Where it all starts

“OMG, they’re coming for us!”

The upsurge in discussions of school violence stemming from two incidents in two days reveals the lack of knowledge that plagues us. Constantly, we act as if all this is new and as if it all comes as a great surprise. It’s as if nothing we do has any consequences; everything is supposed to work out just as we want it to. Look at Iraq. Most Americans still can’t get it through their heads that invading Iraq was a dumb, vicious, greedy, prideful, violent, nasty thing to do. And we will be paying for that for decades to come, just like slavery and genocide against Native Americans. I love to read the conservative apologists for all this. “How dare you suggest that our troubles might stem from things we do to other people!!!”

They’re idiots*.

What makes us tick?

OK. Don’t get political in the cultural category. I know. But in another entry I said that we are in a culture war. That is the war: either we are the all-conquering, God-blessed Americans of Manifest Destiny who can do no wrong: the neocon view, or we are people who started with a brilliant Constitution (I would rather capitalize “Constitution” than “God”) and built on that through a culture of individual liberty, personal freedom, economic adventureousness, civic cooperation, and sheer bravery. I still thrill to the tale of how the Japanese soldiers on Guadacanal quaked as the Marines did what Americans were not supposed to do: die in droves and keep on coming. Americans have a lot to be proud of and wasting all that in pursuit of obscene wealth and world dominance is a true sin.

So how did we get to where we are and what can we do about it if we don’t like some aspects of where we are? We start with the building blocks. I don’t think our education system teaches this in an integrated fashion but it’s easily available in books.

We are part of a group. Basically, the family or extended family. We know everybody and everybody knows us. Strangers are at once fascinating and alarming. The alarm sets off stress. In big schools you see people everyday you do not know.

Mens sana in corpore sano

Our bodies both support us and betray us. Things break down but repair is available. Our bodies and minds operate best when they operate. Any slacking off produces lethargy, malfunctions. So diet and exercise are paramount. We have so forgotten this that we need constant reminders to eat right and exercise and we still don’t do them. The price is high. People who do not exercise simply have no idea how bad off they are. My own dietary prescription is paleolithic (meat, vegetables, fruits and nuts) but almost anything other than the typical American diet would be an improvement.

Mentally, the stress we put on ourselves and the loss of a sense of security in personal relationships generate mental disorder. This disorder can give rise to great productivity as we deal with our stress and loss in creative ways. This same creativity, or the disorder it arises from, can be seen as pathological. We have come to see a lot of pathology as normal. It is normal in the sense it is the norm, but that doesn’t make it less pathological. Pathological means disordered and it will do us well to keep this basic concept of disorder in mind as we look at our schools.

At this point, I must make clear that I entertain no religious visions of how society originated. I am using only the findings of the “sciences”, incl. the social sciences. Religion plays an immense and often positive role in our culture but I will not entertain “proofs” offered that God has blessed the U.S. to lead and dominate the rest of the world or that Allah has decreed that Shari’a law should govern us all. Forget about it.

Whence come we?

OK. So we need to look at how our ancestors lived, esp going back to our primate ancestors, the intense personal relationships found in grooming behavior, etc. People lived in small, intimate groups up until the advent of cities and even then most lived in small, intimate groups. The typical American kid lives in a fragmented family that may not even have a male in it. While I deplore the right wing’s demonization of any family structure other than the one they insist God gave us (they’re idiots*), there is no doubt that the single mom with one kid she hardly ever sees b/c she’s working two jobs isn’t the way people have usually lived. I will go so far as to say that I feel fairly certain that there is some hard-wired behavior going on here.

For instance, kids have always run in gangs. Gang comes from the Germanic word for ’go’; they go around together. What about violent gangs? Always. Young men are violent. Anyone who tries to turn them into docile, non-competitive contemplatives will reap the whirlwind. Girls and boys behave differently and we need to look at the effect of having such an imbalance of female teachers in the early grades. Those teachers need to be very careful they don’t bias the social environment against boys. Those boys may have no males in their home environment either, so that leaves…. the streets. And these boys WILL get their dose of masculine companionshiop. That’s not the whole genesis of violent street gangs, of course, but it goes a long ways to providing the bedrock.

Fight or Flight

To me, every strange face evokes a flight or fight response. That may leave out other adaptations like ignoring strangers. But then what does that say about a school staff’s reaction to kids they don’t know? A blank stare? How much of that can a kid get before he decides there are no people in that school? This is the alienation enshrined in some of our earliest and greatest novels. Anomie and alientation were described for many of us in the ubiquitous college paperback Man Alone (I still have my copy on the shelf).

Our Precarious Existence

All through the story of man on earth, we have been subject to ills. Malnutrition continues to plague us, even in our society of (over)abundance. Diseases lurk, ready to strike when our defenses are down. I can remember when a scrape by a rusty nail was an occasion for panic and I remember my dad almost pulling my arm out of its socket when he determined I hadn’t washed my hands in the restaurant after using the bathroom. Polio was rampant and he was terrified, not knowing what causes it.

The stereotype of the Southerner and his dog lazing away the day on the porch might have something to do with worms and the diet of fatback and cornpone (I have no idea what either of those is but they sure sound Southern). The tropics bestow and assail – it’s a tough place to live in some ways, but so is Norway. The American Plains have cold snaps that kill anyone caught out in the open and insects can swarm in unimaginable numbers. I remember on Lake Eire the town sidewalks being adrift in june bugs as if their bodies were snow. Then the snow came. You couldn’t win. We moved to Arizona. Still here.

I sometimes ask my kids how well they think they could concentrate if they were sitting on the dirt floor under a ramada, swatting flies and trying to learn. “Yeah, yeah,” they reply, “Can you adjust the refrigeration?” We may think we control our physical environment and what goes into our bodies, but major manipulation goes on to capitalize on our needs and weaknesses. Chocolate coco-puffs, anyone?

In the Bosom of the Family

How did families get along? What’s different now that might account for the problems we have in the classroom? Only recently have families been separated during the day. People worked together and usually grew their own food. The assault on cities has not died down one whit. A real conservative wants us to return to a time when children were educated at home, albeit not to such a high degree as now despite what the Romantics tell us about little kids discussing the moral lessons of Horace in the original Latin. How was conflict managed? Simple. No divorce. No Child Protective Service. People lived close but not that close. You didn’t have to share everything with just one person. Lots of people were available when life got onerous or tense. Lots of interventions. People were the same. I think it was Bohannan who lived in a Tiv village in Nigeria and related how all hell broke loose when someone was caught doing the bumpty-bump with the wrong person.

People often separated out, living in a hut near the cultivated fields or in a hut for the “unclean” or just with family. But where were you going to go to get away from everyone permanently? San Francisco? A few miles down the road, you were a—– STRANGER. The Romans simply denied you food, water, and fire for a distance from Rome. Beyond that, if you made it that far, you had to deal because nobody knew you or cared. Face to face, life-long contact. What Hillary called it: it takes a village.

How We Live With Alienation

That’s the good thing about our anomie. We are free to care about whoever we want to care about. Tribalism remains in the lady clutching her purse when a person she deems a stranger approaches, usually someone of a different color or a young person dressed hip-hop. Generally, though, we are much more open to other people. But we do look for signs that we can bond.

The teacher looks for that in the classroom and finds it in some kids but not in others and never realizes the signals he is giving to all the students: “You’re in the club – you’re not….” The tone of haughty disapproval in mentioning a grammatical “error” common in the speech of the student and his family. The slighting reference to people who donít…. whatever. “Oh, I didn’t realize. I should have been more careful.” doesn’t reestablish the relationship so vital to learning. Faint contempt is sharply perceived.

Who Do We Learn From?

Yes, we do learn from those around us, from our peers, even in a classroom. But what does it take? Frank Smith in books like Joining the Literacy Club argues powerfully for understanding learning as something that occurs where meaning and understanding are present. He depicts the role of psychology, behavioral psychology primarily, in orienting American education in the completely wrong direction. I’ll try to describe that in another entry. Here it is important to note that he takes on Bloom’s Taxonomy, which has become the unquestioned template for how we understand “the learning process”. The absurd length to which behaviorists went to exclude anything remotely human from their analysis of human behavior came from the mouth of a fellow student, one immured in behaviorism, when she said that someone “emitted screaming behavior”. I asked, “You mean, she screamed?” “Yes,” was the answer. She screamed. That’s merely an impression, a flawed human perception. “Emitted screaming behavior” made it scientific.

They’re idiots*.

What you confront in the classroom, what you are in the classroom, what your students are, result from a highly refined social environment with great impact from the diet. Rituals of family, religion, and community have gone the way of the dodo for many of our students, for many of our teachers. Some reasonable sense of permanence has given way to a foot-loose existence demanded by changing job opportunities. The bedrock, the family, while never what the conservatives would have us believe (read Stephanie Coon on that), offers less and less as it becomes more and more simply a vehicle to satisfy individual needs. Relationships are more and more ephemeral as children attend several schools and schools themselves are so large they can wander the campus and not see a familiar face.

What Are We Adapting To?

We adapt to this. We join mega-churches. My daughter describes the care with which her apartment complex maintains control over who lives there. A credit and criminal check to rent an apartment? I haven’t rented an apartment in over 40 years. Gated communities were rare. Kids played outside – at night. As they grew older, they went to other kids’ houses and took off from there with a sense of freedom, uncluttered as they were by cell phones. But the other kid’s parents knew where they were going. We could go to the hobo jungle, walk the railroad tracks, tease the bull by jumping into his pasture, shoot arrows at rabbits where now miles of apartment complexes sit, wade flowing streams in the midst of a large city, expore a cave – in the midst of a large city. All that’s left now are malls.

Have kids changed? No. But their environment has. They still learn the same way but what we want them to learn and how we want them to learn has changed, as has the way we teach them.

I hope to riff on these themes on later blog entries. No fun unless you join in. Diet? Restricted play time? Divorce? Child abuse? Distance learning? So many topics…

*idiot = someone who views the world entirely from within his personal framework.

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