Sunday, September 12, 2004


Plagosus Orbilius

The Latin adjective plagosus comes from the noun plaga (blow, strike) and the suffix -osus (full of, abounding in). Plagosus Orbilius ("Whacker" or "Flogger" Orbilius) was Horace's affectionate nickname for his old schoolmaster (Epistles 2.1.70-71).

At a recent family gathering, a relative who teaches in a junior high school mentioned a popular modern technique of discipline. School authorities telephone the parents of the offending students at work and tell them to come pick up their children from school immediately. I said that, if I were a student, I would prefer the instant application of some mild form of corporal punishment by the teacher or principal, without parental involvement.

I didn't have the good fortune to attend parochial school, but a friend who did used to tell how students in Latin class had their knuckles rapped with a ruler if they couldn't recite their conjugations and declensions properly. It was more perfunctory, ceremonial, and embarrassing than painful, he said. But to this day he can rattle off his conjugations and declensions perfectly.

This is a tried and true method of Latin instruction. In Boswell's Life of Johnson, we read:
He began to learn Latin with Mr. Hawkins, usher, or under-master of Lichfield school, 'a man (said he) very skilful in his little way.' With him he continued two years, and then rose to be under the care of Mr. Hunter, the headmaster, who, according to his account, 'was very severe, and wrong-headedly severe. He used (said he) to beat us unmercifully; and he did not distinguish between ignorance and negligence; for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as for neglecting to know it. He would ask a boy a question; and if he did not answer it, he would beat him, without considering whether he had an opportunity of knowing how to answer it. For instance, he would call up a boy and ask him Latin for a candlestick, which the boy could not expect to be asked. Now, Sir, if a boy could answer every question, there would be no need of a master to teach him.'


Indeed Johnson was very sensible how much he owed to Mr. Hunter. Mr. Langton one day asked him how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time; he said, 'My master whipt me very well. Without that, Sir, I should have done nothing.' He told Mr. Langton, that while Hunter was flogging his boys unmercifully, he used to say, 'And this I do to save you from the gallows.' Johnson, upon all occasions, expressed his approbation of enforcing instruction by means of the rod. 'I would rather (said he) have the rod to be the general terrour to all, to make them learn, than tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than your brothers or sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there's an end on't; whereas, by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other.'
Elsewhere (1775, aetat. 66) Boswell quotes Dr. Johnson as saying:
There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what the boys get at one end they lose at the other.
Nowadays, of course, Johnson's teacher Mr. Hunter would be sued in a New York minute. What's more, in some jurisdictions he might even be guilty of a criminal offense (cf. Minnesota Statute 121A.58).

Throughout much of human history, education and punishment went hand in hand. Robert Baker Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (1897; rpt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), pp. 224-225, lists a dozen Hebrew words related to teaching. Here are two of them (with Hebrew characters omitted):From the verb yasar is derived the noun musar, which also has the meanings chastisement or correction, as at Proverbs 3.11-12:
My son, despise not the chastening [musar] of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.
Rapped knuckles were not uncommon in Roman primary schools. When Juvenal meant to say, "I'm no dummy, I went to school, I'm educated," he wrote (1.15):
Well then, I too stretched out my hand beneath the cane.

et nos ergo manum ferulae subduximus.
Likewise Ovid (Amores 1.13.17) addresses Dawn as follows:
You cheat boys of their sleep and hand them over to teachers, so that their tender hands undergo cruel whips.

tu pueros somno fraudas tradisque magistris,
  ut subeant tenerae verbera saeva manus.
A teacher wouldn't slap or strike a student with the bare hand, because that might hurt the teacher just as much as the student. Some preferred instruments of punishment in ancient times included:although the flagellum was too painful, a punishment of criminals rather than schoolboys. Horace mentions all three together (Satires, 1.3.119-121).

Saint Augustine seems especially to have felt the pain and injustice of corporal punishment at school. He speaks about it in heartfelt terms in several passages. In his Confessions (1.9.14) he remembered his own schooldays:
If I was lazy at learning, I was beaten. For this custom was approved by our ancestors, and many who lived before us had mapped out these sorrowful paths, over which we were compelled to pass, with additional pain and sorrow to the sons of Adam. But, Lord, we found men praying to you and we learned from them, perceiving (insofar as we were able) that you were someone great, and that even if you couldn't be detected by our senses you could still hear and help us. For as a child I began to pray to you, my help and my refuge, and in calling upon you I broke my tongue's bands, and although I was small I asked you, with emotion that wasn't small, that I not be beaten at school. And when you didn't grant my prayer, which wasn't to be attributed to my folly, my elders laughed at my bruises (a great and serious affliction to me then) and even my parents followed suit, although they wished no harm to befall me.

si segnis in discendo essem, vapulabam. laudabatur enim hoc a maioribus, et multi ante nos vitam istam agentes praestruxerant aerumnosas vias, per quas transire cogebamur multiplicato labore et dolore filiis Adam. invenimus autem, Domine, homines rogantes te et didicimus ab eis, sentientes te, ut poteramus, esse magnum aliquem, qui posses etiam non apparens sensibus nostris exaudire nos et subvenire nobis. nam puer coepi rogare te, auxilium et refugium meum, et in tuam invocationem rumpebam nodos linguae meae et rogabam te parvus non parvo affectu, ne in schola vapularem. et cum me non exaudiebas, quod non erat ad insipientiam mihi, ridebantur a maioribus hominibus usque ab ipsis parentibus, qui mihi accidere mali nihil volebant, plagae meae, magnum tunc et grave malum meum.
In his sermon On Christian Discipline (De Disciplina Christiana 11.12) he asked and answered:
Why were you beaten? Why did you endure such suffering in your childhood? To learn. To learn what? Reading and writing. Why? So that money could be obtained, or so that a position could be gained, and high rank be held.

quare vapulasti? quare tanta mala in pueritia pertulisti? ut disceres. quid disceres? litteras. quare? ut haberetur pecunia aut ut compararetur honor, et teneatur sublimitas dignitatis.
Twice in De Civitate Dei (City of God, tr. Marcus Dodds) Augustine mentions corporal punishment in schools.

For ignorance is itself no slight punishment, or want of culture, which it is with justice thought so necessary to escape, that boys are compelled, under pain of severe punishment, to learn trades or letters; and the learning to which they are driven by punishment is itself so much of a punishment to them, that they sometimes prefer the pain that drives them to the pain to which they are driven by it. And who would not shrink from the alternative, and elect to die, if it were proposed to him either to suffer death or to be again an infant?

non enim parva poena est ipsa insipientia vel imperitia, quae usque adeo fugienda merito iudicatur, ut per poenas doloribus plenas pueri cogantur quaeque artificia vel litteras discere; ipsumque discere, ad quod poenis adiguntur, tam poenale est eis, ut nonnumquam ipsas poenas, per quas compelluntur discere, malint ferre quam discere. quis autem non exhorreat et mori eligat, si ei proponatur aut mors perpetienda aut rursus infantia?
What mean pedagogues, masters, the birch, the strap, the cane, the schooling which Scripture says must be given a child, "beating him on the sides lest he wax stubborn" [Sirach 30:12], and it be hardly possible or not possible at all to subdue him? Why all these punishments, save to overcome ignorance and bridle evil desires -- these evils with which we come into the world? For why is it that we remember with difficulty, and without difficulty forget? learn with difficulty, and without difficulty remain ignorant? are diligent with difficulty, and without difficulty are indolent? Does not this show what vitiated nature inclines and tends to by its own weight, and what succor it needs if it is to be delivered? Inactivity, sloth, laziness, negligence, are vices which shun labor, since labor, though useful, is itself a punishment.

quid paedagogi, quid magistri, quid ferulae, quid lora, quid virgae, quid disciplina illa, qua Scriptura sancta dicit dilecti filii latera esse tundenda, ne crescat indomitus domarique iam durus aut vix possit aut fortasse nec possit? quid agitur his poenis omnibus, nisi ut debelletur imperitia et prava cupiditas infrenetur, cum quibus malis in hoc saeculum venimus? quid est enim, quod cum labore meminimus, sine labore obliviscimur; cum labore discimus, sine labore nescimus; cum labore strenui, sine labore inertes sumus? nonne hinc apparet, in quid velut pondere suo proclivis et prona sit vitiosa natura et quanta ope, ut hinc liberetur, indigeat? desidia, segnitia, pigritia, neglegentia, vitia sunt utique quibus labor fugitur, cum labor ipse, etiam qui est utilis, poena sit.
Although corporal punishment was a sad fact of life for most Roman schoolboys, a few authorities raised their voices in opposition to the practice. Prominent among these was Quintilian (1.3.14-17, tr. H. E. Butler):
I disapprove of flogging, although it is the regular custom and meets with the acquiescence of Chrysippus, because in the first place it is a disgraceful form of punishment and fit only for slaves, and is in any case an insult, as you will realise if you imagine its infliction at a later age. Secondly if a boy is so insensible to instruction that reproof is useless, he will, like the worst type of slave, merely become hardened to blows. Finally there will be absolutely no need of such punishment if the master is a thorough disciplinarian. As it is, we try to make amends for the negligence of the boy's paedagogus, not by forcing him to do what is right, but by punishing him for not doing what is right. And though you may compel a child with blows, what are you to do with him when he is a young man no longer amenable to such threats and confronted with tasks of far greater difficulty? Moreover when children are beaten, pain or fear frequently have results of which it is not pleasant to speak and which are likely subsequently to be a source of shame, a shame which unnerves and depresses the mind and leads the child to shun and loathe the light. Further if inadequate care is taken in the choices of respectable governors and instructors, I blush to mention the shameful abuse which scoundrels sometimes make of their right to administer corporal punishment or the opportunity not infrequently offered to others by the fear thus caused in the victims. I will not linger on this subject; it is more than enough if I have made my meaning clear. I will content myself with saying that children are helpless and easily victimised, and that therefore no one should be given unlimited power over them.

caedi vero discentis, quamlibet id receptum sit et Chrysippus non improbet, minime velim, primum quia deforme atque servile est et certe (quod convenit si aetatem mutes) iniuria: deinde quod, si cui tam est mens inliberalis ut obiurgatione non corrigatur, is etiam ad plagas ut pessima quaeque mancipia durabitur: postremo quod ne opus erit quidem hac castigatione si adsiduus studiorum exactor adstiterit. nunc fere neglegentia paedagogorum sic emendari videtur ut pueri non facere quae recta sunt cogantur, sed cur non fecerint puniantur. denique cum parvolum verberibus coegeris, quid iuveni facias, cui nec adhiberi potest hic metus et maiora discenda sunt? adde quod multa vapulantibus dictu deformia et mox verecundiae futura saepe dolore vel metu acciderunt, qui pudor frangit animum et abicit atque ipsius lucis fugam et taedium dictat. iam si minor in eligendis custodum et praeceptorum moribus fuit cura, pudet dicere in quae probra nefandi homines isto caedendi iure abutantur, quam det aliis quoque nonnumquam occasionem hic miserorum metus. non morabor in parte hac: nimium est quod intellegitur. quare hoc dixisse satis est: in aetatem infirmam et iniuriae obnoxiam nemini debet nimium licere.

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