News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, June 24, 2012

When the lord of the flies was a maggot

Karen Klein:  school bus driver and monitor
They are our kids.  No one really wants to talk about them.  Perhaps the video of school bus monitor Karen Klein being demeaned and abused by middle school students will force us to, just as the video of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police made us confront the fact of racial brutality among law enforcement agencies.  

School personnel don't want to talk tabout them.  If school administrators were perfectly honest about the peer culture in our schools, people of talent and sensibility would not go into teaching.  The administrators would not have much to administer and would find it extremely difficult to find and hire teaching talent.  

There have always been behavioral issues to confront in schools.  They are part of raising children.  In recent decades, however, those issues have become a dominating force in schools that influence the quality of education.  In the last three decades as report after report has been issued on declines in the effectiveness of education, they have contained a notable deficiency.  From "Nation at Risk" which came out in the 1980s, the reports notably exclude any information from teachers or other school personnel who deal directly with students.   For 20 years as a director of the Dakota Writing Project and an officer in the faculty union,  I participated in many programs and activities with teachers from K through graduate school that studied the factors that affected student learning.  A dominant issue among K-12 teachers was classroom and management and discipline.  The common complaint was that teachers spent so much time and effort on establishing and maintaining control over the classroom that there wasn't much time left to teach.  A common criticism they had for the Writing Project was that we didn't deal directly with those problems of classroom management and discipline.  

One of the most disheartening attitudes was in teachers who spent a lifetime teaching openly stating that retirement could not come soon enough for them.  The often said that student behavior had taken satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment out of teaching.  At a meeting with a group of retired teachers, I recall being more than a little struck by what seemed to be consensus that if the problems we currently experience in schools existed when they went into the profession, they would not have chosen to teach.  Some reflected the very words that Karen Klein's daughter reported when asked if her mother would forgive the students who so viciously tormented her on the bus:  "My mom says she's not ready," her daughter said. "She never wants to see those kids' faces ever again in her life. She's got nothing to say to them."  Many teachers have told me that in the past they looked forward to seeing their students after they left school and finding out how and what they were doing, but when they retired, there were quite a few students they hoped never to encounter again. 

Charles Blow recounted some of things said to Karen on the video:

They hurl profanities. One asks for her address because he says he wants to go urinate on her door. Others are more explicit about defiling her.

One boy tells her that she doesn’t have a family because “they all killed themselves because they didn’t want to be near you.” (Her eldest son committed suicide.)

One suggests that if he were to stab her, his knife would go through her “like butter.”
 The obvious question is, just what motivates that kind of malicious and cruel hatefulness and how does it develop?

Bullying is receiving intense attention in schools and educators are proposing a multitude of approaches to deal with it.  The problem is that schools are not where bullying is learned and they have little authority and resources to remedy it.  It is certainly practiced in schools, despite efforts to provide a learning environment for all students.  To see where the bullying is taught one need only browse the Internet, watch cable news television, listen to talk radio, read the comment sections of the news media.  Computer and video games provide an intense conditioning toward anger and violence. American children are immersed in an environment of vilification, verbal abuse, and those things that accompany a frenzy for wealth and dominance.  The news is a constant  roar of how bad their teachers are and how working people looking for equity are the source of all economic ills.  The children on the bus also taunted Ms. Klein over being working poor.  It was also a point raised in the many cases of bullying that ended with the suicides of its victims.  It is an attitude many children come to school with.  

I think often of late of a man I met in the secret service who came to faculty offices in the course of checking out former students who had applied for jobs in the military and government services that required the highest levels of security and integrity.  The college where I taught at the time was a source of such talent.  Once over coffee, I inquired about the process of discerning what people could be trusted the most.  He commented that one of the best ways to assess a person was to watch his/her children at play.  He said they replay the things said and thought in their homes in ways that reveal what attitudes and values exist there.  It is not an infallible test, but more often than not it indicates what agenda the parents are actually pursuing.   

That is not to say that children don't pick up attitudes from other children.  Most parents come to realize what an influence peer culture students encounter at school have on them.  Most teachers are crucially aware of it.  In America, juvenile culture is considered a huge market.  In appealing to that market, corporations have sought to make it autonomous in ways that disconnect it from the values and influence of parents.  

In the constant comparisons of American standardized test scores with those of other countries such as Japan, Korea, Finland, the  assumption  concentrates the focus of concern on teachers, to the point that America is suffering an obsession with what is a bad and what is a great teacher.  The culture that the students come out of is totally ignored.  While it is a part of maturing for children to struggle against the restraints imposed on them by elders, those countries where academic performance seems better maintain a relationship that is at least respectful and benevolent among the generations.  In American culture, the groups that perform highest academically are those that maintain some veneration between the young and the old.  The U.S. has still to examine those students who do perform at high levels to see what factors contribute to their accomplishment.  Educators who work with those students directly know that they are the students free from a vicious competition for power status and the mindless, raging hatreds it spawns.

The nastiest irony to come out of the incident with Karen Klein is that some of the offending students received death threats.  That probably reveals the essential decadence of the culture our students live in as eloquently as anything could--at least for those with intelligent enough to grasp irony.  

The biggest danger flag for the education of our youth is those educators who have reached the point where they never want to see the faces of some students again and have nothing to say to them.  And that includes much of the Republican Party and those who have come up with oppressive and degrading schemes such as HB 1234 in South Dakota, where the desire to diminish and denigrate prevails.  

The people get what they want.  And when they want denigration and oppression, what is there to say to them?

1 comment:

John said...

There is a side of me longing for the days when my slight, mild mannered grandfather, a rural school teacher, and later principal, in mostly one-room schools in western and central Nebraska, would take the much larger bullies out back of the school and beat the crap out of them. This was in the 1920s and 30s - you know, back when the US had the best secondary education system on the planet.

The mental challenges of the English Renaissance and Restoration writers intrigued him more than the physical, so during summer schools he earned his masters and doctorate during the 1930s. He had a long career as a respected, modest professor - no one knowing of the wrath he unleashed to deserving high school bullies.

There is a similar thought piece prominent this weekend:

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States