Fear and Closing in Our Nation's Schools

Once upon a Time we lived in a golden age, when teachers and parents were concerned with one burning educational question: How can we educate children for knowledge, wisdom, integrity, health, and happiness?Today and tomorrow it is the schools, not the questions, that are more likely to be burning. For the question has changed, radically changed, to the primitive matter of physical survival: How can we protect our schoolchildren from being shot to death or blown up by a bomb?The turning point, on the fateful April 20th, occurred at Columbine High School, where two students shot themselves after killing one teacher and twelve other kids. Who then imagined that this incident would be imitated by others? And that American schools would be bombarded with violent incidents and terrorizing threats?In Port Huron, Michigan, on May 12th, four students, aged 12-14, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder, after evidence surfaced that they had been plotting another shoot-and-bomb massacre on an even larger scale than the one at Littleton. (After the arrest, a bomb was found outside the school grounds; and days later, one-third of the students did not show up for school.) On Friday, May 14th, after receiving bomb threats for ten days, an entire school district in Allen, Texas which serves 9,800 students, announced that they would close the school system two weeks before the normal closing date. On Saturday May 15th children were sent home early from a high-school prom in Florida, after a hidden pipe bomb was found inside an indoor tree planter near the entrance of the hotel ballroom that hosted the prom. On May 20th, a 15-year-old boy shot and wounded six students at a high school in Conyers, Georgia. On May 22nd, at a vocational high school in Stamford, Connecticut, ten teens aged 14-17 (two boys and eight girls) were arrested for bringing guns and knives into the school.Throughout America, parents are wondering if its safe to send their kids to school. From a New Mexico town containing fewer than 50,000 residents, a middle-school teacher writes:"We also had threats of bombs, and drive-by shooting threats at many of our local schools. I think the plan is to get out of school early, get extra days off, or maybe just to scare the hell out of people. On the 5th of May, there had been so many threats made, that only 37 percent of our students showed up. The others were scared, or their parents were afraid to send them to school. On the 5th, every school in our district had one to three police officers on campus all day long. Of course there was no real bomb, or any other kind of attack. ... My daughter got scared hearing all of the rumors. All of her friends stayed home, so she was afraid to go."Who can lead us away from this highway of terror and blood? Too many commentators -- hyenas of hindsight, Monday mourning quarterbacks -- wait for catastrophes then clobber us with callous cliches. But one outstanding thinker who has envisioned the present and future clearly is a professor at Pitzer College, Barry Sanders.Four years ago, Sanders' illuminating book A Is For Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age, explained the reasons behind the new epidemic of youth violence. American children, who do not read worthwhile literature, have not developed the power of self-reflection, and therefore they can only lash out with aggressive acts. Sanders concludes: "We need to gather into small groups -- textual communities -- and discuss this most devastating issue, the time bomb that has already gone off, and figure out how to minimize the damage, and more important, how to make certain that future generations do not self-destruct."Progress might be made if we stop thinking "Something must be done!" and start thinking "What can I do?" Powerful gun control legislation is an absolutely necessary first step -- but the journey is a thousand miles. If anything can help us, it is the wisdom of our world literature, where for two thousand years the great minds have offered questionable answers to unanswerable questions. In the Old Testament, when Job asks God to explain why he and his family have been plagued with suffering, the Voice from the whirlwind hollers: "Silence, puny man! Who the hell are you to ask!"Other writers have addressed the question more directly. Nathaniel Hawthorne, neck-deep in the sins of Puritan New England, spent his literary career obsessed with exploring the problem of evil. In his 1844 tale Earth's Holocaust, all earth's inhabitants decided that the world had become so overburdened with useless junk, they should eradicate the trumpery by burning everything superfluous in one great bonfire. The first things to be incinerated were yesterday's newspapers and magazines; then the robes and crowns of kings; then barrels of alcoholic beverages, until not a drop of drink could anywhere be found. The blaze rose skyward as people threw in every gun in the world, then every cannon, musket and sword. Then all the paper money fanned the flames; followed by all the world's books; then at last all the material symbols of religion, crosses and priestly garb.Shorn of these obstacles to happiness -- kings, weapons, money, faith -- all the people expected a new world to appear. Yet one member of the spectating masses knew better. When asked what the world had forgotten to throw into the fire, this mysterious stranger replies:"What but the human heart itself? ... And unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern ... it will be the old world yet."Our deepest problems are individual problems, problems of the human heart. It may be time to re-orient education, to move from a preoccupation with instructing students about objective knowledge, to focusing on exploring the kingdoms of the imagination, and the heart's bright mysteries: Love, kindness, caring, unselfishness.Walking in a nearby park yesterday, my mind was troubled by the violent outbreaks in our schools. The weather was perfect; the park felt alive with birds singing and a luscious breeze. The contrast of the serenity around me with the turmoil inside, brought back a memory from many years ago.I had been bicycling through Greece, searching for what I called "the real Greece," avoiding large cities and tourist traps. In a quiet mountainous region, where the largest nearby town housed less than one thousand residents, I met a young boy almost eight years old. He took my hand and led me one mile to a hilltop, where he introduced me to his teacher and his school. The teacher, dressed in working clothes, was obviously a poor man; the school, a wooden shack, looked like it might tumble down from the next hearty sneeze. But when the boy said to me, in his Greek language "This is my school! This is my teacher!" his voice swelled with pride, his eyes glowed with happiness. A sensitivity akin to that remarkable Greek word which means "to look at someone tenderly.""What do you teach at this school," I asked. "The Greek myths? Greek history? Mathematics? Basic sciences?""No, no, no!" the teacher replied. "We teach this."From his desk he picked up an accordion, then began to passionately play. Immediately the students -- boys and girls from ages 6 through 17 -- leaped from their chairs, assembled in a circle, clasped hands and began to dance. As they danced they looked at their teacher, and at the other students, with that same joy and tenderness that the boy had emanated when he introduced me to this strange place in the rocky wilderness.The happy memory faded; my mind fell back into the troubled present. I sat down on a bench and watched the sun go down. Were the children in those Greek mountains dancing right at this moment now? Did they still love their teacher, love life, and gaze at one another with fire in their innocent eyes?Hawthorne and that splendid Greek teacher were right: we can only be saved by the pure heart and the deep joy.America, wake up and smell the gunpowder. Our loveless schools, our lovely children, are primed to explode in flames. If the current trends continue, and if we fail to understand the profound causes of youth violence -- then there will be nothing left to do but plug the dam of school calamities with the fist of authoritarian-style deterrents and restraints. A cop in every classroom, a metal detector over every doorway, surveillance cameras in every restroom, secret agents in every playground, the National Guard continually on call. Congress might one day find itself debating whether or not to send ground troops into America's schools.Henry David Thoreau understood the great task for his own generation and for ours, when he wrote: "There are thousands of men striking at the branches of evil, for every one striking at the root."

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