Time to question the culture of fear

2010-04-16 00:00

RECENTLY I have had occasion to hang around the corridors and sports fields of several schools, both senior and junior. There was a distinctive smell about some of these places, one that I just couldn’t name. The identity of the aroma continued to elude me, despite sitting and waiting in one school for close to an hour on a suitably hard bench in an echoing passage watching boys scuttling past like so many beetles.

I mentioned the smell to someone who had been a school matron all her life and she put it down, in her experience at least, to the pong of unwashed boy. Although she might be right about that particular nuance of the odour, there was still something that niggled at me.

Then I remembered how I once visited an abattoir, where a herd of cattle was being slaughtered. I followed the condemned creatures from the holding pen to the end of the very efficient production line where they were eventually trundled out as carcasses. Needless to say, I stopped eating beef.

However, that’s not the reason for this reflection. The point is that the closer those animals got to the moment of death, the more terrified they became. Their eyes rolled back in their heads, they frothed at the mouth, and I swear they were driven mad by panic and sheer terror. What sent them over the edge was that smell I detected recently but could not identify: it’s the smell of fear.

Before I have every school in town firing off complaints to the paper, let me hasten to clarify that I’m not comparing their fine institutions to abattoirs, similarities though there might sometimes be. What I am suggesting is that it appears — or at least smells — as though fear-based systems still operate in some schools, particularly boys’ schools.

In a nation that claims a “culture of human rights” based on one of the most internationally acclaimed constitutions in the world, why do some schools still apparently believe that in order to understand the importance of hierarchy, juniors need to live in terror of their seniors, and even be subjected to abuse that is ignored, overlooked or sanctioned?

Why do we still have practices like initiation and traditions such as make making juniors run everywhere, keep off certain patches of grass and perform menial tasks for their seniors? And all this supposedly in the name of grand concepts like “discipline”, “team spirit” or “building character”. Why do others, especially boys’ schools, seem to imagine that youngsters need to be “broken down” in order to build them up again as the institution wants them to be?

I have heard some otherwise rational and level-headed men argue that their sons need to go through what they did because “it’s good for them”. Good for them se voet. Fathers sometimes blithely proclaim that “it never did me any harm”, as if that somehow protects their sons from hurt. Tell that to the generations of adults, especially men, who still carry emotional and psychological scars from experiences they had at school. I know I wouldn’t like my children to endure some of what I was put through at boarding school, mild though it was compared to others’ experiences.

The British statesman Edmund Burke said: “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.” If “good men” seem reluctant to question the apparently fear-based culture of some schools, especially boys’schools, perhaps it’s time for some “good women” — mothers ­perhaps? — to take up the cause.

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