Sunday, July 08, 2007

"Something Bad" is happening in Oz

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.


barbbolinas said...

After I composed the post above, I read a column in the Lancaster Sunday News (7/8/07, P5) by Steve Cornell, a pastor in the Millersville area. In his weekly "Matters of Faith" essay, he addresses just the issue I'm talking about -- the "pattern of violence" that has shattered the calm in this county. He makes a number of good points, arguing that blaming this complicated phenomenon on a single factor (like TV watching or Internet use or video games or even broken homes and "fatherhood deficits") is too simplistic. I agree.

He offers that "a big part of the answer is found in societal movement away from moral appraisals," and in a great, though inaccurate, line maintains that "in many places of higher education, we have even replaced moral outrage with outrage against morality." He suggests that we have produced a society full of "self-absorbed people who are filled with deep feelings of entitlement, resentment and hostility." These feelings -- rooted in an individualism born of failures of faith, humility and repentence -- are the source of the violence.

I think Reverend Cornell gets several things quite right but still misses the mark. He misses the target because his assessment is rooted in the importance of "judgment" (note his reference to appraisals, moral outrage and repentence) and he is willing to be the judge.

I think he's right that this is a "darkness we have created," that we are all responsible. Our responsibility means a collective need and ability to respond to a situation in which other persons are suffering and not flourishing.

I think he's right that there is a societal movement away from moral appraisal. But note that I leave the "s" off the word appraisal. What is important about moral appraisal is our willingness to engage in a continuous -- but never definitive -- process of valuing and evaluation. And yes, we are not engaging in this process as a society nor are we teaching its features to our children.

And I think Cornell is right that we are spiritual beings with needs related to our Creators. But he assumes rather than argues for what that means to each of us.

I especially agree with Cornell that humility matters, but humility tied to "repentence" is rooted in a theology of human nature as sinful, as evil without the redemption of the crucified Christ. This soteriological view is not the only Christian interpretation of creation, of human nature or of humility. (I think, for example, of the compassionate and constructive sense of humility at the root of the Benedictine way of life.)

So yes, let's attend to "moral appraisal." Let's make it a habit to assess the moral impact of our thought, speech and actions. Let's be aware of the ways our actions prompt entitlement, resentment and hostility. Let's form this habit in our children as well. But let our attitude as we do so be one of compassionate humility as we regard all of the Creator's children, including ourselves.

Mark said...

I'm pleased to see that we will be addressing such current issues in this class. The issue of violence among youth and adults for that matter is indeed complex. My beliefs fall in line with pastor Steve Cornell in that I feel the only society moral set in today's world is that we are not accountable to any morals. In past generations such values were clearly defined, and although the world still had more than its share of problems, there was at least an expectation of what was acceptable. Some may say that it was a false representation of society, but it still served as a benchmark of what was deemed acceptable. The absence of such a benchmark in our modern-day society, although not the only cause, is certainly a significant part of the problem.

lzarfos said...

All of us can project our opinions in regards to the apparnet lack of morality in todays culture but I would be more interested in a more scientific approach to assessing this approach which begins with a hypothesis and collects data to prove or disprove the projected theory.

Giovanna said...

Often times I question the reasons for violence in children. I do fall into the habbit of directing blame on the child's upbringing. But then I have to catch myself. I know of adults who have had troubled childhoods and yet do not murder, steal, or act violently. I find the situation with the boy who put his arm around his girlfriend to be rediculous. I completely agree that too many restrictions are placed on children that are unimportant and as the letter mentioned these rules are taking away from natural development children.

dougH said...

Reading this, it is not hard to see that in todays society, many believe that their solution for moral issues is "the solution." Each one, such as the First Tee program, do aid in addressing what may be seen as a moral decline in todays youth, but none address the entire issue of moral development. What is necessary to see a change in the moral development in youth is a comprehensive approach to teaching children what is morally correct that starts at a young age in the child's home and continues throughout the child's entire life span. This approach should contain teachings from the child's parents, relatives, teachers, faith leaders, and the community at large.

Students must also be taught why what they are doing is not right, instead of just telling them what they are doing is incorrect, as in the case in the Virginia middle school. Instead of teaching the students why what they were doing was maybe not appropriate for that time and place, the students were punished for their actions. How can we expect students to be learn moral behaviors if they are not being taught.

salonetti said...

I agree with the fact that we are very quick to look for something that we can place the blame on when a situation happens. It does seem that if we can blame it on something, it makes it easier to deal with and move on. Well, the band-aid effect as i like to call it is not working. We still hear of the same problems over and over.

Some people say it is entirely the fault of the media. Then you hear the opposite, some people say that we shouldnt blame violence and things happening entirely on the media (tv, internet, movies, video games) and I agree with that. I do not think it is entirely one person or things fault. I feel that there are several contributing factors for the problems we are seeing with our children today (schools, government programs, parenting styles, media, using medication as the solution). It is time that we address ALL of these contributing factors instead of just one of them.

Debby Lynch said...

I am a preschool teacher and what better place to teach moral development? However, I have witnessed other preschool teachers who constantly yell at their students for "doing something wrong" rather than teaching them why what they are doing will impact another's life. Of course children that young are supposed to be self-centered, but they are capable of learning that their actions have various consequences.

When I witness children in my class fighting I try to not judge them before I find out all of the facts as each of the children see it. They may have a very logical explaination for what they are doing that is not obvious to me or to the one with whom they were fighting. But getting each of them thinking about the others' point of view is the key to the solution.

Carpe said...

Hello, Lancaster! Welcome to Oz; welcome to rest of the world; welcome to the unnerving reality of youth violence.

Unfortunately, this violence surge that Lancaster has been experiencing is nothing new in the context of the nation, world, or the history of human beings. Despite the ancient roots, violent acts committed by young adults seem to result in rapid, and sometimes concerning, adult responses.

But how should a community of adults respond to such acts? Particularly, how do teachers respond to such acts? What can been done in classrooms to provoke changes in youth?

Of course, there is no simple answer. It sometimes seems like these acts only provide more questions for society.

This concept of moral appraisal suggested by Pastor Cornell, and revised, renovated, and reworked by Professor Stengel, indicates a need for great changes in society, and in education, as well as perhaps a distinct deficit for adults in society that needs to be addressed.

So then, I suppose the overarching question is: where do we begin?

Tamara said...

Morals on the decline...this seems to be a topic that has been of great debate as of recent times. It is a conversation that I have entered into within my work realm as well as personal areas also.

Working as a middle school counselor for the past decade, I have seen a significant decline in the amount of respect, honesty, integrity, and trust in both the students and faculty I work with. It is often discussed among the staff about the lack of respect they feel they receive from students. Teachers talk about the lack of consequences that they are permitted to delve out and how they feel that allows the students to walk all over them. However, I see it as more than that. I think it also goes back to the entitlement issues that you mentioned in your posting. I think students in today's society think that they are to be givne things automatically and do not understand the value of working for them. I think parents are busier than ever with working to obtain a higher status aor competing to keep up with the neighbors, that they miss out on the most important thing, which is to spend time as a family and teach respect for one another and to value what you have, not what you want. I feel that students learn that the more you have the better a person you are and that if you have those things, you automatically deserve the respect of others. I think society needs to go back and teach more about respecting the individual and our ties to one another versus what the individaul possesses.

Likewise, I do not just see this trend with the students I work with, but also with the younger staff with whom I work. From them too, I see this entitlement phemomenon. They feel they deserve the positions they want and the students and faculty's respect with out earning it by putting forth any effort.

I am not sure where all of this started, whether with the media,government, religion, or education, but I do see that it is becoming such a larger issue in society. I completely agree that we need to watch our actions and words and teach our children that not only what they say has impact, but what they don't say. Their body language and mannerisms speak volumes also.

I know there are so many other facets to this topic, such as the violence in the media and relgion losing it's higher ground so to speak, but for me, I think starting with the basics at home will have the biggest impact. So, in order to reach the students, we have to begin with the parents in my opinion. I especially think this because the parents of many of our younger students in schools today are the ones in which I see that this entitlement generation begun.

Bonnie Hoover said...

This article points out the dangers of seeking quick fixes to moral dilemmas in our society.
Recent acts of violence in the region cannot be succinctly explained but one evil and then subsuquently cured by one appropriate "medicine."
As the author suggests, rules, committees and programs are band-aid solutions. We must first try to understand why children, young adults and adults resort to violence to solve problems and then work as a community to help people develop healthy ways to resolve conflict.