Rethinking the sanction, a challenge for the school


It is never by deciphering the great and beautiful principles written in gold letters on the frontispiece of schools that we understand what educating means, at a given time, for a given society. It is rather by examining what one could call “the suburbs of educational work”, these margins which surround the transmission of knowledge, and in which we find the question of sanctions.

To consider the sanction is already to think far beyond. Behind the bonnet of old donkey, the work of general interest, the lines to be copied or school exclusions draw a conception of society and a vision of the child.

In one of its latest issues , the Revue Internationale d’Education de Sèvres takes a look at the punitive practices of nine school systems, from West Africa to Russia, from North America to Japan, issue invites us to a journey to the heart of punitive practices. A journey that reveals some historical constants while sketching out prospects for renewing the disciplinary policy of our educational establishments.

Put an end to corporal punishment

Hitting children has been, alas, admittedly, a universal practice. Almost universal, because the Japan of the first centuries refused to do so. It has in fact existed early in the country of the Rising Sun, from the VIII th century, Buddhist monks refractory to all forms of physical punishment.

This exception is to be considered, when we know that the word “rod” does not appear less than fifty times in the Old Testament. What makes say to the author of the article “Punishments” of the famous dictionary Buisson that “the Old Testament is certainly of all the sacred books […] that where it is made the most mention of punishments. ”

We see today how countries like Benin or Burkina Faso are struggling to end these abusive practices. Practices legally prohibited for over fifty years, but which are still very much alive, not to say omnipresent, in classrooms.

The law obviously has virtues, but they should not be overestimated. It supports changes more than it initiates them, it supports practices more than it promotes them. We can really turn the page on educational violence only if other ways of doing things are outlined.

A school without constraints, a sweet dream?

After centuries of abuse, several radical experiences have emerged in Europe. Recall the libertarian schools in Hamburg in the early 1920. “In the early days, written Schmid , the teacher who relates this amazing experience, the teachers announced their students that no longer exist punishment or sanctions, that there would no longer be a question of prohibition or any regulation which might hinder them in the use of their full freedom ”.

One day it was necessary to admit the failure of the experiment. Zeidler, one of the inspirers of the project, had to admit not without sadness after a few years that

“Wherever we let ourselves be guided by boundless confidence in the tact of children, in their strength of will, in their perseverance, in the safety of their instinct and in the tolerance of individuals to form a community […], we saw bands of undisciplined forming. ”

Because to educate is to liberate, as Kant explains in his Reflections on education , but one can only make free if one uses constraint.

“One of the great problems of education is the following: how to unite the submission under a legal constraint with the faculty to use one’s freedom? Because the constraint is necessary! But how can I cultivate freedom under duress? I must accustom my pupil to tolerate a constraint weighing on his freedom, and at the same time, I must lead him himself to make good use of his freedom. Without this, everything is pure mechanism and the man deprived of education cannot use his freedom. “

Today we have to redo Kant’s gesture, try to reconcile education and sanction , show in short that the latter is not doomed to be a parenthesis in the educational process but that it can, under certain conditions, become a dynamic and positive moment. This is our challenge.

The promises of “restorative” justice

It is therefore not by reviving the illusory dream of a school without sanctions that we can renew the disciplinary policy of our establishments. It is by examining the most original experiences, in particular those which try to introduce into educational institutions the principles of restorative justice.

What is it exactly? This penal conception was born in the Seventies in North America. She addresses two criticisms of classic retributive justice:

  • the latter are accused of neglecting the re-socialization work of the person who committed the offense. Once the sentence is completed, the latter returns as if nothing had happened to his activities.
  • the second criticism underlines the absence of care for the victims.

And if this is so, it is because retributive courts conceive of the offense first of all as an attack on the majesty of the law. For proponents of a restorative approach, it is a set of wrongs that affect people and, beyond that, a community.

We can therefore understand why restorative justice recommends mechanisms that invite meetings between victims and those responsible for offenses, meetings which are always moments when wrongs and responsibilities are established (circle, restorative conference, etc.). We also understand why it invites us to implement remedial procedures.

Marry retribution and reparation

Restorative practices should be encouraged for three main reasons:

  • repair transforms passivity into activity. To repair is to act, to do.
  • as the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein saw, is that there is a need to repair the silent desire to repair itself.
  • Finally, there is in repair a concern to renew ties , the ardent desire to want to make a new society.

This does not mean abandoning the retributive approach, as some advocate, but knowing how to intelligently marry retribution and restoration as we are committed to do by the philosopher Conrad Brunk .

Howard Zehr , the father of restorative justice, himself recognizes this today by refusing to dismiss retributive approaches without further ado as he did a few years ago. Because both, both work to impute a responsibility.

Author Bio: Eirick Prairat is Professor of Philosophy of Education, member of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) at the University of Lorraine