I reside in Lancaster, PA, an economically prosperous, culturally diverse, remarkably safe, and geographically lovely oasis west of Philadelphia and north of Baltimore. But over the past several years, we have awakened to news of brutal murders committed by "good kids." These teenagers have killed adoptive parents, girlfriends' parents, rivals in love, best friends, and other family members. They are middle class, attend good schools and have adults who care for and about them. As Elphaba and Dr. Dillamond sing in the musical Wicked, "Something bad is happening in Oz . . ."
How do we explain this phenomenon? The tendency is to look for something "wrong" in the young person who perpetrates this act. We want to be able to blame them – or their abusive family members or their parents' divorce. If we can place blame, we can isolate the germ. It affects "them" but not "us." But to identify mental illness in this one or bullying of that one or dysfunctional family system for his one is to beg the question. For who among us doesn't experience neurotic patterns of behavior, or hasn't bullied or been bullied, or doesn't have a dysfunctional family? In and of themselves, these are not causes of murder and other violent behaviors.
And, of course, there are those who will explain our lost moral horizon by linking it to a failure of religious faith, usually of a particular brand of faith with its attendant presumptions about propriety and social organization. While I think it right to reflect on the impact of spiritual understanding and religious faith on patterns of action, I am wary of explanations that imply absolute answers to questions of meaning and action.
Instead we would do well to ask ourselves why violence is imaginable for anyone, but especially for any young person. What is it in our cultural patterns, our social interactions, our educational institutions that introduces the possibility of violence? This is, of course, a question for books, not a blog post. Here I just want to highlight a couple of things that we're doing that, in my opinion, do not close the door to violence.
We make more – and sillier -- rules. Last week I read about a Virginia middle student who put his arm around his girlfriend's shoulder (Do middle school students really have girlfriends? I know they talk about "going out" but of course they never actually go anywhere). For this offense, he ended up in the principal's office. He had violated a rule against hugging. Now the actual rule proscribes any touching, any physical contact among students. I can understand why the thought of banning touching occurred to the administration. Middle schoolers, like puppies, utilize touch as a form of communication. And sometimes that touching is inappropriate and they are not mature enough to tell when or to control every response. But middle schoolers' immaturity is not a justification for adults' idiocy. Rules cannot do the hard work of relationships. Efficiency of apprehension, adjudication and punishment will not replace the painstaking (and time-consuming) process of discriminating between touch that is appropriate (and needed and welcome!) and touch that is inappropriate. We have developed all kinds of zero tolerance policies over the past decade in the name of security, authority, consistency, rigor, etc. and none deserve to stand. Such policies defeat their own goals. Security is lost because trust is defeated. Authority is undermined because order outweighs human flourishing.
We create "programs" to fix "the problem." Policy-makers and educators (administrators and teachers) are problem-solvers who have been trained to make problems go away. We want to identify the problem and then fix it. So we create a program and declare the problem fixed. Think here of Head Start or CHIPS (the PA children's health care program) or various remedial reading efforts. These may well be excellent programs but, for a variety of reasons – limited funding, inadequate outreach, inappropriate application or a simple failure of will. the strong strategy doesn't fully address the issue at hand. It does however "fix" the problem; that is, it identifies a problem and sets it in stone as "the problem." This means that the phenomenon that prompted our concern and consideration can be set aside as identified and solved when, in fact, there may be more facets and features to the phenomenon that require our continued attention. Given the nature of human behavior and growth, I suggest that such "problems" are never exhaustively identified and require on-going definition and re-thinking. We not only need new solutions to old problems; we need new formulations of the problem in order to generate novel responses.
I was thinking about this when I read about the United States Golf Association's First Tee Program. It's a good program, one that contributes to what we might call the moral formation of young people. It's also a marvelous example of marketing meeting moral education. Public golf courses make tee times (and fees) and coaching available to youngsters at times when the course is not crowded. Youngsters learn the rules of golf (a "whiff" counts as a stroke) and the values that implementing the rules require (honesty). The program involves connections to life outside the golf course and parental communication. It's all good. And it's good for the golf course owners who are grooming future paying customers.
This is a good program. But any program like this is dangerous because it allows us to think that we have identified the problem (kids don't have the right values) and offered a "fix" (teach them values through participation in sport). We congratulate ourselves because we have these programs – in schools, in churches, and in community settings. And it seems likely that almost all kids have some experience with some kind of program like this. But still we wake up to news of murder by children.
I have some thoughts about what we can do to excise violent reaction as an imaginable response. And I will write about those over time. But those things are more complicated than making rules and developing programs. They involve changing hearts and minds and habits. I better start with my own.