THE BIG PICTURE: School violence

Ralph Jemmott,

Added 16 March 2014

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We abhor human degradation, particularly, man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. History is replete with such conduct and today it is hard to ignore the sickened and sickening state of much of the world. There is Syria’s Assad’s incessant bombing of the city of Homs, the violence in the Central African Republic, the barbaric attacks by Moslem extremists in Nigeria, murderous gangs in Mexico and the exploitation of the innocence of children. Given the enormity of these horrors, one is inclined to curse the darkness rather than seek to light a candle in the dark.        Formal schooling reflects one aspect of mankind’s desire for enlightenment in a darkness that comprehends not the light. One recalls Northrop Frye’s aphorism that “education is a vision of the ideal world we seek to create”. Ideally, formal schooling has traditionally been about three things; Firstly, Cognition in all the forms of thinking, Operacy, the capacity to do, to create or implement and thirdly Sensibility, the desire “to be”, in the best moral sense of being. Frye belonged to the liberal school of educators who placed great emphasis on Sensibility in the hope that schools would fashion “the educated mind”. I am mindful of Kathleen Drayton’s statement to the first In-Service Diploma in Education class of 1975, that “mind is not necessarily commensurate with intellect. One can have a very fine intellect and a very impoverished mind”.  To be truthful, the “liberal hope” of formal education was always a bit over-optimistic. One of the defects in liberal thought as it emerged in the 19th century, was an overestimation of man’s rational faculty, of the notion that through enhanced cognition, people could be persuaded to do the moral thing. Liberalism underestimated our inherent susceptibility to error because of our flawed nature or what the Christian mythologists would call original sin. Recent cases of violence in our schools should be a concern for all Barbadians. We build schools as a key agent in the socialisation to the values, attitudes and sensibilities that society in its collective wisdom deems necessary for it continuance. In fact, the school is the only compulsory agent of socialisation. Every Barbadian child is obliged by law to attend school between age 5 and 16. No one is obliged to attend church. In fact there is no obligation to baptise a child, only to register its birth. The home is the key agent of socialisation but generally, the State does not forcibly intervene in the home unless there is some overt breach of the law in relation to the welfare of children. Benign neglect often goes undetected.  There has always been some bullying in schools. Which one of us as juniors did not suffer the occasional slap around the head? However, recent events indicate a qualitative and quantitative difference in the level of offence. Sometimes the bullying is accompanied by extortion and a perverse cruelty. The DAILY NATION of January 14 read: Student attacked for lunch money. It stated: “A fourth former accused a schoolmate of placing a thin rope around his neck and puling it until it was tight. This happened, he charged, because he refused to give up his lunch money.” A few days later a student savagely attacked a schoolmate who from all reports is still unable to walk. Is this what our schools have come to? Then there is the current phenomenon of cyberbullying which can inflict untold psychic and reputational damage on any individual. After the suicide of a teenage student because of Internet bullying, Wendy Craig, psychologist at Kingston University in Canada, opined that in the Facebook age, young people need to be more “morally engaged” than ever. Some of us have known it for some time, but it was recently voiced that there are students in our schools with links to gangs who teachers are afraid to discipline for fear of reprisal. The liberal vision of education that saw schools as instilling Sensibility has weakened. Education has become more utilitarian, more responsive to the economic imperatives of the market. Although schools still pay lip service to values, instilling Sensibility is no longer their primary focus. More importantly as the culture outside the schools has deteriorated, schools have retreated to the barricades in a seemingly futile attempt to defend their civilising mission. To some extent the liberal vision of education has been defeated by liberalism itself, with its inordinate vocabulary of leniency and therapeutic psychobabble that attempts to “understand” and excuse deviant behaviour. The liberal education vision of schools fashioning a better world is floundering in part because of breakdown within schools, but more because of societal failures outside of the school. It is not surprising that the schools doing best are in the Far Eastern nations where there is an internalised culture of discipline and a regime of sanctions for those who transgress established norms.         Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.

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