We can be horrified at the Parkland massacre. We can be outraged. We can be sickened. But we can no longer honestly be surprised. Can we?
The shootings in Florida are of the same ilk as the ones in Aurora and at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine and all the rest: a young man full of anger, heavily armed, with nothing but despair in his heart.
Until we start doing something differently with our young people, the only thing we can expect is more of the same.
I am a high school teacher. I don’t know the pathologies of the shooter or why they turned into mass murder. I do know something about young people, and what we might do to lessen this sickening epidemic.
Let’s be honest about one thing: Our culture is saturated in violence. It is everywhere. Short of living in a cave, it is impossible to escape – especially for young men. Our boys live on video games in which the hero is always the guy who can kill the most bad guys. That is not likely to change.
Nor are we likely to change the easy access to guns that makes these mass murders possible.
What we do have the power to change, however, is the culture in our schools, where our young people learn the social sense of themselves. And the direction we’re going is not reassuring.
States have increased class sizes, cut counselors, reduced or eliminated arts and music classes, pushed online learning and dumbed down curriculum to teach to the tests. It is the exact opposite of what we would do if we were trying to create nurturing places for young people.
The irony is that outside of families, schools are probably the only institutions in America from which we can mount a defense against the degrading dehumanization ladled up by the culture. We need to create cultures in our schools where students learn not just the “three Rs” but the “three Bs” as well: being, belonging and becoming.
What does this kind of school culture look like?
A sense of being comes when we honor every single individual in our schools. This is a deeply rooted respect for the uniqueness and dignity of each human being. It is only conveyed one person at a time, and only from someone a child respects.
Those who want to replace seasoned teachers with low-cost room monitors or dish out one-size-fits-all curriculum send a powerful message to young people: You are not valued. The students know this. And the contempt reverberates for the rest of their lives.
Then, a sense of belonging comes when students reciprocate the esteem their school has shown them in being. They find community – connections – in something bigger than themselves. This is the ancient practice of binding the child to his or her community by investing in the child the community’s hopes and aspirations.
Finally, there is becoming. The greatest longing of all young people is to become a bigger person, in terms of their capacity to move in the world. They want to be competent, effective, respected. These traits are cultivated, over years of schooling, by providing students the means to prove to themselves.
Close-knit communities used to perform these essential functions of cultivating social maturity in their young people. But we’ve lost that capacity for stewardship of our most important asset. The only place where we can possibly reclaim it is in our schools.
We can rail at the insanity of it all, but that changes nothing. Or we can take effective action in creating the cultures that build bigger people, and the people who can bring forth a better world.
Robert Freeman is a former Los Altos High School instructor and founder of the national nonprofit One Dollar For Life, which helps American teenagers build classrooms in the developing world.