Who’s the punk – the child or the teacher?
Brendan O’Neill: Sympathy for the dumbbell-wielding Peter Harvey won’t help solve the schooling crisis
Since when has it been acceptable for a 50-year-old man to beat a 14-year-old boy around the head with a dumbbell while yelling, "Die, die, die"?
Reading the coverage of the Peter Harvey case – the stressed-out teacher who lashed out at one of his tearaway pupils in July last year – you get the distinct impression that some commentators and teaching union officials consider Harvey's behaviour to have been perfectly acceptable, if not positively laudable.
In a complete inversion of moral norms, Harvey has been hailed as a heroic, dumbbell-wielding vigilante who stood up to a mob of "feral, underclass children", and treated as a hapless victim of the modern classroom who cannot be held responsible for his behaviour.
Why is this on-the-edge teacher being treated to such an outpouring of sympathy?
On Monday Harvey, who attacked the 14-year-old pupil at All Saints Roman Catholic School in Mansfield, was given a two-year community order for the crime of grievous bodily harm. This follows his trial at Nottingham Crown Court last month, where a jury decided he was not guilty of the more serious offence of attempted murder.
Harvey has apologised for his actions. The judge described him as a "thoroughly decent man" who had been a "dedicated and successful school teacher" for 20 years. There is no reason to doubt that assessment. But the kid-glove treatment of Harvey by sections of the press has been deeply creepy, bordering on psychotic.
Harvey has been congratulated for standing up to "worthless scum", as one journalist summed them up. Simon Heffer at the Daily Telegraph said the "revolting offender" in Harvey's classroom probably had "parents who are little better than animals" – a remarkable judgment to make considering we don't even know the 14-year-old pupil's name, far less anything about his family.
In Peter Hitchens' view, Harvey's classroom was a microcosm of Broken Britain, full of "feral savages", "mercilessly violent teenagers" and "yelling, sneering louts", who are the "products of our rich, indulgent, post-marriage, post-Christian society" and who will grow up to be "well qualified to act as concentration camp guards".
Rough translation? Little Nazis, dirty animals... getting pounded on the head with a dumbbell is the least that they deserve.
In online discussion threads, Harvey has been transformed into a halo-wearing saint. "Peter Harvey is a hero," says one blogger. "Maybe a good old fashioned coma will teach [students] a lesson or two about respect."
Harvey has been promoted to "Heroes Corner" on the popular website HolyMoly, where one fan says: "Every teacher should have a ‘break in case of emergency’ dumbbell mounted on the wall over their desk." A contributor to the Guardian's discussion threads wrote: "What a hero. That'll will teach the little punk."
Meanwhile, union officials have presented Harvey as a hapless victim, a symbol of the unspeakable stresses that teachers labour under these days. Echoing Heffer's and Hitchens' "I blame the parents" shtick, one teaching union says it is the failure of parents to act as "good role models" that drives deteriorating behaviour in classrooms.
During the Harvey trial, classrooms were described as "extremely daunting" places where some teachers tread with great trepidation. You could be forgiven for thinking that they were venturing into Helmand every morning rather than into a roomful of 14-year-olds. Every day, teachers face a "version of Hell", said Hitchens, who clearly hasn't been reading his Dante.
Of course there is a severe crisis of discipline in schools today. And, yes, the kids in Harvey's classroom were behaving very badly indeed. But it helps no one to present the dumbbell incident either as beautiful vengeance against the scum spawn of single mums or as the inevitable consequence of teachers being stressed out. The truth is that most teachers cope fairly well, without recourse to metal weaponry.
Indeed, the spinning of the Harvey beating from an unfortunate incident into something understandable, possibly even celebratory, could end up making the crisis of discipline in classrooms even worse.
Fundamentally, the driving force behind the demise of discipline in school is the collapsing authority of teachers themselves, where their moral and professional authority over their charges has been eroded by a creeping culture of relativism and today's broader cultural disdain for the idea that adults know better than children.
How will the post-Harvey depiction of children as inexplicable marauders and teachers as weepy victims do anything to reinstitute teachers' authority over kids? ·
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