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The Evolution Of Corporal Punishment In Education

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Sparta
  3. Quintilian
  4. Late Middle Ages – Early Modern Period (500 – 1700)
  5. Modern Era (1700 – present)
  6. Corporal Punishment in Canadian Schools
  7. Corporal Punishment in American Schools
  8. Conclusion
  9. References


The evolution of corporal punishment within a school setting dates back to before 500 BC. Corporal punishment in its entirety cannot be traced back to its origin, but examples of corporal punishment in a school setting started to be documented in early Greece, which spans from 800 BC to 500 BC ( Editors, 2010). Ever since Greek and Roman antiquity, there has been a debate about whether or not corporal punishment should be used within an educational context. This paper explores the subject of how corporal punishment within schools has evolved over the past 2500-3000 years with a focus on Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, and modern Canada and the United States of America.

Ancient Greek and Roman Eras (800 BC – 476)

The earliest reference to a school or classroom setting is dated back to before 500 BC. The references depicted a structure being used as a classroom which collapsed and killed 119 students in Chios, Greece (Joyal, McDougall, and Yardley, 2009, pp. 13). During this era of history, corporal punishment was a vital part of education and strict discipline was a common occurrence (Joyal, McDougall, and Yardley, 2009, pp. 18). Corporal punishment is defined as an act of physical violence inflicted upon an individual in an attempt to change a behaviour (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016). At this point in history, punishment was severe, even if the wrongdoing was not significant. Corporal punishment was not only inflicted upon those who did something incorrectly, but even to those who did not complete tasks fast enough, or did not maintain correct posture (Joyal, McDougall, and Yardley, 2009, pp. 156).

Examples of corporal punishments included, but were not limited to, beating, whipping, public humiliation, and even death (Bloomer, ch. 12, pp. 189). Corporal punishment was not purely seen as a method of punishment, or as the harming of the child, instead, it was seen as a tool for strengthening them and preparing them for their future (Joyal, McDougall, and Yardley, 2009, pp. 18, 36, 37).


One of the most known examples of corporal punishment from this time period is “the whipping contest” which took place during the festival of Artemis Orthia (Joyal, McDougall, and Yardley, 2009, pp. 29). The whipping contest at the festival of Artemis Orthia was part of every young male’s upbringing and education. During this contest, young boys are beaten, often to the point of death, while trying to steal cheese from the altar of Artemis Orthia (Joyal, McDougall, and Yardley, 2009, pp. 29). This contest took place as a method of educating boys by teaching them to endure, to problem solve, to learn by trial and error, and by learning through the observations of others (Papapostolou, Konstantinakos, Mountakis, Georgiadis, 2010, pp. 47). These lessons would be important in a boy’s future, especially during his mandatory military training. It was not uncommon for corporal punishment examples of this magnitude to be seen, it was accepted by most, but there were still a few famous individuals who protested the use of corporal punishment for children in an educational context.


The opposition of corporal punishment in schools is not a new concept. Unsurprisingly, not everyone accepted the use of corporal punishment in an educational context. One of the most well-known individuals from this time period that opposed the use of corporal punishment as an educational aid is Quintilian (Joyal, McDougall, Yardley, 2009, pp.176). Quintilian’s opposing view is stated clearly in the passage below:

I do not agree that students should be flogged. First, because flogging is disgraceful and is therefore suitable only for slaves and is certainly an insult, a fact which is indisputable if you substitute an older age group. Second, because if a boy has a disposition so intractable that he cannot be corrected by scolding, he will become hardened even to your blows, just as the worst slaves are. (Joyal, McDougall, Yardley, 2009, pp.176).

Along with this passage, Quintilian’s also expressed his belief that learning should be praised and those who did not want to complete their studies should not be physically punished, but should have to watch other students receive prizes for their eagerness to learn (Joyal, McDougall, Yardley, 2009, pp. 175). Even though corporal punishment faced an opposition, it did not become any less common.

Late Middle Ages – Early Modern Period (500 – 1700)

Vincent of Beauvais, a French Scholar (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019), was one of many medieval philosophers that believed that corporal punishment was the key to successful education (disputed education). There was no one reason decided upon as to why corporal punishment should be used as a method of teaching, but several of the believed benefits of corporal punishment were; that fear was the first step of knowledge and understanding, beating could mold the mind as well as the body, could instill morality, would help students learn and remember their previous mistakes, and would teach students obedience (How much did medieval teachers beat their students? n.d.).

This mentality changed for many after 1690 when the “Father of Liberalism”, John Locke, published “Concerning Human Understanding” (Steele, 2018). Locke’s understanding was that children were blank slates and would become better by being guided, not disciplined. He stated that disciplining children would not;

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Have brought him to be in love with his book; to take a pleasure in learning, and to desire, as he does, to be taught more, than those about him think fit always to teach him. … We have reason to conclude, that great care is to be had of the forming children’s minds, and giving them that seasoning early, which shall influence their lives always after. (Steele, 2018)

Up until this point in history, there was not a large debate as to whether or not children should be physically punished within a school setting. Within the next few hundred years, laws became established concerning corporal punishment and the idea of physically punishing children became much less popular in many countries across the world.

Modern Era (1700 – present)

Another push for the elimination of corporal punishment in schools was the abolishment of capital punishment, also known as the death penalty (Hood, 2019). In 1863, Venezuela became the first country to abolish capital punishment outright (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018) and soon after, many other countries followed suit. Three years after the end of World War II (Timeline of historical periods, n.d.), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in order to protect the rights of each and every individual (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, United Nations). It was at this point in history when the use of corporal punishment in schools began to diminish in parts of Canada and the United States. Even after this issue was addressed, it was only recommended that its use was restricted and therefore imposed no guidelines or restrictions upon its use (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, United Nations).

Between 1890 and 1920, corporal punishment in schools started to become a debate in Canada and the United States due to increasing enrollment in schools (Katz, 2016). As teachers began to unionize in the United States, they began to shift their focus to the importance of teaching and away from the focus of behavioural issues within the classroom. In the 1950s and 1960s, this new approach took a step backwards and corporal punishment again became a central focus in school due to the fear of children becoming uncontrollable and engaging in delinquent behaviour if they did not receive strict discipline (Katz, 2016).

As of 2016, the United States of America, Australia, and 67 other countries continue to legally permit corporal punishment in schools (Gershoff, 2017) even though it is considered by many to be a violation of an individual’s human rights (Gershoff & Font, 2016).

Corporal Punishment in Canadian Schools

The movement to abolish corporal punishment in Canadian schools became increasingly greater after 1968 when Emmett Hall and Lloyd Dennis released “Living and Learning”, now known as the “Ontario Hall-Dennis Report” (Bennett, 2018). The first of Canada’s provinces to amend their education/school act and state that they have banned corporal punishment in schools was in British Columbia in 1973 (Repeal 43 Committee, n.d.). Ontario was the last of the provinces and territories to amend their education act to reflect the ban on corporal punishment, with the exception of Manitoba and Alberta who still fail to reflect the ban of corporal punishment in their education acts (Repeal 43 Committee, n.d.). Even though Manitoba and Alberta have not acknowledged the ban of corporal punishment, it is still not legal in those provinces due to a Canada-wide ban on corporal punishments within schools which was put in place in 2004.

As of 2004, corporal punishment within a school setting is illegal, no form of physical punishment can be used under any circumstance (Axelrod, 2011). The only time that an educator can use force against a student is in self-defense, or in defense of another individual (Corporal Punishment & “Spanking”, n.d.).

Now that corporal punishment within Canadian schools is illegal, there is a push to make all child-directed corporal punishment illegal as well. As stated in Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “The right encompasses freedom from the threat of physical punishment or suffering”, therefore, deeming physical punishment illegal, but is not strictly illegal in the case of children when done by a parent, except when done out of anger, frustration, or loss of temper (Corporal Punishment & “Spanking”. (n.d.).

Corporal Punishment in American Schools

Unlike all Canadian schools, public schools in 19 states across the United States of America still allow corporal punishment within classrooms, as well as private schools in 48 states. Corporal punishment in each of these states is allowed for all students, including those in preschool (Gershoff & Font, 2016). The Texas Education Code from 2013 defines corporal punishment as; “The deliberate infliction of physical pain by hitting, paddling, spanking, slapping, or any other physical force used as a means of discipline” (Texas Education Code, 2011). Some counties within the 19 states even give guidelines and recommendations of wooden paddle specifications. For example, in Pickens County, Alabama it is recommended that a two-foot-long paddle, three inches in diameter, and half an inch thick be used to punish students (Gershoff & Font, 2016). There is a startling resemblance between behaviours punished in antiquity compared to behaviours punished in the modern-day United States of America. A majority of corporal punishment examples today are for incidents such as fighting with other students, bullying, or consuming alcohol on school trips, but, almost 40 percent of corporal punishment cases, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), are for much less serious behaviors, such as; inappropriate language, cellphone use (Gershoff & Font, 2016), not completing homework, running or laughing in the hallways, mispronouncing words, leaving class without permission, and receiving a below average grade (Farmer, Neier, & Parker, 2008, pp. 3). Even though corporal punishment is not illegal in the United States, the NCBI presents data from two national studies done by Survey USA and Julie Crandell of ABC News. According to these surveys, 72 percent (Crandell, 2004) and 74 percent (Survey USA, 2005) of people say that teachers should not have the authority to use corporally punish students.


Compared to 2500-3000 years ago, people today have a much different opinion of corporal punishment. Even within the past few centuries, the world’s opinion has shifted from a positive to negative view of corporal punishment, especially within the school system as it relates to children. Yet there are still people who believe that students need to be corrected in their behavior both at home and at school. Since the periods of Greek and Roman antiquity, there has been a debate concerning whether or not corporal punishment should be used in a school or classroom setting. Since that period in time, the overall consensus has changed from an overwhelmingly positive view of corporal punishment to one that is more divided but leans to the side of abolition.


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