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THE ECOLOGY OF TEACHING

American Violence and Education

By HECTOR VILA


hector vilaHector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal, taking a deeper look at current events, ideas, and trends. He feels that it is clear that we–Americans–are being challenged to examine ourselves, re-assess our principles, values, and ideals; to challenge our pre-conceived notions of ourselves; to then perhaps move towards a fresher perspective.



I can't make things out anymore. I don't know what we're doing. American culture is upside down and, as an educator, I have no idea what to do, what to say, how to find "the teachable moment." I'm lost. I suspect we may all be feeling lost. The world outside the classroom is way too big, too harrowing, too confusing. Death and suffering have become all too common. It seems as if we're operating in two distinctly different worlds, one is inside the classroom where we theorize, study, calculate, ponder, the other, outside the classroom, that world we dare only glance at from time-to-time, is brutal, relentless in its inhumane insistence that life is cheap.

In a course, I'm working through Brent Easton Ellis' disturbing, post-modern 1991 Gothic novel, American Psycho, giving the requisite warnings about the extremely graphic violence, because students wanted me to do so, differentiating between escapist literature (Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Gray, and so on), and Literature that means to have the reader turn inward, difficult as that is, and examine her life, the lives around her. American Psycho is the latter. Kids, our students, want to feel safe, be safe; they want to avoid "the horror" of it all; they don't want to reside in the inhumanity outside our neat little classrooms.

But these worlds are clashing.

On October 3, a Saturday, an 11-year-old boy shot and killed an 8-year-old girl, in Tennessee, because she wouldn't show him her puppies. The 11-year-old pulled out his father's 12 gauge shotgun and shot the girl dead, hitting her square in the chest, according to reports. The story went unnoticed in the national press - everywhere. Who would be the next Speaker of the House trumped the story; the baseball run for the playoffs was more important; the latest confusion in the GOP, definitely more significant and newsworthy. We go on. So it goes.

As my students look for my protection from a text, Timothy Egan points out in the New York Times, in "Moms and Guns," that the shooting in Tennessee "passed, as these things do in a country that accepts more than 33,000 deaths by gunfire every year, because we now live by an Onion headline that's long ceased to be satirical: 'No Way to Prevent this,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens." No one took notice.

Ordinarily I'd say this is surreal, but it's beyond bizarre and unreal now. It's all too real: on the morning I read Timothy Egan's column, The Huffpost Crime pushed the news to me that there was yet another college shooting, 1 Killed, 3 Wounded In a Shooting at Northern Arizona University. We also learned that this is the 144th school shooting in the U.S. since 2013; there have been 45 shootings in schools in 2015. The shooting comes just days after the Oregon community college massacre. The Huffpost Politics tells us that 40 Percent of Americans Know Someone Who Was Killed With a Gun; and Black Americans are especially likely to know someone who was fatally shot.

Can we explain this to ourselves? To our students?

It's no understatement to say that the political system is broken. Here's President Obama: "Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My responses here at this podium end up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We've become numb to this."

What's going on? Can we look inside our educational model, our system, ourselves to come up with reasonable approaches that might determine creative paths we might take towards a healthier, more productive, and certainly more humane civilization? Can we collaborate with others on this - government, the legal system, healthcare and private citizens?

I received an email from a distraught mother following the outcome of her son's first advising session at Middlebury College. She says the following: "I have to admit that name of student schedule seems too light of a load." She felt that, "He needs to add another course, something of more substance than Western Music; 2 days he doesn't have classes. Maybe the Debate Club?"

Then she goes on to list, literally list, as I will do here, her son's virtues:

  • He's a smart kiddo; his memory literally the size of an elephant;
  • He needs to be busy, he thrives under pressure;
  • He did very well on AP Calculus;
  • He's gifted at speaking, debating, providing closing arguments in a mock trial;
  • His brain is great at analyzing and synthesizing information.

There's more, but you get the drift. Most 18-20 years can do this; he already has been admitted to Middlebury; and the fact that this reads like extras on an already luxurious car falls short on the desperate mother.

On the other end of the educational tree I get a text from an alumna (not a Middlebury alumna, another college I taught at; I've known this alumna for over 20 years) who is a principal at a Newark, New Jersey, middle school. She too was desperate. But her despair was about life and death. Her text included 6 images and a short, 3 minute video. The images were of heroine vials and needles strewn about the only green spot next to her school. The video, in which you hear the school children's voices playing in the background, is shot through this principals office window, and it's of a young man preparing his "works" and shooting up, again in the only green spot next to her school. This principal has reached out to the police, to the superintendent, to her committee person for her Ward (the "Brick City" is divided into 5 geographical wards). The police told her that since 6,000 inmates are set to be free from federal prisons starting at the end of this month as a part of an effort to ease overcrowding and roll back the harsh penalties given to non violent drug offenders in the 1980's and 90's, that priorities seem to have changed and there's nothing the police can do about someone shooting up in an open, abandoned lot. A waste of their time.

Then, as all this is whirling around me, I see a new study, using a game, suggesting that "fat cats who don't share keep winning," as reported on the PBS News Hour. This is of course one of the questions in American Psycho: just who are these fat cats? why do they think they're winning? and, what is the harm being caused to themselves and others because of their selfishness and exceptionalism? Along with these questions, is this one: why is it that these fat cats then believe that they're indispensable? Finally, how do these sentiments lead to a hollow life, one of despair, one of oblivion, another theme of American Psycho?

The Yale University game-experiment is about inequality. Dacher Keltner, of the University of California, says that, "No matter how you look at it, the effects of inequality are pernicious upon things like bullying on school playgrounds, the quality of your physical health, how you handle disease."

And in the same report, Paul Piff, of the University of California, Irvine, says that, "I ran a study where I asked thousands of people to tell me, is it moral to step on another person to get ahead? My wealthiest participants were way more likely to believe that greed and self-interest is a moral and good thing."

These dangers and attitudes disenfranchise us from each other, they alienate us, make us less responsible for our mutual well-being. We are alienated, so we feel lost. Built into our DNA, the DNA of a young boy, age 11, is this: you won't show me your puppies, you anger me—here's the pay back. Bang, Bang, you're dead. It's a mother writing to me because her son is wonderful—and he is—though she's blind to the notion that, no, her son will not do better and thrive under pressure. Pressure and competition are destructive forces. Just ask the family of the 22-year old first-year analyst at the Goldman Sachs office in San Francisco, feeling overwhelmed by all the all-nighters and 100-hour work weeks that he killed himself.

In Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of The American Elite, William Deresiewicz reports that, "A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the twenty-five-year history of the study. In another recent survey ... nearly half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness, while almost a third spoke of feeling 'so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past 12 months'...If anything, the already dire situation in high school deteriorates further in college, as students suddenly find themselves on their own, trying to negotiate an overwhelming new environment and responsible for making decisions about their future that their childhood has left them unequipped to handle."

In this sense, American Psycho, a narrative that looks at the excesses of the 1980s, is prophetic. As if almost living in our times, here is the monster, Patrick Bateman, someone that if we passed on the street in his Ralph Lauren suit, we'd immediately see as a moral, upstanding citizen, in a moment of dark reflection:

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn't bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn't a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

We of course see this "character" daily—in government and politics, business, education; we see this personality, this erased human, this flesh and blood bottom feeder everywhere. Only these are the compassion-less beings that are pulling the strings; here, too, we find an 11 year old boy that knows only to follow what he's already interpreted as "the way of the world," to kill. Those that caused the 144 school shootings since 2013 are here too; it's how they see the world works, a truth to them we can't blame others for constructing. It's our construction, our world.

If this is at the top of a vertical society, a harsh one at that, at the bottom is my alumna principle trying to protect her middle school children from the harrowing violence of the streets, while no one else seems to care.

Henry A. Giroux, in America's Education Deficit and the War on Youth, I think captures it best:

One of the major consequences of the current education deficit and the pervasive culture of illiteracy that sustains it is what I call the ideology of the big lie--which propagates the myth that the free market system is the only mechanism to ensure human freedom and safeguard democracy ... The education deficit, along with declining levels of civic literacy, is also part of the American public's collective refusal to know--a focused resistance to deal with knowledge that challenges common sense or to think reflectively about fact and truths that are unsettling in terms of how they disturb some of our most cherished beliefs.

A "focused resistance" we are experiencing today is that we know very well, from experience, that a vertical system founded on greed and violence, but which promotes competition and rigor under extreme pressure, whether this pressure is in schools or in the workplace, kills. It destroys. In its wake, many of us feel vulnerable and live in oblivion, as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho does, finding no recourse but to do extraordinary violence to the innocent. Does that ring a bell? Anyone?

The solutions are so simple, so very simple; it's just that the human is not since we live, seemingly, by ego and its prodigal child, greed. So we get in our way; we get in everyone's way. Thus, we will continue to kill. If we don't heed these lessons, the violence will increase, the sense of oblivion and disenfranchisement will increase, the sense of loss, of being adrift will continue. If these continue, it will get worse before it gets better. Patrick Bateman's greatest problem is that he wants to fit in; yet, he's asked to endure a system that tells everyone, for the slightest reason, you don't fit in and there's a price to fit in. Some, as in Oregon, Arizona, in all the places that are now too many to name, will kill to belong since it's meaning they're after in a meaningless, indifferent world.


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