Punishment in primary schools 1829–1906

The Danish National Archives is full of government and local authority records from the moment of fact creation (the making of sources according to Trouillot). These documents are a record of authority activities, but the documents also indirectly record the people who came into contact with the authorities, people of whom ones otherwise does not have records because they did not themselves leave any documentation or because their documents were destroyed or not found sufficiently interesting to preserve in the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives). New approaches and new questions may, however, give these quiet existences a voice and help to shed light on how children experienced schooling. In this way, the silence of the archive is broken.

In 1814, the Danish King FrederikVI signed a set of school acts that formed the basis of the Danish primary school into the 1900s.12 To enable the authorities to ensure that children received statutory education, teachers had to document that the children attended school and were taught the mandatory subjects.This documentation generated records written by teachers and local school authorities.13 Teachers and school boards wrote the minutes and documents, thereby becoming our witnesses to history, although the records consist of the many children and parents who came into contact with the school on a daily basis. Children and parents have been silenced as their voices were not considered to be valuable or because their voices are only indirectly expressed through e.g. the teacher’s voice.

A review of the Danish governments legislative guides containing principle guidelines on corporal punishment in schools comprises very few statements from the nineteenth century.14 There are several reasons for this. First, the decision-making authority was the local school authorities and a great deal was required for a small village school case to reach the civil servants at the Danish Ministry of Education. This required a parent who felt that the local authority decision was unjust or a teacher who would not accept a fine or penalty for misconduct. Many cases have also been decided verbally between the teacher and the parents without these decisions having been recorded. In that way, many voices have been lost. Nonetheless, a great deal of them do still exist in the archives and can - to a certain extent - be heard. In this section, we examine whether and where one finds the voices of schoolchildren in the nineteenth century, and the kind of methodological and methodical deliberations one must take into account. By using examples we will show where one encounters the voices of children - either their own voices or, most often, their parents - albeit in many cases also non-verbal expressions of the children in the form of feelings.

Officials’ assessment of children as witnesses

Danish historian Bolette Frydendahl Larsen has noted that truths and problems are created and made visible through knowledge technologies such as schools and institutions. 15 Child abuse did not exist as a problem until a parent or a school board was informed and established the abuse as a truth because the parent or board believed in the child, thereby acknowledging that it represented a problem. It was mandatory for the teacher to record punishments meted out to children.16 This record of punishment, however, only includes the legitimate punishment that the teacher chose to record. A punishment that was not in accordance with the school act or the concepts of the school, was not written down, and information about this punishment is therefore difficult to obtain. Similarly, the board had to record all minutes.17 The board was not, however, under obligation to include verbatim records, e.g. of a parental complaint, and it was the chair of the board, the local vicar, who assessed and decided what to include, what to emphasise and what the wording should be. Although all the members of the board had to sign the minutes, the chair had the power to define the content of the minutes and thereby also the evidence that was left for posterity.

When determining if abuse had taken place by a teacher, it was in the hands of the board to decide whether it was a problem that required action as it would be deemed to constitute a breach of school regulations. The records of complaints in board minutes could also be used to divide children - and their parents - into categories, e.g.‘respectable families’ or ‘mendacious families’. With the help of such categories, children were made visible in certain ways that were linked to the exercise of power. This categorisation was, for example, key to whether the authorities took the family’s statements seriously because they were credible and respectable, and thereby a problem existed, or whether the family had a bad reputation, which made their statements less credible.

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