In March 2018, following a shooting incident in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump formed the cabinet level Federal Commission on School Safety charged with coming up with a range of recommendations to improve school safety. Chaired by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the commission also includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The commission has formally met once and is to deliver a set of proposals to the President by the end of the year.
As the commission does its work, constituencies of every kind seek to influence it. From Congress and its lobbyists through the grass roots of Americans, people hope the answers that soothe them the most will be the ones that prevail in the final recommendations. I’m not so sanguine about finding better tomorrows within knee jerk responses. I believe that the Commission will not truly have done its work unless it fully deconstructs the pieces of how America got here, identifies the operative errors we made to our cultural norms, and explains the root causes and solutions to the American people. Anything short of that is a placebo.
In the 1990’s, I remember having a poignant conversation with James Q. Wilson, then a professor at my alma mater, the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA. Jim was a world class intellectual able to see out of the box on strategic, cultural and law enforcement matters. I met him first as a teacher. It turned out he and I shared a common past in strategic nuclear warfare and would find additional common paths to walk in the realm of developing theories about community policing. In both cases, he was the academic and I was the practitioner. He analyzed with words, I analyzed with computer code. Both paths led to deeper understandings about the insides of Pandora’s Boxes. This conversation was about the phenomenon of political correctness.
The rise of political correctness or PC as it was referred to then has roots deep in the Ivory Towers of social engineering. It was a product of arrogant elitism by people who believed they knew better than ordinary people. They had identified American Culture itself as the impediment to their dreams; that lack of cultural cadence that infuriated deeply felt existential and Marxist beliefs that find so much nurture in the safe spaces of tenured academia. They correctly recognized that the only way to defeat that enemy was to asymmetrically attack this culture. Thus, the strategy of deconstruction of language and meaning began, innocuously at first; but growing in rigidity over time. I remember the key word of the entire thing. The term “shouldn’t” became “mustn’t”. The attack vector to spread this cultural breakdown and remaking of America was obvious, the unprotected and vulnerable educational system. Wilson was always quick to point out that this was exactly how you created “systemic risks”. He was fond of saying whatever we teach today will be the social crisis a quarter century from now. From the mid-1990’s, it’s now been over 25 years.
Ivory Fortresses, Thought Prisons
Some perspective about the sheer power of asymmetric effect of education on US society is in order here. Where the US military indoctrinates 3% of the US population in to a culture of service, the school system indoctrinates 100% of America’s children.
In the decades since PC emerged, the schools have turned the concept of “mustn’t” into Orwellian zero tolerance. The deconstruction of American culture where tradition is vile and conventional values are evil have become pervasive. A student or teacher who believes outside the sanctioned thought lives an insular existence in a hostile workplace at best, is a bullied outcast at worst. Expression is punishable, both socially and academically. Values and norms, even those perfectly acceptable off campus, must be left at the gate by children who’s mental development knows nothing of the abstract post-doctoral concepts being forced upon them; it’s like using a sledgehammer to crack walnuts open, you destroy things in the process. They are too young to know that within a setting that purports to be a haven for their bodies and minds, they are in fact, closer to being like political prisoners or hostages in much the same sense that conquerors throughout history have sought to wipe out cultures. These children are too innocent to see that their families’ values, the things that make them happy, the things that make them unique, are the system’s enemy.
As that conversation in the 1990’s asked, “What happens when that school systems sees the America outside the Ivory Bubble as the enemy at the gate? How does that affect those young minds to be told that their parents are bad people because they think differently? That ideas are evil.” Well of course it makes the children uncomfortable; they have real feelings and understand rejection. And statistically, when you deliberately make impressionable people uncomfortable, some of them will get angry, and some of them will lash out. This doesn’t just happen in schools; it happens in work places, it happens in the streets. It happens because someone who thought they knew better pushed the most vulnerable outcasts into the desperate corners of their minds; and probably fueled that angst with psychotropic medications. It’s wrong.
I respectfully suggest that, in our bullish brashness, we may have inadvertently made the perfect storm for school shootings. We created a systemic risk to America that’s become a perfect laboratory where we take lost children, so far mostly boys, who are vulnerable to stress and push them over the edge. Their needs often neglected at home, we set up the system to neglect their needs at school; indeed, we set up the system to reject the validity of their existences.
And it gets worse. As parents who can afford to pull their children out of public schools to put them either into private schools or home schooling, the concentration of distressed youths per capita in the remaining zero tolerance environment gets even higher. These unwanted young people become valuable economic commodities on campuses because the public education system in this country gets paid by the body. This means we exacerbate the problem year by year essentially condemning those who cannot escape financially to the full force of zero tolerance; think of it as the quantitative easing of young impressionable minds. The dissonant cultures of outcast America are forced to collide within the walls of the educational keep, every rejection and pain filled day. And we wonder why kids snap? Let’s admit something to ourselves. We are bullying our children to make theoretical elitism feel good.
Somewhere in all of this we must remember that the American school system’s civic mission is to not to train future social justice warriors, it is to prepare children to become good, tolerant Americans. There’s a critical thinking case to be looked into as to whether all of the elite social theories we have used our own children as guinea pigs to experiment on have netted to the good or to the bad of the generations we’ve “engineered” in the pursuit of our own hubris. It may take an entire deconstruction and redesign of education with attendant changes in financial incentives and retraining of educators and administrators to make it right. It will be uncomfortable to look in the mirror and admit to our frailties. But if the Federal Commission on School Safety can help the process along, maybe our schools can be the havens they once were again.
Maybe we won’t be such politically correct monsters this time.