Different approaches to education

Earlier this year, in this piece (“More on Questionnaires”), I quoted the late, great travel writer Pete McCarthy on his school’s approach to education: “carrot and stick, without the carrot”. I have used this expression often in the last 15 years, since first reading it in “McCarthy’s Bar”, and wanted to track down the full quote. Here it is, from an early chapter of the book:

From the age of ten, I was taught by the Christian Brothers: the carrot and stick method of education, but without the carrot. My first school report said: “Peter is an unpleasant and frivolous boy who talks too much and will never make anything of himself, but he does take a punch well.”

His writing always makes me laugh. May he rest in peace.

In October I wrote about my father’s approach to education and contrasted it with my mother’s. She shared everything she knew and created an environment in which we could learn more. He rarely shared the things he knew. He is not, in my view, a gifted educator. I recall him at my wedding, setting my old maths teacher some mathematical and linguistic puzzle. My former teacher did not give the expected answer and my father was delighted. He made a big point of this to me. He had outsmarted a man who had dedicated 35 years of his life to teaching schoolchildren, a man who had guided hundreds of people to university careers in mathematics. I prefer to look at the bigger picture. A working lifetime spent teaching an important academic subject well counts for a lot more than occasionally outsmarting a gifted teacher.

Still, it could have been worse. A year or two back we went through a phase of watching the 1996 movie version of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” regularly. (One of the best things about it is its running time, a mere 90 minutes.) The headmistress Miss Trunchbull’s approach to education is summed up as: “Use the rod, beat the child”. I had to go back and check what the original version of this phrase was, and its derivation: “spare the rod, spoil the child”. It comes from the Book of Proverbs (Chapter 13, Verse 24). This page on Biblehub.com lists many different translations of the verse, including:

“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” (King James Bible)

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (English Standard Version)

I’m happy to report that nobody in any way connected with my education or upbringing followed either Miss Trunchbull’s or the Old Testament approach: we were spared the rod, the birch, the cane and every other form of physical punishment. My father, my mother and all my teachers used much more civilized methods. I don’t recall too many incentives, so maybe it was neither carrot nor stick, and, despite what it says in Proverbs, I don’t think that any of them hated me.




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