One of the most difficult tasks associated with living in a foreign country, especially a non-western lower-income developing country, is finding a delicate balance between accepting and constructively criticizing what is dictated by that country’s moral code.
The question inevitably comes up: is it right to impose one’s own post-modernist values on a society still in the lower rung of the development ladder? This is a question that I continuously wrestle with, especially as a volunteer at a local primary school.
As “Auntie Luci,” the foreign English teacher, I have been assigned to work with a first grade classroom of 57 students. From day one I have suffered from a bit of culture shock, witnessing a form of classroom discipline completely alien to any that I have known.
Teachers roam the aisles with a yard-long cane, whacking children on the arm or back for talking, not following directions, or just being rowdy.
To grab the class’s attention, the teacher will stand in front of the classroom and smack the cane repetitively on a desk, threatening “I will beat you” if the class does not come to order.
In some instances, a student found to have somehow wronged another student (usually by either hitting or stealing the student’s pencil), will be asked to hold his or her hand open while the teacher administers several blows with the cane.
Another strategy a teachers here can use for disciplining students includes singling out those who are misbehaving and having them kneel down in front of the classroom with their hands raised for an indeterminate period of time.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, is that these disciplinary methods have been so concretely institutionalized that students have been programmed to react only upon physical infliction.
To give an example, on one occasion, I was left alone with the children and, from one moment to the next, the once harmonious classroom environment ruptured into anarchy. I had a whole classroom full of seven year-olds crying, running, shouting, and fighting — it was utter mayhem.
A little girl, reading the desperation in my face, handed me the cane.
The message could not have been clearer: if you want to regain control of the classroom, whack away.
I didn’t, of course. I had to wait but was saved by another teacher who was prepared to use the cane.
My personal dilemma is knowing how to respond to a disciplinary system that I feel is not only outdated but, most importantly, detrimental to student learning.
Studies have shown that a child’s cortisol levels rise in order to manage stress and fear. This physiological reaction, in turn, blocks the child’s ability to reason.
After sustained reflection on my experience in the classroom, I continue to be torn by this underlying ethical predicament.
I would strongly argue that there are universal values that transcend cultures, such as the right of children to secure their physical integrity.
However, discovering ways to promote these universal values without coming off as a moral imperialist remains a foremost challenge.
Luci Storelli-Castro is a senior political science and philosophy major. Her column runs every Wednesday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.