Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
By Brent Dean Robbins, Ph.D.
Along with the entire nation this past week, I was brokenhearted to read the accounts of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. The death of 17 students by the hand of a young sociopath marks yet another senseless act of violence in our nation’s schools. The shooting, which took place on February 14th of 2018, was one of 30 school shootings within the past year alone.
Analyses and commentary in the news have included the usual opportunist calls for politically polarized solutions to gun violence -- from increased gun control to enhanced security at public schools. Yet, somehow it seems, within the mass media at least, I could find no commentators questioning the fundamental premise of compulsory schooling or public schooling, the virtues of which are merely taken for granted without systematic examination. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me, at least, that our schools are failing our children, not only by exposing them to increasing incidents of senseless violence and loss of precious young lives and teachers, but also by creating the very conditions that seem to foster the resentment of young people prone to violence.
In my two decades of experience teaching college students at various universities, I find that students have been largely stripped of their love of learning by the time they exit the dehumanizing and reductive systems of education into which we abandon our children. Students seem to acquire habits of learning that involve rote memorization and a binge and purge style of learning designed for achievement of test-taking. The focus on testing and individual achievement in schools fosters competition to excel in a wide range of activities that leave little time for play, fostering of relationships, or collaborative endeavors in meaningful projects beyond resume building in preparation for the college or job market.
Rather than a process of discovery that might foster intrinsic motivation to gain wisdom and knowledge for the sake of transcendent ends – namely, love of truth, beauty and the good life for their own sake -- students are encouraged, instead, to take up learning as mere means to an end. Education has become oriented primarily toward the acquisition of credits and grades in a fruitless and vacuous quest for achievement defined largely in terms of extrinsic and ultimately empty ends such as competition with peers, striving for social status, and/or material wealth. Education geared toward such extrinsic motivations fosters narcissism, sociopathic behavior such as rampant cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty, and especially among the many who fail to excel in comparison to their peers, such learning environments foster resentment and hostility, which sow the seeds of violence.
The current call to increase security at public schools will inevitably ramp up efforts to transform places of learning into prison-like cells within which our children will be further dehumanized and scrutinized as potential killers. Today, most schools already resemble prisons more than environments built to nurture learning, and the current rhetoric in response to the most recent shooting indicates that this situation will likely only worsen in the coming years. Most especially in urban public schools in which the most vulnerable and impoverished children can be found, the education system has been transformed into a school-to-prison pipeline, where the poor, racial minorities and the disabled are disproportionately at risk of punishments that ultimately lead to incarceration.
Over six years ago, my wife and I found ourselves increasingly distraught as we observed our oldest son grow increasingly despondent as he entered the third year of grade school. Our son had always expressed an early and pervasive love of learning and was especially drawn to reading books well beyond his years. At home, and among family and friends, he was an expressive, talkative young man who never tired of sharing his deep curiosity of the world. Yet, increasingly, we observed our son lose interest in school and become increasingly alienated from his peers. We acutely felt an emotional distance encroaching as he began to withdraw into himself. An acute crisis led us to withdraw him from school, and we decided, against our prior intuitions, that he would be better off homeschooled. It felt dangerous, like we were risking the future of our beloved child.
Within a very short period of time, I watched in amazement as my young son returned to us, little by little, and his intellectual curiosity and acumen developed in leaps and bounds. My wife developed a curriculum centered around his interests in art history, through which we introduced him to the history of Western civilization, and took every opportunity to develop his skills in reading, writing and mathematics as he engaged in pursuit of educational projects that drew upon his deepest interests and allowed him to put the values of our family at the front and center of our child’s education. The transformation was incredible to behold, and today, at 14, our son is already excelling at college courses where he is achieving higher scores than his peers well advanced beyond him in age.
We joined several home school co-opts where both of our sons had the opportunity to develop close and enduring relationships with peers and where they took genuinely exciting and creative courses taught by parent volunteers. Our boys had the chance to interact with children of a wide variety of ages, and from a diverse set of backgrounds, and those relationships and experiences have proved to be enduring, enriching, and enlivening experiences well beyond anything they would have encountered in formal schooling.
With the contrasting experience of my sons in homeschool, and as I watched the news reports of yet another school shooting, I was struck by an insight I hadn’t considered before. Public schools are the only place where the state can coerce a person – an innocent person, that is – to remain in the same room or building with a sociopath, even if the students and/or parent do not consent. Even in a work setting, one can leave and find another job. But if one is poor, or cannot afford private education, the options are few.
In my utopian world, poor folks and those with more means would band together to create their own home school co-ops and take education into their own hands. They’d use their social capital and the power of mutual aid to produce a system of education for the people by the people, instead of a system that works for corporate interests mediated by centralized state control.
Such projects could afford parents to work together to create a genuinely enriching learning environment geared toward the intrinsic love of learning and the development of social virtues. Rather than emphasize extrinsic motivations for learning, learning could focus, instead, on exploration of intrinsically motiving ends – the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness for their own sake. Equal emphasis would be placed upon the cultivation of social virtues necessary to foster a generation capable of collaborative and creative learning, compassionate rather than competitive relationships necessary for problem-solving, and egalitarian values necessary to build healthy, thriving communities. Parents in collaboration with one another, and without the imposition of state bureaucracy, are uniquely capable of teaching our children the kind of social virtues necessary for the work we can do together in organically structured networks, in which the community can be empowered to such an extent that centralized, formal systems of state power would no longer appear so necessary in order to create a better world – a world, perhaps one day, we can only hope, violence may become unthinkable.
Tara Ann Thieke