Lord of the Flies High

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In
an
article on the recent Santana High shooting
, Attorney General
John Ashcroft made a statement about the bullying at Santana High
that shocked me by demonstrating how clueless even this relatively
sane politician is regarding the situation in our government schools.
"It takes more than what the government can do," Ashcroft
said. "It's going to take some response on the part of our
culture to say that we don't want to promote the idea that violence
is the way to solve all our problems."

While
I certainly agree that dealing with this problem is going to take
more than government, (if indeed government has anything useful
to offer at all), I strongly disagree with the analysis implied
in the rest of his comment. I'll go out on a limb and make this
claim: Even if we removed all hints that "violence is the way
to solve our problems" from our culture, removed all violent
video games and movies, banned guns and made kids sing "Peace
Train" every day there would still be boys beating up other
boys at government schools. The problem is not, or at least not
primarily, "culture".

Allow
me to share some of my own experience. Being a scrawny boy, a bit
eccentric and a pacifist I was an ideal target for "bullying".
This "bullying" in my case meant about 8 years of physical
abuse through elementary, junior high and high school. One incident
I remember in particular from junior high involved two boys. One
held my arms behind my back while the other slapped my face repeatedly
as hard as he could. The sense of violation was far worse than the
pain. I had done nothing in particular to get this treatment, merely
been someone they perceived as vulnerable. I remember the sense
of dread throughout this period of my life as I approached the especially
dangerous parts of my school day: the bus stop, the hallway between
classes, the locker room.

For
myself this nightmare did not come to an end through adult authority.
While I was in high school, my family took in a black inner city
youth, (to this day a beloved "foster" brother), and he
started attending my high school. He was decidedly not scrawny and
a lot scarier than I was. He made it clear to the other boys that
I was under his protection and that stopped the abuse and made for
a much happier time in my childhood. It should be noted that all
this occurred in one of the richest and best government school districts
in my state over 15 years ago. By all accounts, the situation in
government schools is even worse now.

How
could all this happen with adults supposedly in charge? Let us assume,
as economists are wont to do, that I was a rational child weighing
the costs and benefits of my actions. If I "snitched"
on one of my abusers to my parents or school authorities, the most
I could hope for was a slap on the hand: perhaps a stern lecture
or, if they were really serious, a week-long vacation, (i.e. suspension),
for the bully. So perhaps I would have a break from that particular
bully for a week. But then, having broken the schoolyard code, I
would be subject to revenge. And the kids would have a thousand
ways of making my life miserable that the adults wouldn't catch.
With a ratio of 20 or 30 prisoners to every guard, I'm sorry, students
to teachers combined with the adult's inability to exercise any
substantive discipline there was little chance that adults would
be able to protect me from the wrath sure to follow my breaking
of the unwritten code. So I lumped it.

William
Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies has helped me to understand
what I experienced. In that novel, a group of children find themselves
stranded on an island without adult supervision and quickly revert
to their natural savagery. For children are savage, even the girls
in their own way. They do not need a "culture of violence"
to teach them this. It is a civilized culture that teaches children
to restrain their natural violence. We are born barbarians. It is
the job of responsible adults to train their little barbarians into
people who know how to respect the person and property of others.

Our
government schools have been failing more and more in this essential
task. These are not the schools that my parents experienced. These
are not even the schools I experienced. The Lord of the Flies mentality
that rules the government schools is now being revealed in the most
tragic manner possible.

I
have a question for you from my younger self: Where are the adults?

March
16, 2001

Stephen
W. Carson is a working software engineer and a graduate student
in political economy at Washington University in St. Louis.

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