Questions arising from the Process of Schooling and Societal Violence

On Tuesday 2nd October 2006, a 32 year old man held hostage a group of young students between the ages of 6 and 13 at a small rural Amish school in Pennsylvania, and later executed 3 girls and critically wounded several others. Earlier in the same year, September 26th a 25 year old man embarked on a shooting spree at Dawson College in Montreal killing a young woman and injuring up to 19 other persons. According to police sources, the man enjoyed playing a computer generated simulation game which re-enacted the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. On April 16th 2007, a disaffected student when on a shooting rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg Virginia killing 32 students and wounding many more. Today, every person in the world is reeling in shock and disbelief at the willful murder of 20 children between the ages of six and seven, and 7 adults in Newtown, Connecticut. Innocent children and caring adults denied their lives by a young man who didn’t want one. Other similar incidents have occurred across the United States and in other parts of the world over the last 15 years:

October 1997: Sixteen year old boy stabs mother then shoots dead two students at a school in Mississippi and injures several others.

December 1997: Fourteen year old boy kills three students in Kentucky.

March 1998: Two boys 11 and 13 kill four girls and a teacher in Arkansas.

April 1998: Fourteen year old boy shoots dead a teacher and wounds two students in Pennsylvania

May 1998: Fifteen year old shoots dead two students in school cafeteria in Oregon

May 1998: Fifteen year old boy shoots himself in the head after taking a girl hostage.

June 1998: Two adults hurt in shooting by teenage student at high school in Virginia

April 1999: Two teenagers shoot dead 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine high school in Colorado

May 1999: Student injures six pupils in shoot-out in Georgia

November 1999: Thirteen year old girl shot dead by a class mate in New Mexico

February 2000: Six year old girl shot dead by a classmate in Michigan

March 2001: Student opens fire at a school in California killing two students.

April 2003: Teenager shoots dead head-teacher at a Pennsylvania school then kills himself.

May 2004: Four people injured in a school shooting in Maryland

March 2005: Minnesota school boy kills nine then kills himself

November 2005: Student in Tennessee shots dead an assistant principal and wounds two other administrators.

September 2006: Gunman in Colorado shoots and fatally wounds a teenage school girl the kills himself; two days later a teenager kills the head teacher of a school in Cazenovia, Wisconsin

February 2008: 14 year old boy shoots dead a fellow student in Oxnard California because he was  Gay.

On Friday 26th April 2002, a 19-year-old German youth returned to his school in Erfurt, Germany, from where he had been expelled a few weeks earlier. He killed 13 teachers and two students before killing himself. In May of 1998, an 18-year-old High School senior, Jeremy Stroemeyer, from Orange County in Los Angeles, California, lured a 7-year-old African American girl into a toilet block, in a Nevada Casino, in the early hours of the morning. He sexually assaulted and strangled her, while his friend and classmate peered over the cubicle and did nothing to intervene. I knew Jeremy. He had been an 11th grade student in my literature class while I was on an assignment at an international school in Singapore. He was popular, well liked by his peers and the adults who worked in the school. He seemed to be amiable, perhaps a little earnest in his need for approval, but nothing out of the ordinary with regards to angst and adolescent development. He left the school at the end of the semester, and returned to the United States, and began his senior year in the fall of 1997. After his arrest and arraignment for murder, those of us who knew him – his peers and teachers – were in a state of shock; our perceptions of Jeremy had been deceived by this horrendous act of cruelty. “Why did he do it”? One of his friends asked in disbelief. “I had him stay over in my house many time, I just don’t believe it”, one of my students exclaimed with incredulity.  I attempted to explain with difficulty the shock of accepting that someone we had come to know, and perceived as a ‘good’ person, could have committed such a heinous act. We were in denial because Jeremy had been one of us. This crime caused me to reflect more deeply on the purpose of schooling, if after 12 years, a person proceeds to graduate lacking in values of compassion, tolerance, cooperation, love and understanding?

The German Psychoanalyst, Alice Miller, argues that sources of rage, hatred and anger in adolescents and adults can always be traced to violence, both physical and psychological, inflicted upon the young and very young, in the name of child-rearing, schooling and socialization processes. [Miller, 1990]. She argues that the last 200 years of socialization practices have infested generations of people all over the world with a “poisonous pedagogy”. Once a physically brutal and violent way to raise children, today it has become a psychological terror campaign, whereby the young are manipulated out of childhood, into a world of adult guilt and betrayal.

The conscious use of humiliation (whose function is to satisfy the parents’ needs) destroys the child’s self confidence, making him or her insecure and inhibited…For the purposes of self protection, it is only the adult’s friendly manner that remains in the child’s memory, accompanied by a predictable submissiveness on the part of the “little transgressor” and the loss of his capacity for spontaneous feeling…the results of this struggle against strong emotion are so disastrous because the suppression begins in infancy, i.e. before the child’s self has had a chance to develop…significantly, cause and effect are confused here and what is attacked as a cause is something that the pedagogues have themselves brought about. This is the case not only in pedagogy, but in psychiatry and criminology as well. Once “wickedness has been produced in a child by suppressing vitality, any measure taken to stamp it out is justified” [Miller, 1990, pp. 21-31].

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that people who are mistreated in their formative years will act out similar behaviors as adults. Likewise, the more subtle forms of childrearing, which involve psychological manipulation, which we are all products of, have a profound effect on our behavior as adults. More often than not this is expressed in benign forms, such as the way we brush our teeth, or arrange our clothes in the closet, or eat at a table or hold our bodies, to more neurotic behaviors like showering many times a day, checking that doors are locked repetitively, to even more disturbing behaviors such as agoraphobia, or the numerous conditions under the broad diagnostic term, schizophrenia, which need intervention by qualified practitioners.

Schools act as surrogate parents, reinforcing disciplines, or exercising new forms of power and control over children. Miller quotes the following example “In school, discipline precedes the actual teaching. There is no sounder pedagogical axiom than the one that children must first be trained before they can be taught. There can be discipline without instruction…but no instruction without discipline” [Miller, 1990, p. 31]

Issues with regard to human behavior and how to modify and encourage its various manifestations contribute to some of the most contentious debates in education. Indeed, discipline in all its various guises has been labeled as ‘normative practices’ (Rousmaniere, Dehli and de Coninck-Smith, 1997). Are we living in a more enlightened age when it comes to matters relating to understanding human behavior and implementing procedures for behavior modification? Discipline and punishment is about controlling minds and bodies and affecting human behavior. The social sciences stand as a testament to human endeavors to understand the way people behave, and there is ongoing argument and debate about the benefits of a systematized imposition of order on the human condition. Alice Miller’s training and practice as a psychoanalyst has enabled her to hear firsthand accounts of child-rearing practices, which in most instances can only be recognized as acts of cruelty, and of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. She argues that “The conviction that parents are always right and that every act of cruelty, whether conscious or unconscious, is an expression of their love is so deeply rooted in human beings, because it is based on the process of internalization that takes place during the first few months of life…” [Miller, 1990, p.5] She further asserts one of the more obvious empirical conclusions one can draw from human nature, and that is if a child is nurtured with unconditional love and understanding, and without physical violence or emotional blackmail, then they in turn will practice the same kind of behaviors as fully grown human beings. Nelson Mandela describes this basic human experience in detail in recalling a sadistic and brutal Commander of Robben Island prison, where he was held for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. Mandela writes:

Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric                                  Commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that  day in the office, he had revealed that there was another side that had been obscured but that still existed. It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and if there hearts are touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behavior. (Mandela, 1994)

This is not a new idea and tends to be reflected in spiritual beliefs across cultures, which encourage love, tolerance, compassion and the value of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Miller’s more serious assertion, and one we as educators ought to take heed of, is that more often than not methods of child-rearing, including discipline and moral regulation in schooling, are carried out in such a manner so that a child is not aware of what is being done to him or her. Miller addresses several complex, yet important questions throughout her text: “How were our parents brought up? How were they permitted-even forced-to treat us? How could we, as young children, have become aware of this? How could we have treated our own children differently? Can this vicious circle ever be broken? And finally is our guilt any less if we shut our eyes to the situation?” (Miller, 1990, p.9) She cites some classic examples from texts dating back to the 16th century to back up her claims. The following passage by J.Sulzer, written in 1748 serves as an illustration:

If wickedness and willfulness are not driven out, it is impossible to

give a child a good education. The moment these flaws appear in a child

it is high time to resist this evil so that it does not become ingrained through

habit, and the children do not become thoroughly depraved…if parents are

fortunate enough to drive out willfulness from the every beginning by means

of scolding and the rod, they will have obedient, docile and good children…

as soon as a child develops awareness, it is essential to demonstrate to

them by word and deed that they must submit to the will of the parents…”

(Miller, 1990, p.13)

Miler asserts that it is generally accepted that children forget a lot of their early childhood, but the serious consequences from the trauma of harsh treatment will live on and manifest itself from mild neurosis as an adult, to the more bizarre manifestations of complex psychopathologies. There are no harmless pedagogies she argues, because even when an adult is sure they are considering the best interests of the child, their true motives are:

  • The unconscious need to pass on to others the humiliation one has undergone oneself.
  • The need to find an outlet for repressed affect.
  • The need to possess and have at one’s disposal a vital object to  manipulate.
  • Self-defense: i.e., the need to idealize one’s childhood and one’s parents by dogmatically applying the parents’ pedagogical principles  to one’s own children.
  • Fear of freedom.
  • Fear of the reappearance of what one has repressed, which one re-encounters in one’s child and must try to stamp out, having killed it in oneself earlier.
  • Revenge for the pain one has suffered. (Miller, 1990)

Miller is not an advocate of anarchy in child rearing, on the contrary, she argues strongly for tolerance, compassion, awareness, respect and the importance of leading children to awareness and self-knowledge.

She chooses three case studies to support her arguments. Firstly, Christiane F, an adolescent drug addict, who was the victim of child abuse, sexual, physical and emotional. Secondly, the childhood of Adolf Hitler is analyzed in detailed and thirdly the formative years of Jurgen Bartsch, a child killer, is scrutinized. Each case is studied meticulously and Miller’s claim that the upbringing of the respondents affected their behavior as adolescents and adults is convincing. Her analysis of the suffering of Sylvia Plath as an example of a child reassuring the parent in a role reversal of child-rearing practice ends the book on a poignant note. While adults are able to reproach their God, Miller says, “Children are not allowed to reproach their gods-their parents and teachers”. (Miller, 1990)

The regular explosions of violence in schools throughout the world can also be attributed to a poisonous pedagogy- an approach to socialization practices through teaching and learning- which has become separated from important spiritual and psychological characteristics of human development. Moreover, no matter how innovative a curriculum nor how prestigious a school is held by its local community, until we as teachers, administrators and teacher trainers come to understand the subtleties of our own psycho-social development, and the nuance with which it interacts on a conscious and unconscious level in our lives as educators, then the psycho-dynamic of power relationships, played out daily in the process of schooling, will continue to cause inexplicable aberrations of behavior, and explosions of murderous rage by those who have become lost to themselves in the process of schooling.

This view is supported by Gatto, who argues convincingly that schools, rather than educate, create severe social and psychological pathologies that are irreversible, because they are symptomatic of a wider and deeper cultural malaise. Schools he asserts are the problem not the solution [Gatto, 1992]. Illich identified a similar argument over 30 years ago [Illich, 1962] According to both educators; schools are not about educating our children. Schools create confusion and reinforce notions of inequality through justifying a particular economic code. They create emotional and intellectual dependency, together with an indifference to everything. They instill a conditional self esteem into children which says, “you’re only as good as your report card” and through their competitive values and collective surveillance codes [everybody is alerted to be watching everyone else] impart to all children and young people that any kind of privacy equals subversive behavior, and a private life is a negative value and leads to anti-social behavior [Gatto 1992]. Like Illich, Gatto argues that we need less schooling not more.

It is evident that we need to renew the idea of schooling through curriculum reforms. Overburdened and irrelevant curricula, selective knowledge and regulated behaviors are creating toxic environments in schools. They are fertile grounds for cultivating murderous rage and violence of a kind, which schools deny, could ever happen, and for which the wider community seeks to find a scapegoat and shift blame. We are confronted with this scenario in a chilling report on the profiles of the young men responsible for the Columbine massacre:

“Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris seem to have been shrouded in presumptions of innocence. After professing their love for Hitler, declaring their hatred of Blacks, Asians and Latinos on a public website no less, down loading instructions for making bombs, accumulating the ingredients, assembling them under the protectively indifferent gaze (or perhaps with the assistance) of parents and neighbors, stockpiling guns and ammunition, procuring hand grenades and flak jackets, threatening the lives of class mates, killing thirteen and themselves, wounding numerous others and destroying their school building –still the community can’t believe it really happened “here”. Still their teachers and classmates continue to protest that they were good kids, good students, solid citizens.” (Williams, 1999, cited in Giroux, 2000)

This is a sad and tragic example of two young men blending into a system, seemingly subordinated to its history and traditions, and complacent with its own definition of success. It is also about the serious ramifications for boards of studies, curricula designers, schools, and indeed all educationalists, who adhere unflinchingly to a theory of limited intelligence; one comprising of affective, cognitive and psychomotor domains with predetermined limited powers of ability, function and performance.  In such a model of human potentiality, the body becomes a docile vessel for an imposed curriculum. Children are the passive respondents in a controlled learning process. Schooling is something ‘done’ to them, rather than an experience of cooperation, and active participation. In the process of schooling, we forget that human beings are more than the sum of their parts.

Schools should be places for positive learning experiences. We should gain insights and knowledge about ourselves, so as we grow and develop we can enjoy the knowledge and wisdom gathered along the way. How can this take place?  It could begin with the recognition of one another’s uniqueness, and progress with the inclusion of usas the living embodiment of the curriculum in day-to-day school life. Pablo Casals expresses this suggestion with sensitivity and insight:

“Every second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe; a moment that     never was before and never will be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two are four and that Paris is the capital of France. We should say to them, “Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In the millions of years that have passed, there has never been another child like you.” (Casals, 1970)

The American educator David Purpel breaks down the layers of meaning in the debates, discussions and arguments about educational reform, to reveal our human vulnerability and fear to bringing about serious change in education. He argues that human beings have to work towards goodness. It is not innate. Our capacity for self-deception can lead us into all sorts of trouble as a species. If education is for the betterment of humanity why, Purpel asks, are we facing catastrophic consequences through the human development of our planet? Purpel argues convincingly that our mechanistic metaphor of the universe enables us to deceive ourselves into believing we can conquer and subdue all of nature [including human nature] with little if any consequences.

“We as educators have for the most part been able (willingly) to separate

our concern for education from our discussion of our most serious and profound

matters. What is the meaning of life? How do we relate as a family, nation people?

What is a just and fair way of distributing rights and responsibilities? How do we

make appropriate moral choices?” (Purpel, 1989, p.5)

Notwithstanding the extraordinary efforts made by most students and teachers, questions always remain: What difference do we really make in society? How are we contributing to positive social transformation? If we look through the lens of compartmentalization we can see that some domains of human effort are a testament to what we are able achieve. Aspects of the arts, sports, sciences, humanities, and religion, to name a few, shed light on our capacity for goodness, compassion, tolerance, understanding, love and cooperation. But, if we adjust our lens we see the whole picture. A landscape ruined through war, conflict, greed, deforestation, conflict and savage competition.

Purpel argues that there are no simple solutions to the crisis facing humanity. He points out that opportunists are seizing the moment to push their own social and political agenda in educational reform. In particular he argues that a vacuum left by the rejection of any sound moral and spiritual understanding is leading the way for Rightist groups, together with conservative politicians, to set the agenda for changes in the process of schooling. These changes, insofar as they have any impact are superficial and deal more with textual authority/power/control issues, rather than seriously analyze the assumptions, which underpin our educational aims and objectives. Only a critical inquiry, founded upon an incisive analysis of these assumptions will enable us to reform our schools.

Purpel shows us the inherent contradictions in post modern educative values:

    Transformative Values   Institutionalized Values
Community Individual
Worth Achievement
Equality Competition
Compassion Sentimentality
Democracy Authority/Power/Coercion/Control
Humility Arrogance
Commitment Alienation/Displacement/Complacency
Faith Reason
Professional   Responsibility Self Deception

(Purpel, 1989 pp.31-61)

His analysis of the dichotomy produced through the inherent contradiction in values promoted and institutionalized in schools, and those made manifest through actions and behaviors, is perceptive, insightful and instructive about the consequences of our actions as teachers and administrators.  He argues that such contradictions create confusion and frustrations for all involved in the process of schooling. We end up applying simple solutions, to complex problems. It is easier to discuss curriculum reform, electives, student behavior, codes of conduct, assessment procedures, exam results, sporting prowess, student and staff morale and building maintenance, rather than address the core issues confronting people daily like, unemployment, environmental degradation, spiritual impoverishment, war, famine, and poverty to name a few. When we deny reality we legitimate a false consciousness, which leads us into self-deception and the delusion that we really are masters of our own destiny.

The tragedies of Connecticut, Blackburg Virginia, Columbine and Erfurt; to single out a few suggest we pay a high price for such folly. Yet, schools are sites of potentiality, and our future can be quite different from the past if we embrace knowledge inclusiveness, founded upon sound ethical and spiritual principles. I am not advocating a dogmatic or doctrinal approach here; rather the multiple spiritual traditions of humanity have a lot to offer us, and could be the way forward in addressing the myriad problems humanity is facing today. The abandonment of spiritually and morally based philosophies, for those of the humanist tradition, have created a crisis of meaning in people’s lives. We need a broad moral, spiritual and educational framework as ” a point of departure that focuses on principles, priorities and orientation” [Purpel, 1989, p 156].

Human history is barely of a ten thousand year duration, and the

concept of justice, love, and compassion is perhaps four thousand

years old. The fact that those ideas have been developed and affirmed

is in itself miraculous and the related fact that we have not nearly accomplished

other commitments is not at all surprising. If it took millions of years to go

from stone to energy (as in the example of coal) what would be a reasonable

expectation for a people to go from animal-like to God-like? [Purpel, 1989, p.165]

Inclusive school curriculums, which will promote, support, and develop the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of a person’s life. Healthy people transform an unhealthy society. An inclusive school curriculum will value:

  • the production of one’s own knowledge over textbook knowledge.
  • the inclusion of autobiography over depersonalized  ‘objective’ histories.
  • ecological and ecumenical world-views over authoritarian and dogmatic discourses
  • thinking about the assumptions, which underlie thinking processes, over memorization and rote learning
  • reflection and rumination in learning over simple recall of information and data
  • the value of intuition as an integral part of rational processes
  • eclecticism over linear thinking
  • spirituality, mystery, cosmology and the spirituality of science over scientism
  • an acknowledgement of gender ambiguity over stereotypes
  • the inclusion of race and ethnic differences over nationalism and global culture
  • the development of interpersonal skills over institutionalized roles
  • the development of a defensive logic over the art of reasoning, to help youngsters face and deal with fear, prejudice, bigotry, racism and social injustice
  • love, tolerance, compassion and cooperation over competitiveness  (Slattery, 1995)

For the most part these subject-matters and themes are under-represented or excluded from the a 21st century school curriculum

Knowing through systems of information, data and knowledge like information technology, computer science, general sciences, social sciences, mathematics, humanities and the arts is acquired knowledge. But the journey of the individual learner is different. There is the revelation of an inner knowledge, an intuitive awareness if you like of the world and ones place in it. One feels this more than knows it, and I think it is part of the ever-increasing understanding of what it is to learn. The linking themes in all of this are autobiography, learning, understanding and knowing. This merging of two experiences of knowledge enables one to understand how separated and fragmented learning cultivates ignorance. “Where is the life we have lost in living?” Eliot writes, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” [Eliot, T.S. 1971].


Apple, M.W & Beyer, L.E. (eds) The Curriculum: Problems, Politics and Possibilities, State University of New York  Press, New York, 1998, pp.6-7

Casals, P. ‘n.d.’, ‘Quotation’, ‘Great Musicians on Sound, Spirit and Heart’  <  (accessed 27/7/2002)

Dewey, J. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education  The Free Press, New York, 1916, pp.6-8

Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems: 1909 – 1962, Faber & Faber, Great Britain, 1974

Gatto, J.T.  Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,

New Society Publishers, USA, 1992

Giroux, H.A.  Stealing Innocence: Youth, Corporate Power and the Politics of

Culture, Palgrave,  New York, 2000, p.7

Illich, I.  Deschooling Society, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1971

Mandela, N.  Long Walk To Freedom, Macdonald Purnell (Pty) Ltd. Randberg,  South Africa, 1994, p. 594

Miller, A . For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelties in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1990

Purpel, D    The Moral & Spiritual Crisis in Education: A Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education, Bergin & Garvey, New York, 1989

Rousmaniere, Dehli & de Coninck-Smith, (ed) Discipline, Moral Regulatio and Schooling: A Social History   Garland Publishing, Inc, New York  1997, p.3

Slattery, P. Curriculum Development in the Post-Modern Era, Garland Publishing, New York, 1995























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