Learned behavior

An educator’s response to violence in our schools.

Recently, I was struck with a strange (perhaps dark) thought: It’s been a while since we’ve had a school shooting. Then I realized it was the middle of summer. There was no violence because there was no school.

It’s become our routine—school shootings happening so often that it takes something heinous or extreme to capture our attention. We barely process one before another takes over the headlines. Some dominate the news with a juxtaposition of carnage and heroics. Some only have the carnage.

The Washington Post reported earlier this year that an average of 10 school shootings are happening a year since Columbine. By the time the March 2018 article was written, there had already been 11 shootings in 2018, surpassing that average.

The questions pile up. Why the explosive presence of violence in our schools?

Why the copycats and the nonsense, with the “we never saw this coming” and the just-discovered diaries of hate? Why the frequency? The randomness? The callousness?

And what do we do about it?

The problem of violence seems too big to ignore but too complex to resolve. Educators have different theories, as do legislators, conservatives, liberals, idealists, realists, and activists. Some blame religion. Some cry out for more of it. Some look to legislators. Some blame video games, absent fathers, or untreated mental illness. In some ways, they could all be right.

Asking Why

It’s time to change the conversation. Gun laws, metal detectors, and armed faculty may slow this down, and a more involved father may help calm the rage in a teenage boy, but those aren’t our problem. The conversation needs to pivot if we’re going to see real change.

Our students spend 13 years of their lives in our classrooms, and so we have to ask: Why are we teaching and what are our students getting?

What is our goal? What are we trying to produce? How will we know if we’ve succeeded?

Values were once assumed as the context for good education. They were a common thread of measurement; a standard for decency, discipline, and direction. They were an assumed essential to what it meant to teach. Values established our nation and then preserved it. For hundreds of years, students weren’t determining what was right and wrong; they were discovering it. Learning was not about retaining information but about contemplating what was true and right. John Adams famously clarified our nation’s uniqueness with his statement, “… Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Values differentiated our nation. They distinguished it, existing not as a section of a syllabus, but as the very substance and structure of learning and life. They were the context in which everything was studied, the lens through which we understood each subject.

It is because of this that we can no longer avoid the role of values in education. We cannot pretend that the values erosion that started in the early 1960s in our schools is not costing us dearly.

Education, in the absence of values, makes our students creatures of impulse, concerned only with what is happening right now. It caters to whims and spontaneity and shows no restraint or ability to delay gratification. It does not consider virtue, what is true, good, or beautiful, but only what is available and simple. It reduces learning to answers on paper and not to substance in life.

Values and Vision

The discussion of values in education is not something for religious relics. It is not some far-fetched dream of theocracy. Values in education are the way forward. They give our students vision for the future, giving clarity on what things should, and could, be. They give them a better picture of themselves, of their potential, and of their purpose. They produce wisdom and virtue, the combination of knowing what is true and right with the courage and character to live it out.

What is our goal? What are we trying to produce? And can we really steer our schools away from this tragic trend toward extreme violence?

Our students are no longer planning for the future because they’re losing their vision for it. It’s up to us to restore that. Vision is rooted in something aspirational, something ideal, something that comes from what is true, good, and beautiful; something that is rooted in the same values that steered our Founding Fathers.

Restoring virtues such as brotherly love, forgiveness, respect, and honesty within our teaching will do more than change our curriculum. It will change our classrooms, our students, our schools, and our nation.

Rebekah Hagstrom is the founder and headmaster of Liberty Classical Academy in White Bear Lake and is also the co-host of Education Nation, a weekly education discussion on AM 1280, The Patriot.