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School CP - May 2005

Corpun file 15768, 16 May 2005

Benson-Pope stands down

Associate Education Minister David Benson-Pope has stood down from his portfolios while an inquiry is held into claims he assaulted students when he was a teacher.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said tonight Mr Benson-Pope was standing down at his own request while an independent investigation was conducted into the credibility of the allegations.

Miss Clark said she would be seeking advice from Solicitor-General Terence Arnold on the form of the inquiry.

"Mr Benson-Pope strongly refutes the allegations which have been levelled at him but has asked to stand aside while they are independently investigated," she said in a statement.

Miss Clark issued her statement within a hour of TV3 News reporting that five former students of Dunedin's Bayfield High School had given evidence supporting allegations raised in Parliament last week.

ACT leader Rodney Hide and National MP Judith Collins asked Mr Benson-Pope whether he ever tied boys' hands together and jammed tennis balls in their mouths, and whether he once smacked a boy with the back of his hand and made the pupil's nose bleed.

He was also asked whether he caned boys "particularly hard".

Mr Benson-Pope said he had used corporal punishment, in line with school policy at the time, but strongly denied the other allegations.

"I have not been guilty of, or involved in, any inappropriate behaviour in my 24 years as a secondary school teacher," he said in Parliament.

TV3 said the former students had decided to describe their experiences because they had been angered by Mr Benson-Pope's denials.

Three were identified and spoke on screen. TV3 said two did not want to be named and had given written statements.

Phil Weaver, who was 14 at the time and now lives in Australia, said Mr Benson-Pope had a tennis ball on the end of an arrow, and hit students on the head with it.

He said Mr Benson-Pope took it off the stick and jammed it in his mouth as punishment for talking in class.

"I did take it out again and that was when it was put back in and my hands were taped securely to the desk so therefore I couldn't pull it out again."

Aaron Tasker, Mr Weaver's friend who is also living in Australia, said he was sitting next to Mr Weaver at the time.

"Phil took the ball out of his mouth, it was put back in and he taped his hands to the desk."

Tony Piggott said he was "clipped over the head" by Mr Benson-Pope.

"He was the sort of person who would come up and give you a clip around the ear, he would throw a tennis ball at you. You didn't mess with him."

TV3 said it had a written statement from a man, now 38, about the alleged incident in which Mr Benson-Pope was said to have hit a pupil in the face at a camp in the Catlins.

The man was quoted as saying in the statement: "I was struck in the face by David at a school camp. This was in front of three witnesses. I am concerned that David has denied this event took place. He may have forgotten."

The second written statement was from a man, now aged 37, about caning.

The man was quoted as saying in the statement: "BP used it to brutalise and terrorise children in his care. He laughed and seemed to get great enjoyment from what he was doing. The end result, for me, was a bleeding backside."

Mr Weaver said it was "outrageous" that Mr Benson-Pope could deny the events "considering the fact that when he did them there was a multitude of witnesses to account for these actions".

Mr Piggott said he was "pissed off" that Mr Benson-Pope had challenged his accusers to go to police.

"He actually put the blame on the victims," Mr Piggott said.

Until tonight, Miss Clark had openly backed Mr Benson-Pope, accusing Mr Hide and Ms Collins of muckraking.

Just two hours before the TV3 bulletin, she told a press conference the allegations marked the start of an ugly election campaign and opposition parties were going to smear anyone they could.

"I've been at the receiving end of quite a lot of it. Now it's spread to Benson-Pope. No doubt it will be tried on others as well," she said.

Mr Benson-Pope has stood down as Associate Minister of Education, Minister of Fisheries, Associate Minister of Justice and Associate Minister of the Environment.

Miss Clark said Education Minister Trevor Mallard would take over Mr Benson-Pope's responsibility for schools, and Pete Hodgson would be acting Minister of Fisheries.

Corpun file 15773, 17 May 2005

Bit late to cane minister -- teachers

By Kimberley Rothwell and NZPA

David Benson-Pope

Allegations of bullying against Associate Education Minister David Benson-Pope should have been dealt with when they happened, teachers say.

After watching TV3 news with Prime Minister Helen Clark last night, Mr Benson-Pope - formerly a teacher at Dunedin's Bayfield High School - stood down from his portfolio.

Five former students gave TV3 evidence to back allegations raised in Parliament last week.

In Parliament, Act leader Rodney Hide and National's Judith Collins together claimed Mr Benson-Pope had tied boys' hands together and jammed tennis balls into their mouths, and that he once smacked a boy with the back of his hand and made the pupil's nose bleed.

Mr Benson-Pope disputed the allegations then.

Until last night, Miss Clark backed the minister, but she has since ordered an inquiry into the claims.

Miss Clark said she had not asked Mr Benson-Pope about the specific allegations but she accepted his word when he rejected the claims in Parliament last week.

"I accept the minister's word," she said. "The minister's given his word in Parliament."

Mr Benson-Pope's future in Cabinet will depend on the outcome of the investigation.

Hamilton's Fraser High School principal Martin Elliott said the claims were skulduggery.

"I'm pretty angry," he said.

"This is a cheap shot at the minister to destabilise the Government when we're only months away from an election."

He called the alleged assaults bizarre.

"It was illegal and should have been dealt with at the time," he said.

Retired Hillcrest High School principal Kevin Hessell said schools did not tolerate assaults on students in the 1980s any more than they did now.

"If the behaviour occurred, it was certainly not normal," he said.

"It should have been reported and dealt with."

Former Hamilton Boys' High School headmaster and National Party MP Tony Steel said if the allegations were true, Mr Benson-Pope's behaviour was unacceptable.

"It's degrading for students to be undermined like that," he said. "Way back in the day you could (stand) students in the corner and that was degrading enough.

"If he has done this, he should own up to it. It should have been sorted out when he was appointed (as minister)."

Mr Steel did not think the timing of the claims was an electioneering move by opposition MPs.

Fairfield College principal Caroline Bennett said Mr Benson-Pope had always been a person of integrity and people should wait for the outcome of the inquiry.

TV3 last night spoke to three former students who said they had been assaulted by Mr Benson-Pope and said it had written statements from two others.

Corpun file 15786

Manuwatu Standard, 18 May 2005

Caning 'normal' in '80s

By Lee Matthews

Parents judging 1980s-era bullying allegations laid against Associate Education Minister David Benson-Pope need to remember how much New Zealand has changed, say Palmerston North principals.

Caning and corporal punishment were normal school disciplines in the 1980s, before New Zealand signed the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, said St Peter's College principal Chris England. This gave children the right to freedom from violence, so corporal punishment in schools had to stop.

Mr England, who started teaching in 1980, remembers caning students for various misdemeanours. He himself was caned at school, for "typical adolescent boy behaviours".

"It was a short, sharp shock and 99 percent of the time, it worked. (At the schools I was at) it was never given without another teacher being present. Its intention was to discourage a student from a path that they had deliberately, and that was important, deliberately chosen to follow."

Mr Benson-Pope stood down from the cabinet on Monday pending an inquiry into allegations that, in the 1980s, he put a tennis ball into the mouth of 14-year-old pupil Phil Weaver to make him stop talking, then taped his hands to a desk when he tried to remove the ball.

In Parliament last week, Mr Benson-Pope admitted caning students, which he said was consistent with school culture at the time.

Palmerston North Boys' High School rector Tim O'Connor said a careful inquiry was needed.

No teacher from that era could be blamed for 1980s discipline systems, he said. "But you have to differentiate between corporal punishment and behaviour that's completely inappropriate."

Mr England said society had changed so much in the past 20 years that now anyone who used a cane in schools would probably face an assault charge. All schools now accepted that students had the right to a mentally and physically safe environment in which to learn. Boys who would have been caned in 1985 would now get detentions, guidance and, if necessary, counselling.

However, some 1980s-style discipline endures, such as making students run around sports fields or punishing littering by making them pick up rubbish, Mr England said.

Corpun file 15782


New Zealand Herald, Auckland, 18 May 2005

Public asked to hold fire over Benson-Pope claims

By Audrey Young

The Government mounted a cautious defence of suspended Cabinet minister David Benson-Pope yesterday, calling for judgment to be suspended into allegations he mistreated pupils.

But as support rolled in from some students of the former Bayfield High School teacher, another former student last night appeared to back a claim that Mr Benson-Pope had stuffed a tennis ball into a pupil's mouth.

An unnamed man on TVNZ's Close Up programme last night said he was in a class in which Mr Benson-Pope put a tennis ball into the mouth of student Phil Weaver in the 1980s.

He said Mr Weaver "was laughing to start with" but was probably a bit annoyed.

"But having said that it, certainly wouldn't be something he would be lying awake dreaming about."

Mr Benson-Pope has denied the allegations - which included giving a student a bleeding nose - in Parliament and stood aside as Associate Education Minister on Monday pending an inquiry.

TV3, which has spoken to five former students, said four of them were willing to give evidence to an inquiry.

If it is found that Mr Benson- Pope deliberately misled Parliament, he would be expected to resign, although the results of an inquiry might not be completed before September 24, by which time an election must be held.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen told Parliament yesterday "there are plenty of consequences that flow from possible outcomes of that inquiry".

But he also hoped Mr Benson-Pope's accusers in Parliament, Act leader Rodney Hide and National's Judith Collins, would have the grace to apologise "should the inquiry find the allegations are not demonstrably true".

Te Tai Tokerau MP Dover Samuels told the Herald: "What goes around comes around".

The issue had to be seen in perspective and he said when he was at school, he was caned on the bare buttocks for speaking Maori.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said in Hamilton yesterday that people needed to be aware there were two sides to every story.

She was still taking advice from Solicitor-General Terence Arnold on the nature of the inquiry.

She could not say how long it would take but it would look at all complaints, including any still coming forward.

Mr Benson-Pope received plenty of support yesterday from former pupils and teachers.

One, Paul Cox, said some of the student accusers had been part of a larger bullying group and that bullying had been rife at the school.

He could not believe what was being said about "one of the best teachers there".

"Benson-Pope is always one of those teachers you talk about and say he was one of the ones that got you through your school years."

Education Minister Trevor Mallard said although corporal punishment was practised in both the schools he had taught at, Wellington South Intermediate and Te Kuiti High School, he did not use it himself.

"Everyone racks their brains about these things when events like this occur and I cannot think of anything which is causing me concern."

A lot of things happened in his teaching days that would not happen now.

For example, he said, he took children for remedial reading alone in a store cupboard at the back of a classroom, to save the child from embarrassment.

"It was done in there with the door shut.

"One would never do that in these days.

"The views have changed around the balance between privacy and threats and allegations to teachers."

National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee, a former teacher at St Bedes and Ellesmere, said that in the 15 years he taught, he hoped the vast majority of his former 1500 former pupils found it a positive experience.

"But I guess in that number, there are always going to be one or two who didn't perhaps appreciate you for one reason or another."

He was not afraid that the Government might be compiling a dirt file on him.

- additional reporting Nicola Boyes

Copyright 2005, APN Holdings NZ Ltd

Corpun file 15784


New Zealand Herald, Auckland, 20 May 2005

Perhaps we should bring back corporal punishment

Terry Dunleavy

Terry Dunleavy

As someone who left school more than 62 years ago, I find the brouhaha over allegations of "bullying" by David Benson-Pope more than somewhat bemusing. It seems that what today is termed "bullying", in my school days was recognised by all of us - teachers and pupils alike - as discipline.

Step out of line, break accepted school rules, and the ultimate penalty was the cane. There was the dreaded ceremony of sending an innocent schoolmate to the director's office to fetch the cane, which was then administered across the tips of the fingers of outstretched hands in front of the whole class.

The shame in front of one's mates was almost as painful as the short-lived pain from tingling fingertips.

It was always a salutary lesson: for the boy caned, for the watching classmates and, as often as not, for the administering teacher who would be left to wonder how he had let indiscipline come to this.

It taught us discipline. It taught us there were limits, and where they fell. None of my generation was any the worse for what became later to be known as corporal punishment.

In the classroom, so also in the home - in my case the odd clip over the ear but never the strapping applied to some of my mates.

When it came the turn of my wife and myself to become frazzled parents, my wife found that a wooden spoon rapped across offending hands conveyed the age-old parental message of what was acceptable behaviour and what went over the limit. Before long, even the threat of that wooden spoon was sufficient to restore discipline at the table and elsewhere in the home.

None of our children has shown any signs of being scarred by this treatment; in fact we are proud of the fine citizens they have all turned out to be.

I like to think my children are as grateful to us as we were to our own parents for the underlying love and caring which was at the root of the discipline instilled into us.

We were taught manners; we were shown limits; we grew to know what was acceptable behaviour and what was not. The cane, the clip over the ear and, indeed, the wooden spoon, were integral aids to this learning process.

We lament the appalling laxity of behaviour of many children in this day and age. And we wonder why. Corporal punishment, whether in the home or in the classroom, has become a legal and social offence; it is certainly not politically correct.

Parents and teachers are today denied the salutary lessons available to their predecessors to teach children where the boundaries lie in acceptable behaviour.

I feel for the teachers of today. They have to deal with the indiscipline that emanates from many homes in which streetwise kids know they can stretch their parents' patience well beyond what their parents did when they were of the same age.

Even in my schooldays, when teachers and parents were not proscribed from administering what today is branded as corporal punishment, there were a small minority of fractious pupils who delighted in testing the limits of teacher patience, or of actively seeking the supposed notoriety of applied disobedience.

They were the adverse role models whose indiscipline necessitated the exemplary punishment by the cane.

Not all teachers possessed the patience of Job, and I can recall teachers throwing chalk at recalcitrant offenders; or a celebrated case of two persistent pests being brought to heel with whacks across bended backsides with a folded wooden blackboard compass. Those two "pests" were to grow up to be model citizens.

So, un-PC as it may be in these days of alleged enlightenment, the chucking of tennis balls by a frazzled teacher, even the stuffing of one such ball in the mouth of a defiant heckler, doesn't seem all that heinous a crime.

Especially not when we see so many examples of unmannerly, uncouth, antisocial behaviour of some of the products of the politically correct disciplinary laxity which today's system seems to encourage in homes and classrooms.

Bullying in schools by pupils against other pupils is another matter entirely, and is rightly a cause for concern now, as it has always been.

But if this type of bullying is more rampant now than it was in earlier generations, one has to question the extent to which it has been caused by indiscipline in home and school arising from the PC restraints on parents and teachers.

The accusations against a minister will run their course in the official inquiry, and one has to fear for his political future if he is found to have misled Parliament last week.

But his case might well be the basis of some nationwide soul-searching of whether or not official attitudes to corporal punishment are really in the best interests of today's children, and of the teachers on whom we rely for their education.

* Terry Dunleavy, aged 76, is a Takapuna writer.

Copyright 2005, APN Holdings NZ Ltd

Corpun file 15783


New Zealand Herald, Auckland, 20 May 2005

Robbing teachers of enthusiasm, vitality

John Langley

John Langley

The feeding frenzy surrounding David Benson-Pope raises a question that goes well beyond him or what he might or might not have done. It cuts to the essence of some of the most important and effective features of teachers and teaching.

A separate but important question is deciding a fair level of accountability for past transgressions, and if we should be judging past actions against the standards of today.

So what are some of the essential features of outstanding teachers? All of us remember those we had at school. We might be fortunate enough to remember several.

It is they who gave our time at school a sparkle; who inspired us to see learning as more than some mundane exercise that we needed to tolerate in our formative years.

And it is they who have enabled many of us to follow the pathways in life that we subsequently have.

The teachers who did these things were, and are not, grey, uninteresting automatons who simply deliver a curriculum in a competent technical fashion. They did much more.

They gave of themselves when they taught. They made connections with those they taught. They were enthusiastic. Often, they had a sense of humour that gave their classes a vitality others didn't have.

Yes, they were technically competent, but for the outstanding and memorable teachers technical competence was their starting point, not their finishing one.

Some of those teachers probably were extreme or even eccentric in the way they approached things.

They would grab every opportunity to motivate the interest of the learners even if it meant departing from the curriculum or not meeting some learning outcome or other.

Exactly the same would be true of today's outstanding teachers, despite numerous attempts to bury them in compliance requirements and straitjacket them in thousands of pages of curriculum documents.

What is different to today is that 20 years ago many teachers pushed the boundaries and did things that by today's somewhat sanitised standards would be frowned upon.

Sometimes items were tossed around rooms, and unusual teaching aids were used (I remember one who would carry a cricket bat around and practise various strokes as he was walking up and down the aisle between desks).

Jokes and stories that could not be used today were told to illustrate various points; physical contact such as an arm around the shoulders was seen as a positive thing; and disciplinary methods were very different.

At this point some clarification is needed. It has never been acceptable to bully and intimidate children and young people.

Nor has it ever been acceptable to be reckless in the face of children and young people, nor to humiliate them. That goes without saying.

Some years ago caning was acceptable and commonplace, caning to excess was not. Twenty years ago what was acceptable and commonplace is no longer. For some things, such as caning, that is a good thing. For other things it is not.

The danger is that we will mistake these unacceptable things for the genuine vitality and creativity that some fine teachers demonstrate.

The line can be fine but it is almost always marked by the motivation and extent of the teacher's action.

When done in anger, things such as whacking someone on the head with a tennis ball could be assault.

When done in good humour, it will usually be seen by pupils for what it is - something that makes classrooms more lively and interesting.

In Western societies we run the risk of sanitising our teachers to the point where they will be afraid to be different, afraid to make the connections they must make with our young if they are to win the fight for hearts and minds, afraid to be themselves and become nothing more than conduits for knowledge.

That would be, and is quickly becoming, a tragedy of major proportions.

From a teaching point of view it is neither desirable nor reassuring for those educating our young to be mindless technicians whose main focus is, in Professor Ivan Snook's words, "joyless compliance".

They need to be vibrant and colourful characters who are remembered not only for what they teach but also for the kind of people they are.

I have no idea whether David Benson-Pope is guilty of stepping over acceptable lines as a teacher. I wasn't there.

What I would urge, however, is that his actions, or those of any other teacher, are judged within the context of the time and circumstances in which they occurred, and that they are not assessed solely against a set of clinical and prescriptive rules which would leave us with a teaching profession shrouded by a long, grey cloud.

As a society we also need to think carefully about who gets held accountable, for what and when? There are some things, such as serious crimes against people, that time does not absolve.

There are other actions, things that any of us could have done in our past, that are simply mistakes we make as part of being human.

Am I soon to expect a letter accusing me of verbal intimidation of a student because I might have yelled at him or her 15 years ago - something I probably did on occasions.

If I am to expect such a thing, and reprisal against me for doing so, 95 per cent of the teachers in this country would probably not be able to sleep easily in their beds, not to mention those in other professions as well.

The poet W.H. Auden once said: "Judge your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart." What we need to be clearer about is what is truly crooked and what is not.

Unless we do so, we are dooming a great number of children to many boring and uninspiring years in our schools. That must be avoided at all costs.

* Dr John Langley is dean of education at Auckland University.

Copyright 2005, APN Holdings NZ Ltd

Corpun file 15803


New Zealand Herald, Auckland, 22 May 2005

Corporal punishment: stern discipline or abuse?

By Leah Haines

Allegations against David Benson-Pope have sparked a furious debate about school discipline. Leah Haines hears some horror stories and asks if they were simply a sign of the times.

A million years ago in a blue-collar Wellington schoolyard, property magnate Bob Jones was a small boy of nine or 10, about to break a school record.

Young Jones stood facing Baldy - a teacher who shall otherwise remain nameless - his little hand outstretched ready to receive his 27th lot of six strappings that day. He had already broken the record with 26 sets - 156 lashings in all - and suddenly decided he wouldn't take any more.

"They bloody hurt," he remembers. "So I hit Baldy with a left hook to the belly. He was a short fat bloke. And he never touched me again."

Jones remembers being "brutalised" in his school days in the 1940s and 50s, and can vividly recall the canings that left purple welts on boys' bottoms for days.

"People say 'it didn't do me any harm' and in a way I agree with that. But it's just wrong in principle."

Nevertheless, he feels some sympathy for associate education minister David Benson-Pope, who stood down last week amid allegations he bullied students while a teacher in the 1980s.

Benson-Pope has denied throwing tennis balls at students, shoving one in a boy's mouth and strapping his hands to a desk, and caning a boy until he bled.

Jones doubts the MP did anything wrong. But even if he did, he says: "That was the culture of the time, kids were constantly thrashed."

We all have our stories.

When I was seven, Ms Shirley called me a slut for wearing shorts to school and sent me off to the head teacher for a strapping. A colleague says he was beaten every day by his teacher and forced to stand in a corner with his arms out at right angles and weighted down by a stack of text books on each hand. If his arms dipped below 90 degrees he would get strapped.

With corporal punishment legal until 1990, it seems unfair to judge historic behaviour by the standards of today.

But the question remains, were the Baldys of their day right? Or were they deficient maniacs who should never have stood before a class?

Auckland Grammar headmaster John Morris rejects as "largely ineffective" the acts of teachers who used the cane to rule their classes.

"Some of the corporal punishment I had to witness when I was a young teacher made me physically quite sick," he says.

His comments reflect a cultural change at schools over the past three decades, especially at boys grammar schools, which were the staunchest defenders of physical punishment.

Morris began teaching in 1973, and did not arrive at Auckland Grammar until 1993 - three years after the law was changed.

But after 27 years at the school, economics teacher Alan Calvert has clear memories of when the cane ruled the day. "It was about four or five feet long, it was nearly always bamboo and there used to be a selection of canes," the 57-year-old remembers with a chuckle. "A thick one, or a thin whippy one, or one that was fairly rigid and thicker. And if you think of bamboo, it's not entirely smooth, there are little ridges on it as well."

Not that Calvert ever used physical discipline himself. But from being on the receiving end as a young boy there is no doubt, he says, that a caning used to hurt. After two or three strokes in the same spot it wasn't even out of the ordinary to draw blood.

The Education Department in its 1971 Secondary School Boards manual, remembered affectionately as "the little green book", clearly laid out the rules for schools using corporal punishment. These included: "It is to be used sparingly and only after due deliberation; it is not to be applied to girls; and if more than one stroke is to be given, a senior teacher must be present."

Calvert says the general perception of Grammar boys who were caned in the 70s and 80s was one of acceptance.

"If someone was going to get the cane, the reaction of his mates - and I mean his friends - was 'bloody good job, hope it hurts' and that sort of thing. It was very much accepted and acceptable, which for you, and maybe in today's environment, would just seem so strange."

Back then, however, a strong movement against caning was already under way.

Most schools had banned it by the time it was outlawed, thanks largely to a wave of feminism that had started to assert its influence over the profession.

Women were not allowed to use the cane, so had to develop other ways to keep classes in order. From 1975, when the Education Department allowed women to become deputy principals and principals, their influence began to be felt. Ann Dunphy was the first female deputy principal, in 1976 at Tangaroa College in Otara. Now a lecturer in education at Auckland University, Dunphy remembers two visionary edicts of the school's principal at the time, Gerry Mullin: There would be no corporal punishment and everyone had to learn Maori.

"It was incredibly brave. I'd like him to be remembered," she says.

Does she think the behaviour Benson-Pope is accused of was typical of its time? "Some of what was described is clearly going over the line. But in an atmosphere where you use physical violence to control people, I'm sure there were a lot of incidents like that.

"I can remember as a girl at school being slapped in the face for no reason by a teacher at assembly hall. I was totally humiliated. But that was the ethos at the time."

Corpun file 15809


New Zealand Herald, Auckland, 22 May 2005

It'll be our turn next to be found wanting

By Jim Eagles

One of my favourite quotes is the opening sentence from L.P. Hartley's 1953 novel The Go-between which declares: "The past is another country; they do things differently there."

Unfortunately we often forget that truth and treat the past as though it were the world of here and now. We judge the people of yesteryear by our own rules, smugly assuming a vast moral superiority and condemning them for failing to measure up to standards which were never theirs.

In New Zealand that approach is most commonly seen in sweeping condemnations of early colonists as thieves, racists and environmental vandals for settling Maori land, destroying the indigenous society and clearing forests to create farms. Yet by the standards of the time they behaved in praiseworthy fashion by making use of unproductive land, bringing civilisation to a primitive society and building a new nation.

Almost as widespread is criticism of pre-European Maori as warlike savages who practised cannibalism. Yet all of us will have ancestors who engaged in what now seem like acts of savagery in order to survive, because that was what the circumstances of their times demanded.

Looking back from our lofty viewpoint we also condemn the likes of Socrates for condoning slavery, Martin Luther for sexist attitudes or Christopher Columbus and James Cook for initiating genocide on a par with that of Adolf Hitler.

This attitude of judging with the benefit of 20:20 moral hindsight has even coined a new word - presentism. The online dictionary defines presentism as "the application of current ideals and moral standards to interpret historical figures and their actions". adds the timely example of "Mr John Teacher who caned pupils in his 1889 class. A presentist would say that Mr Teacher engaged in unacceptable violence against children, while one with an opposing view would claim that since it was considered okay to hit children at the time, Mr Teacher isn't to be blamed".

I found that example apposite because it was the controversy raging around former cabinet minister and ex-teacher David Benson-Pope that caused me to muse on presentist behaviour in the first place.

As we all know, the luckless Benson-Pope may see his political career destroyed following accusations that when he was a teacher at Bayfield High School 20-30 years ago he behaved in a manner that is now construed as bullying.

The claims are deemed to be relevant because, in his role as Associate Education Minister, Benson-Pope launched an anti-bullying programme for schools. Nevertheless, the whole furore seems faintly ridiculous, precisely because its starting point is an invitation for us to view the teaching behaviour of a different era from the perspective of today.

As Bayfield High School's present principal, Denis Slowley, has observed, today's pupils enjoy a different culture and environment to 20 years ago. "This is not the Bayfield of the 80s, it's a modern school."

Of course it's not the Bayfield of the 80s. There have been huge changes in education over the intervening years, not least the abolition of corporal punishment in 1990, which make comparisons pointless.

Anyone of my generation can look back to an educational era when the strap, the cane, a cuff on the ear, a thrown rubber, a rap on the knuckles with a ruler and other such robust devices were accepted by all parties as part of the tools available to teachers to keep their classes under control.

Most of Benson-Pope's former pupils appear to be grateful for a teacher they describe as gruff but effective, and strict but innovative.

I certainly don't think ill any of the teachers who gave me a cuff or a whack (though I do feel continuing resentment against a couple of teachers and a principal who used to humiliate youngsters with sarcastic comments). On the contrary, I consider myself fortunate to have been educated at a time when discipline, respect, achievement and individual responsibility were to the fore.

But, whether we think the educational system is better or worse than a generation or two ago, judging the behaviour of teachers or anyone else by the standards of a different era is absurd.

None of this, of course, is to say that we should regard things as tolerable simply because they were regarded as the norm at some period in history.

As Socrates argued some 1600 years ago - yes, he may have fallen down on the subject of slavery, but he was a great thinker - there are absolute moral standards which apply in all places at all times. Over the centuries there has been continuing debate about exactly what those standards are, but most societies probably agree that the likes of theft, eating your enemies, slavery, persecuting people because of their racial origin, beating up children or lying are unacceptable.

Fortunately, Benson-Pope's political future will rest not on whether his teaching methods were too robust by present standards, but on whether he breached one of those basic moral values and lied to Parliament. That is as it should be.

We can certainly be appalled at Luther's attitude to women, wish that Cook knew enough about disease to protect the societies he visited from germs carried by his crew, or deplore the thrashings administered at the famous Rugby School even under the headmastership of the revered Dr Matthew Arnold.

But we should be cautious about rushing to judgment on those individuals, because the attitudes we disapprove of were formed by the societies in which they lived, and there was, in fact, little chance they might think differently.

And we should also keep in mind that a generation or two from now people in the country of the future will doubtless judge our behaviour in the light of their own standards and find us lacking.

* Jim Eagles is the Herald's travel editor.

Copyright 2005, APN Holdings NZ Ltd

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