Gone is the Hickory Switch, but Not the Crushing of Spirits


Remember when taking a beating was an important component of moral teachings? Some even forgive their torturers and consider the virtues of such methods. Maybe that would make their lives easier too. But it takes far less than a good thrashing to give a lesson in values. Here’s how:

Richard “Conversation” Sharpe, an early 19th century intellectual, once told an anecdote about his fellow British socialite, politician, author John Horne Tooke as detailed in James Sutherland’s The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. The story goes like this:

When Horne Tooke was about fourteen of fifteen years old, at Eton, in construing a passage in a Latin author, the Master asked him why some ordinary construction, the rule of which was very familiar, obtained in the passage (sic). The pupil replied he did not know, on which the Master, provoked by his ignorance and perverseness, caused him to be flogged, a punishment he received with perfect sang froid and without a murmur. The Master then put the question to the next boy in the class, who readily gave the answer, whatever it was, as laid down in the common rules in the Eton Grammar. The Master said, “Take him down- a blockhead”, on which Horne burst into tears, which the Master observed as something readily unintelligible, exclaimed, “Why, what is the meaning of this?” Horne replied, “I knew the rule as well as he did, but you asked me the Reason, which I did not know”.

Young Tooke was right of course, and can be commended for his stiff upper-lip when it came to taking his licks. The story goes on with the Master realizing his error and graciously granting him an on-the-spot public apology by giving him a dedicated book by Virgil from his own collection. Horne cherished this book his whole life.

Luckily for him, he managed to recover from this instructional gaffe. In part this is due to the Master’s congeniality (aberrant for the epoch), not to mention his costly reparations. Similarly, Tooke had the wherewithal to stand up for himself against adversity. It is the convergence of these two circumstances that makes the story so worthy of note. Normally this situation would be far more damaging.

Tooke, being an attentive pupil, took the Master’s question literally. The question called for exercising low levels of thinking such as remembering and understanding (See Bloom’s Taxonomy). The Master had inadvertently put the question in a way that called for analyzing and creating, a much higher level of thinking. Clearly, this level of thinking was not often applied in this course or our perspicacious Tooke would have certainly been able to answer correctly.

The Master did however have the rare forbearance to repair the situation. Walvoord and Johnson Anderson call this “Seizing the Teachable Moment”, one of their Principals of Managing the Grading Process. In it they state, “…the learning process itself, like any significant change, can evoke strong emotions in learners and teachers alike”. By the way the anecdote is told; Eton had a system where pupils were placed in the front or back of the class based in their academic achievement and behavior. This, in addition to the humiliation and sting of corporal punishment, added to the emotional climate of the educational environment. The Master harnessed Tooke’s undignified emotional public outburst by giving him a lesson in morality that he would draw on for many years to come. According to Walvoord and Johnson Anderson “Such moments of emotional intensity may be the most powerful teaching moments of the semester.” Indeed, by Sharp’s account, a much older Tooke still had the copy of Virgil in his hand when he told him this story. Clearly, the lesson had made a lasting impression on this great man.

Every teacher would like to think that this situation could never happen to them. As much as the Master did the right thing in the end, it was costly. Not just in the value of his copy of Virgil, but in losing face in front of the class. Despite his sound judgment, he was bound by the very strict and violent times that he lived in. We live in a time when our relation to students is much more casual. We have more opportunity for open dialogue and feedback, not to mention the total absence of violent persuasion. That is not to say that our actions cannot be just as damaging. Even without the hickory switch, we still have the ability to cause ruinous harm to a student’s motivation and efficacy. I always have to remember that a single misplaced word or missing compliment can quickly put a student into a quiet despair from which they may never recover.

This worries me especially with my daughter. As she enters an age where she needs to learn rules and listen to instructions, I need to tread carefully. I dislike the idea of discipline, yet I find myself enforcing it. Now when I find myself enforcing a rule, I feel like a bit of me dies in the process. As a teacher, I am expected to have a certain amount of expertise in this matter, yet all of my childhood and adult life I have avoided both giving it and getting it. I dread the damage I may cause in a single moment of harshness or a misdirected comment. At the same time, I hope that my daughter has the tenacity (nay, the cheek) to stand up to me or anyone else if unfairly treated. By the looks of it, it may not be long before I see such poetic justice prevail.

Further reading:

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory in Practice, Volume 41, Number 44, pg 212-217

Sutherland, James (Ed.).(1975).The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. (p. 147) Oxford University Press

Walvoord, B.E. & Johnson Anderson, V. (1998). Managing the grading process. In Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment (pp.9-16) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass