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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

Too Many Kids Are Getting Killed

    Our world is awash in violence. And no one is suffering more than our children. If we are to construct a more peaceful world, we have work to do both inside and outside of schools.

      On my ride into New Orleans for the 1992 ASCD conference, I struck up a conversation with the driver of the airport shuttle. He was a young man in his mid-twenties, a college graduate. From his conversation about national politics and local affairs, I could tell he was well informed and looking for ways to contribute to his community.
      For example, he told me that the neighborhood swimming pools had been threatened with closing because there was no money to pay lifeguards. He and a group of friends, all of whom had learned how to swim at community-supported pools, offered to lifeguard for nothing so that the pools could be opened. The city turned them down. Ultimately, a wealthy benefactor stepped in at the last moment and contributed the funds necessary to open the pools. Despite his story's happy ending, the driver said he felt sorry for children today because they have fewer opportunities than he did when he was growing up.
      As we continued talking, our conversation turned to the topic of violence. I listened in numb silence as the young man told me that he was going to a wake the next day for a fellow driver who had been murdered by her boyfriend; that a few days before my arrival a policewoman had been found bludgeoned to death in her apartment; that the day before I arrived a 15-year-old student had been shot to death in a school hallway. Finally, he told me that he had been shot in the chest at point-blank range and almost killed in an armed robbery that had netted his assailants $40.
      In my room, as I unpacked my clothes, I thought about my conversation with the van driver. My mind was filled with a jumble of recollections. I remembered news reports. Reports of two students shot dead in a New York high school the month before; reports of a teenager murdered for his jacket in Milwaukee a few months earlier; reports of a high school athlete killed in his school cafeteria in a small Texas town at the start of the school year. Then I remembered that in my relatively affluent urban-suburb, the deli where I regularly eat breakfast had been robbed twice in the last year, the bank where I do business had been robbed recently, and that shortly before departing for New Orleans the hardware store where I buy the odds and ends that keep our home from coming apart was robbed. Every incident involved a gun. Each could have resulted in a death.
      Our world is awash in violence. And no one is suffering more than our children. Some psychologists talk of the children suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological condition first associated with combat veterans returning from Vietnam. Sociologists speak of a lost generation, and tell us they are unable to predict the individual and social consequences of children forced to grow up in fearful and dehumanizing circumstances. Poor children are growing up in fear for their lives, and affluent kids, to use Paul Goodman's term, are growing up absurd. For too many children, our society is a fearful wasteland that mocks adult pieties and nurtures nihilism.
      When educators cannot escape violence, they often focus their energy on immediate needs such as metal detectors, weapons checks, secured hallways, and so on. This is the educational equivalent of our government's focus on incarceration. The United States imprisons 10 times more people per capita than Japan or any nation in Western Europe. The threat of violence can, at best, be held at bay by such tactics, tactics that are no substitute for a long-term social strategy to build a more peaceful world for our children and ourselves.
      If we are to construct a more peaceful world, we have work to do both inside and outside of schools. As educators, it is logical for us to begin with questions of classroom method and curriculum content. We should ask ourselves the extent to which our classroom practices promote and strengthen peaceful relations among our students. We should ask ourselves the extent to which students study that part of our history and culture that affirms the pursuit of peace and provides positive role models. These are important questions, but they are only the beginning.
      Unless we are content to limit our role to bandaging the wounded literally and figuratively, we will have to become much more effective advocates for our students and their families. As a profession, we have been too willing to allow the terrible anti-child bias of our culture to express itself unchallenged. It is essential that we begin to speak out against political values that treat children and their families as if they are spare parts whose principal value is as units of consumption. Speak out against values that begin and end at the bottom line. If we do not participate in trying to reshape our society into something more humane, decent, and fair, then we shouldn't be surprised when our society's violent offspring turn up at the schoolhouse door.

      Alex Molnar has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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