Earlier this week, it was reported that thirteen-year-old Muhammad Ahmed Mashori has been bed-ridden since August 10 after being severely beaten by his teachers at Cadet College Larkana. The boy was admitted to hospital covered in bruises and with broken bones in his neck, and is currently suffering from paralysis, a loss of speech and other bodily functions, and an inability to consume anything other than a liquid diet. Doctors have told Ahmed Mashori’s family that the severity of his injuries may mean he will be unable to recover unless he is treated abroad.

Corporal punishment is widespread in Pakistan’s schools, in both the public and private sectors, with little actual discussion or debate about its obviously deleterious consequences. Around the world, it is now well-recognised that beating children to discipline and control them is counterproductive. More often than not, corporal punishment simply signals to children that it is acceptable to resolve problems through physical force, induces them to become more fearful and angry, and can ultimately lead to long-term rage and anxiety. It is also important to bear in mind that, for many parents and teachers, resorting to force has little to do with a well-reasoned plan for inculcating good behaviour in children, and is instead an easy and quick means through which to express their own frustration. Beating children does little to resolve the underlying factors that might be triggering ‘bad’ behaviour, and the fact that many who resort to such tactics do so out of anger and irritation leaves open the possibility that things could be taken too far; at the end of the day, it is often forgotten that adults are much stronger than the children they discipline, and it does not take much to unleash the kind of brutality that Ahmed Mashori experienced at school.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the context of a school, there is no guarantee that those who administer corporal punishment are themselves of sufficiently sound judgment and temperament to do so; even if a case were to be made for physically disciplining children, it is not possible to know if the teachers (and even parents) possessing that right would abuse it, either due to a predilection towards the perverse pleasure some people get from wielding authority, or due to deep-rooted personal issues leading them to lash out against their defenceless wards.

Despite all of this, however, it is not uncommon to find people celebrating corporal punishment. Justifications for this barbaric practice are often accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for simpler times, when children knew their place and could be relied upon to be hardworking, respectful and, most importantly, obedient. Indeed, many who champion the utility of corporal punishment often reminisce about their own childhoods, reflecting on how the occasional slap to the face or shoe to the buttock was a character-building experience that ultimately made them the people they are today.

There are several problems with this position, not least of which is the assumption that people who were at the receiving end of beatings from their parents and teachers are ‘normal’. While that may be the case, and while the definition of what is or is not normal will always be subjective, it might be worthwhile to consider how things may have turned out differently if a larger number of childhoods had not been ruled by fear of the fist, and if more time and attention had been spent on debate, discussion, and non-physical means through which to discipline children.

Similarly, particularly in the case of young boys like Ahmed Mashori, it is necessary to unpack the narrative of masculinity that accompanies the culture of physical discipline and corporal punishment at schools around the country. Inevitably, tired old tropes about ‘toughness’ and preparation for the ‘real’ world are trotted out as justifications for torturing small children, with it also being argued that boys and young men should be able to withstand physical violence and, if necessary, be ready to employ it themselves. The privileging of these attributes – stoicism, physical strength, and virility – often comes at the cost of empathy and sensitivity, with boys inclined towards more intellectual or less traditionally masculine pursuits often being ridiculed and ostracized for not conforming to more mainstream notions of what is or is not acceptable behaviour.

George Orwell once wrote that, ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’. This oft-repeated quotation is sometimes taken as evidence of how the British boarding school system, epitomized by Eton College, was able to create a ruling class that possessed qualities and attributes that allowed it to defeat Napoleon and build an Empire the likes of which the world had never seen before. It is sometimes argued that schools like Eton, with their emphasis on hierarchy, discipline, strict rules of conduct, and leadership, were ideal breeding grounds for the kind of person who could be trusted with the highest and most important affairs of state. This was also precisely the ethos that informed the creation of institutions like Aitchison College in Pakistan.

However, those who approvingly quote Orwell in support of strict boarding schools and the type of toxic masculinity they promote often neglect to mention the second part of the quotation, in which Orwell said that, ‘but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there’. The point Orwell was making was simple; while Eton may or may not have won the English a victory at Waterloo, subsequent events showed that the type of leader produced by that school was simply unable to rise to the task of deploying British power in a manner that was more conducive to the pursuit of collective good in society. Studies have shown, for example, that young boys sent off to boarding school are often emotionally disconnected, suffering from feelings of abandonment, and forced to cultivate personae that allow them to survive in what can often be a daunting, strict, and punitive environment. These attributes breed insularity and insensitivity; an alternative explanation for the role played by Eton in building the British Empire might argue that only sociopaths, lacking empathy and interest in anything other than their own pursuit of glory, could have presided over the atrocities and suffering unleashed on the world by colonialism.

Some alumni of Aitchison College often take great pride in the number of politicians and statesmen produced by that institution. Yet, given the track record of many of these esteemed gentlemen in office, the fact that Aitchison has long been associated with the ruling class in Pakistan does not reflect well on the institution. Like Eton, upon which it was modeled, Aitchison College may have been instrumental in forging rulers, but the effects of this influence suggest it may be worth thinking about precisely what values and attributes are inculcated in these venerable bastions of traditional masculinity.