We can be horrified at the Newtown massacre. We can be outraged. We can be indignant. But we can no longer honestly be surprised.
The shootings in Connecticut are of the same ilk as the ones in Aurora, Portland, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and all the rest: a young man full of anger, weaponed up, with few connections, and nothing but despair in his heart.
Until we start doing something differently with our young people, the only thing we can expect is more of the same.
I am a high school teacher. I don’t know the pathologies of the shooter(s) or why they turned into mass murder. I do know something about young people, and what we might do to lessen this sickening epidemic.
First, let’s be honest about one thing: our culture is utterly saturated in violence. It is everywhere, from our endless wars to the professional sports teams we root for to the cop shows we watch to the blockbuster movies we flock to. Short of living in a cave, it is impossible to escape. Especially for young men.
Our boys live on video games where the hero is always the guy who can wreak the most havoc, inflict the most damage, expend the most rounds, kill the most bad guys. And despite all of our pious posturing, that is not likely to change.
Nor are we likely to change the easy access to guns that make these mass murders possible. We allow corporate money in the hands of the NRA to “terminate” the careers of politicians who even hint at gun control. Not even the near-murder of a Congresswoman seems to have given a spine to the politicians.
What we do have the power to change, however, is the culture in our schools where our young people learn the social sense of themselves. And the direction we’re going there is not reassuring.
Since the start of the Great Recession, 23 states have cut their spending on education. Most others have increased class sizes, cut counselors, reduced or eliminated arts and music classes, and dumbed down curriculum in order to teach to the tests. It is the exact opposite of what we would do if we were trying to create nurturing places for young people.
Worse, the charter movement that the Obama administration has backed with its deceptively named “Race to the Top” initiative aims to turn schools into profit making enterprises. The big charter companies want a piece of the $750 billion we spend each year on public education in the U.S.
But the only way they can make money is by cutting salaries (the big expense in education) and pushing standardized, rote curriculum. You cut salaries by firing mature, seasoned teachers and hiring young, inexperienced, uncredentialed ones. You dumb down the curriculum by having all teachers teach the same thing on the same day in the same way, regardless of the needs of the students. Doesn’t one size fit all?
Again, it is the exact opposite of what you would do if you valued students over profits. But hey, this is America. The Prime Directive is, “I’m getting mine, screw you.” There is nothing that cannot be debauched, nothing that cannot be made cheaper in pursuit of profit and cutting social services.
The irony is that schools are probably the only institution in America from which we can mount a defense against the degrading dehumanization ladled up by the media. We need to create cultures in our schools where students learn not just the “Three R’s” but the “Three B’s” as well: Being, Belonging, and Becoming. Done well, these can help form an antidote to the meaninglessness, mayhem, and murder that, more and more, seem to be our destiny.
What does this kind of culture look like?
A sense of Being comes when we honor every single individual in our schools, every child among us. This is not a cheezy ritual of “student of the month,” but a deeply rooted respect for the uniqueness and dignity of each human being. It is only conveyed one person at a time, uniquely to each student, and only from someone a child respects.
Those who want to replace seasoned teachers with low-cost room monitors, or dish out one-size-fits-all curriculum, send a powerful message to young people: you are not valued. You are a future factor of production, a product on an assembly line, that should be docile and obedient. And the students know this. They may not be able to articulate it as such, but they know. And the contempt reverberates for the rest of their lives.
Then, a sense of Belonging comes when the student reciprocates the esteem his school has shown him in Being. He finds community—connections—in something bigger than himself, something that can act as a ballast when a life starts to wobble out of control. This is the ancient practice of binding the child to his community by investing in the child the community’s hopes and aspirations. It is dignifying the child with the profound truth that she holds the community’s future in her hands, so we need to be sure they are steady, compassionate, resilient, and wise.
The African Bantu expression says it all: “Even the greatest waterfall starts with a single drop of water.” In a truly healthy society there are no free-floating individuals. Each is tethered to one another in a dense lattice of connections, shared values, shared visions, and shared aspirations. Rather than, “I’m getting mine, screw you,” the essential ethic is, “We’re all in this together.” It is not an accident that all of the shooters are loners. Neither should it be left to accident to ensure that every student is connected to something greater than themselves.
Finally, there is Becoming. The greatest longing of every young person is to become a bigger person. Not physically, but in terms of their capacity to move in the world. They want to be competent, effective, respected. Don’t we all? But these traits are not endowed by naming them. Rather, they are imbued, inculcated, cultivated, over years of schooling, by providing students the means to prove to themselves that they are, indeed, worthy of the competence and the respect that they all so deeply long for.
Every lesson, in every subject, is an opportunity for the student to demonstrate mastery—of himself. And when this capacity for self-mastery catches, the subject matter comes along for free. The students get far more energized showing themselves who they can be than they do showing their teachers what they know. And until the students can do that—show themselves the bigger Self they all long to be—everything else is just busy work and a pat on the head.
Close-knit communities used to perform these essential functions of cultivating social maturity in their young people. But we’ve lost that capacity for stewardship of our most important asset. We have surrendered it for the fool’s gold of a metastic individualism, a predatory nationalism, the fruitless search for meaning in money, the vapid titillation of an entertainment society, the shallow idols of a celebrity culture.
And the only place where we can possibly reclaim it is in our schools.
Our choices here are really quite stark. We can rail at the insanity of it all, but that changes nothing. We can break our picks on the impregnable rocks of coin-operated media and political cultures. Or we can take immediate, effective action in every classroom, every school, every neighborhood in the country, creating the cultures that build bigger people, and the people who can bring forth a better world.
And no one should have any illusions that this will be easy. There are no “just add water” recipes for how to create a culture that shows children they are esteemed. If there were, it wouldn’t be such a prized cultural possession. We can only know this: a culture that cannot, will not, provide for the deep nurturing of its young is doomed. That is where we’re headed.
The great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote once, “The future comes to us, and enters into us, in order to change itself, through us.” The future that we want to become, the one we are so panicked to see slipping away from us, is calling us. Can we possibly have the ears to hear? Can we possibly find the courage to act?