Fifteen Minutes: How Can You Have Any Pudding?

Two hundred and eight years ago, the Constitution and Bill of Rights laid out for Americans the privileges that were
By Benjamin D. Mathis-lilley

Two hundred and eight years ago, the Constitution and Bill of Rights laid out for Americans the privileges that were theirs as citizens: the right to vote, to petition, to speak freely. Some rights were not explicitly detailed but have nonetheless come to be expected. Among these "implied" liberties are the right to privacy and the right not to get hit in the ass with a cricket bat when you forget your gym clothes. Some of Harvard's international students, alien to these precepts of democratic society, endured such unseemly punishments during their high school careers. And they would do it again.

"It stung a fair amount but it didn't sting for long," says Paul Maasdorp '03 of the whipping he suffered at St. John's College in Harare, Zimbabwe, an all-male private school. The only "beating," Zimbabwean for disciplinary caning, that Maasdorp took in high school consisted of two strokes, administered after he was caught engaging in tomfoolery during a speech given by the St. John's headmaster. Egregious crimes warrant more strokes, with six as the maximum. Of Maasdorp's 90 graduating classmates, "70 to 80 percent would have been beaten during some stage of their high school career," he said.

The two-to-six stroke rule also applies at Benoni High School in Johannesburg, South Africa, of which Michael Cornish '03 is an alum. "If you got five strokes you were allowed to go home for the day," he said. Administrators understood that your bleeding ass might need a rest. "Some of my friends used to come out of there bleeding. Afterwards we sat around laughing about it, but when you were going through it, it wasn't a joke at all."

Benoni is co-ed, but females aren't subject to lashings; chivalry at its best. They get detention for violating rules; males are whipped even for "really, really dumb things," Cornish said. In addition to crimes such as "back-chatting" teachers, Benoni's finest should be prepared for a smackdown if their hair is too long or too short.

At one point in high school, teammates shaved Cornish's head during a soccer-team initiation. In addition to the two-stroke caning he endured as a consequence, his science teacher made him sit in the hall daily until his hair grew back, which took three weeks. Cornish also "got" the aforementioned "jacks" from a cricket bat when he forgot his gym clothes. "I couldn't sit down for the whole day," he said.

American students used to friendly relationships with both teachers and fellow students might find the prospect of being whipped and/or otherwise humiliated by these authorities odd. This is not so for students familiar with corporal punishment. "We're very good friends with our teachers," says freshman Timothy Thairu '03, who attended Alliance High School in Kikuyu, Kenya. "There are just lines you wouldn't cross."

However, one must note, Thairu is probably insane. His charming and jocular manner undoubtedly hides horrible pain inflicted by various disciplinarians. Pain that he discusses with seeming indifference. He was only whipped once during high school, though he admitted, laughing in the way Americans reserve for fond reminiscence of misbehavior, that he "can't count the number of strokes" he took during primary school.

At Alliance, Thairu was also subject to the control of "prefects"--high school students, usually seniors, given the power to enforce administrative rules by all means necessary. Licensed to give out fitting punishments, it was within a prefect's power to force a student perhaps only a year their junior to kneel penitently in a corner for an indeterminate amount of time.

It is probably impossible for Western standards of dignity and revenge to explain why, in Thairu's words, "most of the people that prefects punished are now their very good friends."

In a climate which fosters corporal punishment, the administration of canings is just another part of the school day. Relationships mix violence and politeness in a surreal manner. "Everyone was friends with the headmaster," Cornish said. "He'd cane you, you'd leave his office and he would see you an hour later. My brother used to get a lot of jacks. At times, the headmaster would offer him some tea first. He'd say, 'Well, I hate to do this,' [and then cane him]."

Mwashuma Nyatta '02, another Alliance graduate, points out that rogues subject to more "humane" methods of discipline are just as unlikely to develop happy relations with principals and administrative assistants. "If you're a bad kid, irrespective of where you are, you'll always have a bad relationship with authority," he said.

Nyatta and Thairu seem to view traditional American reactions to misbehavior as wimpy and useless. "You're told you have 10 hours of detention, so what? You're in a room reading a book," Thairu said, apparently forgetting the lessons of The Breakfast Club. By contrast, they feel corporal punishment keeps order while instilling morals. "Practically, it's very useful," Nyatta said. "It shows you the difference between right and wrong," Thairu adds.

The standards of behavior which Alliance High requires would lead to armed rebellion in the average U.S. school. "We had to run to class," Thairu said. "Jog, trot. Faster than just walking. Our society expects it." For Americans, high school corporal punishment is just a Hollywood cliche of injustice, evil and sadism, as Maasdorp points out. "The only time most Americans encounter corporal punishment is in books and movies, and in most of these cases examples of corporal punishment being used unfairly are given," he said in an e-mail. "So I feel that people see it as an unfair abusive punishment."

Thus, when Maasdorp arrived at Harvard his new American acquaintances were surprised to learn that canings are still carried out by the sane. "People were very surprised that corporal punishment still existed," Maasdorp said. "They certainly seemed to think it was barbaric. They expected me to be shocked about it."

None of the international students interviewed thought that sustaining buttock damage for hair-related infractions constituted cruel or unusual punishment; indeed, they all said they would send their own kids through a similar system. Maasdorp says that he would only label corporal punishment cruel if it were arbitrarily applied. "Random and unfair use is a thing of the distant past--I can certainly speak for Zimbabwe, but I'm pretty sure this holds for most," he said. "Rules are, on the whole, fair."

To Cornish and his friends, beatings induced more amusement than trauma. "I don't think [corporal punishment] is cruel at all," he said. "It's a good laugh to look back on. We'd all get caned and we'd go back to the bathroom. We'd pull down our pants and see who got the worst."

Then maybe it is not surprising that Cornish, Maasdorp and Thairu would choose caning over a less painful but more permanent Ad Board sentence. Cornish has seen both worlds. He spent his junior and senior years at Choate Rosemary High School in Connecticut. "[Choate] had harsh rules in a different way. The consequences of doing something bad at Choate were a lot more long-lasting. Get caned, an hour later you're fine."

According to Ad Board Secretary Thurston Smith, Harvard's disciplinary body is unlikely to satisfy yearnings for such violent but blessedly ephemeral punishments. "We don't put you in jail, we don't fine you--we do not take away life, liberty, property or cane people," he said.

If caning ever thrived during Harvard's dark Puritan evangelism days, the practice has long since died out. "In looking through very old Harvard records going back hundreds of years I've seen no mention of it," Smith said. "I think it's probably illegal in Massachusetts."

In fact, though several Massachusetts statutes prohibit corporal punishment in public schools and ban "whipping" as "a method of initiation into any student organization," there appear to be no explicit restrictions on tough bamboo-rod love at universities. To be fair, no higher education institutions in Kenya, South Africa or Zimbabwe continue the practice of caning. Smith is sure that Harvard plans no trend-setting in this area. "I guarantee you," he said.

Nyatta for one, is unimpressed by the Board and their "disciplinary measures." But, he'd rather take his chances with an authority that does not threaten redness and swelling. "Ad Boarding seems a very weak form of punishment," he said. "You don't have trouble sitting down."