Monday, March 28, 2011

Another black thing I probably don't understand

Saint Augustine High School is a Catholic-run school in New Orleans that serves a predominantly African-American student body.  It has a reputation of preparing students for later, successful programs of study at Xavier University, also located in the city.  Saint Aug, as it is referred to, is generally accepted as having no peer in educating the children under its guidance, and preparing them for careers that benefit the wider civic life.

I am not Catholic, despite what readers may conclude from my ongoing fascination with the saints that populate New Orleans's landscape and culture.  I am also not black, which should be obvious to anyone who spends enough time reading through the archives.  I do, however, live in a city in which, as a white person, I am in the minority.

There has been an ongoing controversy at Saint Aug recently.  The archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, made an executive decision to forbid corporal punishment at the school.  According to the Times-Picayune, which has been covering this story (I don't have my copy in front of me, so readers will have to excuse me if some facts are inaccurate), Saint Augustine was the only Catholic School in the nation that allowed "paddling" as a disciplinary measure before the archbishop suspended the practice a few weeks ago.

Alumni of the school have come out in force to protest this decision.  Current students are testifying as to the merit of paddling as a means to enforce discipline.  The archbishop, who has recently taken pains to reduce the influence of violence within his jurisdiction (click the link above for the prayer that ends every mass in the Archdiocese of New Orleans), makes a valid point that Jesus never used corporal punishment as a means of teaching.  Archbishop Aymond makes a further point by stating that force is never an appropriate or acceptable method for increasing compassion or understanding.

Saint Aug alumni have demonstrated with signs that read, "Spare the rod and spoil the child."  As someone who has raised a child, I understand that a little physical reinforcement goes a long way in bringing about desired behavioral results.  I have no comment on its efficacy in teenagers, but I theorize a carrot will have more value than a stick.  This is armchair philosophy on my part.  I am not a professional educator and I have little interaction with teenagers of any race or economic background in any setting.

A recent T-P report quoted an alumni as saying, roughly, "I don't want to bring this up, but I would hate to think there is a cultural element to the archbishop's decision."  The caveat that a person doesn't want to mention something before they do is a sure sign that they do want to bring it up, they are just sugar coating it and deflecting responsibility for the consequences.  I don't get any impression that Archbishop Aymond is saying that cultural traditions should be ignored.  It seems to me that he is saying that African-American students do not need to be paddled to excel in their scholastic training.

This does not strike me as a racial issue since Saint Aug is the only school that has continued the practice.  If there is any evidence of discrimination enabled through low expectations, it is the idea that a certain population of young people about to enter adulthood needs to be treated as toddlers and subjected to corporal punishment in order to behave.  Paddling may be effective.  There has been plenty of testimony in favor of its benefit from people who bore it and excelled because of its threat.   I remain unconvinced.  I am the product of a school system in which this method was a thing of ancient history.  I get along okay, thirty or more years later.

The racial issue in this dispute is a red herring.  While corporal punishment in a school is not a cause of violence in the community at large, the idea that it is an appropriate way to deal with misbehavior is an assumption that should be avoided.  Oaks grow from acorns.  Teenagers rarely make the best decisions, and they need encouragement.  They need positive examples.  The many graduates of Saint Augustine High School serve as positive role models.  I doubt any one of them would result to hitting another person in their professional or personal interactions.  There is nothing positive to be gained by institutionalizing paddling as the most effective way to deal with waywardness.

Over the years, I have been reminded that there are black things that I cannot understand.  This originally offended me.  I am a cognizant, sentient, man who lives every day with eyes open and ears cocked.  I've learned that there are things I cannot understand, only indirectly absorb, based on race.  There are things I cannot understand because of my gender as well.  The reverse is also true.  I wouldn't wish anyone to walk a mile in my shoes, though it has been a pleasant journey overall.  Corporal punishment directed at young adults is not one of the things I can condone, no more than when it is inflicted on older adults.  If a person, a teenaged student who is given the opportunity to attend one of the premier schools in New Orleans, needs to feel pain to perform, what does that say about that person?  What does it say about the system?  What does it say about the culture?


Michelle H. said...

I don't get the corporeal punishment either. Paddle to excel? Not my cup of white or black tea.

Whalehead King said...

Thanks, Michelle.


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