men go free than that an innocent man is unjustly punished?

Well, you say that. But if you’re going to rely on comparisons with criminal justice then be careful. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if, had this behaviour constituted a criminal offence, the entire group would been liable to prosecution under the principle of ‘joint enterprise’. I’ll bet, though, that there would be some principle which would enable some punishment: if a group of people are known to have committed a crime, and are covering up for each other, the law does not shrug and allow them all to escape punishment.

Ah, but it’s unfair on those who didn’t do it for them to be punished.

Is it?

They know who did it. They’re covering up for him. Are they scared of the consequences of informing on their peers? Maybe, but they can do it anonymously, and in this the electronic age that has never been easier.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This incident isn’t one of those issues which – however reasonable the rules and their justification may seem to us – a pupil can tell himself is a piffling school rule which has no moral or logical backing. I’m not asking a pupil to reveal the identity of the owner of a packet of cigarettes, or of the artist who drew an unflattering picture of me on my whiteboard, or of the idler who bunked off a cross-country run. Mucking around with chemicals is a quite different matter. The pupil who refuses to disclose his knowledge of it is doing something dangerous as well as morally wrong, and the more we as teachers accept such behaviour as normal – which, like it or not, is what we’re doing when we see it happening and do not intervene to punish those who do it – the worse it’ll get.

So sure. Congratulate yourself on being better than the dinosaurs who impose collective punishment. But I don’t think you’re as morally superior as you think you are.


3 thoughts on “Collective Punishment

  1. Interesting… however, this argument is assuming that all of the boys do indeed know who did it… or that you can separate those who do from those who don’t…
    Those who do know, suffer for their loyalty… yes, I see that.
    …Whilst he who did it, gets away with it lightly…
    …and, those who don’t know, suffer without even benefiting by learning that a similar example will be made of them if they do ever do the same thing…?

    That’s a score of 1 out of 3. In itself not particularly better than the person doing it getting away with it; the defenders getting away with their social loyalty; and the innocent remaining unpunished. (again 1 out of 3).

    I guess if ‘deterrence’ is the key thing here, then there is more value in your approach than the other – as there’s no possibility of anyone getting away completely unpunished. However, what value does this have versus the disillusionment of the rule-followers…?


    1. Let me be utterly cynical about the rule-followers.

      Firstly, they aren’t a threat to good order in the classroom. I will cope with them disliking me.

      (If this happens all the time then yes, this is a problem; we do, I think, need to manage our classrooms in such a way that these incidents are minimised. But we’re dealing with children, who will sometimes break the rules, unobserved by us but observed by their peers.)

      Secondly, they may well consider themselves hard done by. They may well consider their rights to have been violated. And they may well be right.

      But what they don’t know is how much worse their experience at school might be were the rule-breakers allowed to act with impunity. Nobody would ever know where that pupil’s pencil case was. Nobody would ever have seen his games kit. Nobody would ever find out who had opened her bag and taken her packed lunch.

      Liked by 1 person

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