Initiation issue

2009-02-23 00:00

Reacting to reports of assaults on youngsters in a Gauteng school, the national education department has warned that acts of abuse in the guise of initiation will not be tolerated. This particular incident has some unusual features. The assaults were particularly brutal. The victims were not small newcomers to the school but pupils in Grade 11, the second highest form. And the school concerned was an upmarket suburban school with a good general reputation. This may have been an isolated instance, but the education department is right to make its stance clear. Meanwhile, however, the incident appears to have sparked debate among parents at the school (and, presumably, their offspring) as to whether initiation serves a purpose, with the old argument that it “builds character” being again trotted out.

Certainly schools, like other organisations, have their unique ways of doing things, and some form of induction of newcomers into these customary practices and traditions serves to keep things running smoothly and to maintain the distinctive ethos of the institution. Certainly, too, every organisation from the national cabinet to a Cub Scout pack has its pecking order, and there is no harm in inculcating respect for those who have taken on leadership roles by virtue of their experience and ability. While there is always a place for social structures and hierarchies and every lifetime has its rites of passage, there is however no reason whatsoever to suppose that brutalising and humiliating people will turn them into better human beings. In fact, the opposite is true. Fortunately the demeaning initiation practices that used to be common a generation or two ago have faded as society has become more aware of individual rights and freedoms. Perhaps, too, the fact that youngsters are increasingly less prepared to submit to authoritarian coercion is a sign that schools are producing more mature and self-sufficient young people.

The government statement on the Parktown affair does, however, point to a peculiar and difficult anomaly. If government clamps down on initiation at schools, what about the traditional “initiation schools”, where young people are subjected to far greater, and even fatal, trauma?

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