May 01, 2004 6 min read
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The Social Roots of School Shootings

by Katherine S. Newman
(Basic Books, 399 pages, $27.50)

American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption

by Murray Milner Jr.
(Routledge, 320 pages, $27.50)

On a December morning in 1997, Michael Carneal, a short, awkward freshman at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, methodically pulled out a gun he had wrapped in a blanket and shot four girls huddled in a school prayer group, killing three and leaving one a paraplegic. Four months later, 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson, both students at Westside Middle School outside Jonesboro, Arkansas, planted themselves on a hillside and shot into the playground below. The two killed four Westside girls and a teacher.

Fourteen such school shootings, including the massacre at Columbine, occurred in the latter half of the 1990s, causing Americans to wonder if something had gone tragically haywire with its young people and schools. The U.S. Department of Education, under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, commissioned notable Harvard sociologist Katherine Newman to investigate the two shootings mentioned above, in particular. She, in turn, had four of her doctoral students move to West Paducah and Jonesboro to conduct field research.

While Newman and her assistants found that all three student shooters had serious, if not always obvious, problems—Carneal was mentally ill, Golden a gun fanatic, and Johnson a victim of sexual abuse—their central focus in Newman’s book, Rampage, is not on the pathology of the shooters. Instead, they focus on how “the organization of public schools prevents [those schools] from recognizing and processing the information [about potentially dangerous students] correctly.”

At both Heath High and Westside Middle, there were abundant warning signs. Carneal, for instance, had written an English essay about torturing and killing “preps,” yet his teacher did nothing. No staff member at Westside, meanwhile, followed up after a student reported hearing Golden talk about hurting himself and others. And the bullying all three students had endured was ignored, even after Carneal was labeled a “fag” in the student newspaper. The three also discussed, sometimes in specific detail, their rampage plans with other students, almost all of whom remained silent.

So why did no one take preventive action? Most students believed that the threats were just talk, that the shooters “wouldn’t do that.” Beyond this, there was an implicit, schoolwide code of silence. For the kids, the risks of being a tattletale were simply too great; such students would be ostracized. But for teachers and administrators, a different kind of logic came into play. They believed in a “clean slate"—namely, that student misdeeds and shaky reputations be erased from one year to the next in the name of a fresh start. While Newman feels that this desire to absolve is admirable, she also demonstrates that it can be dangerous.

In recent years, a heightened awareness of the potential for violence has resulted in some shifts in attitude. Newman reports that a number of planned school shootings have been averted by students (all girls, interestingly enough) who reported threats to teachers. And most schools now respond quickly to threats, expelling, for instance, students caught with weapons.

Still, Newman convincingly argues that certain conditions in society and schools continue to foster the potential for school violence. Too many boys, for instance, succumb to a “cultural script"—evident in movies and the like—that accepts violence as a norm. And far too many schools tolerate bullying as something picked-upon students simply must endure. But, in a terrifying effort to reverse their fortunes, school shooters “often target those at the top of the social hierarchy, the jocks and the preps,” according to Newman.

This hierarchy is examined in fascinating detail by another distinguished sociologist, the University of Virginia’s Murray Milner, who did intensive fieldwork at the pseudonymous Woodrow Wilson High School over a two-year period and, as part of his research, collected essays from 300 undergraduates about their high school experiences. Milner finds that the “cool kids” tend to be athletes and physically attractive; the alienated “freaks” and “geeks,” on the other hand, are considered bottom of the barrel.

What’s disturbing about this pecking order is not so much its makeup—that’s been around forever—but its intractability. By the time students are sophomores, the order is pretty much set. In fact, Milner likens the high school hierarchy to a caste system, which keeps students from moving from one level to another. Essentially this results in attempts to “move up by putting others down,...a common phenomenon among adolescents.”

While put-downs rarely lead to the kinds of tragedies Newman writes about, they do, at the very least, cause anguish for many. Milner proposes a number of ways to combat this status-seeking ruthlessness, including the random assignment of students to various activities (intramural sports teams, for example) and granting privileges based on age, such as upperclassmen running assemblies, that cut across status groups. Most of all, teenagers need to have relationships more often, and that are more meaningful, with adults other than their parents, which would “decrease the extent to which their lives are centered on the opinions of peers.”

Many adults remember the teen years as the most difficult time of their lives. Perhaps this is inevitable, given the enormous physical, intellectual, and emotional changes teenagers must endure. But adolescence doesn’t have to be, as the authors of these important works tell us, as cruel and dangerous as it too often is.

by Ken Bain
(Harvard, 224 pages, $21.95)

Bain, a historian and director of New York University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, studied 63 outstanding college teachers (as deemed by students and colleagues as well as by an examination of their students’ work) from diverse institutions in an attempt to identify their common traits. What he discovered is pertinent to all teachers, including those at the K-12 level.

Interestingly enough, Bain could not determine a particular profile for great teachers—some were charismatic extroverts, others brooding introverts. Nevertheless, they all took a similar approach to the craft of teaching. For one thing, they worked “backward,” first thinking of the content and intellectual skills they wanted students to finish with and only then considering week-to-week stepping stones. And rather than “stuff” students with facts and procedures, the teachers inspired their charges to examine their own conceptions and misconceptions about subject matter— to “think about their thinking.”

Bain’s research also offers some very practical suggestions. His outstanding teachers, for instance, tended to avoid talking about course requirements the first day of class; instead, they usually spoke of “the promises of the course, about the kinds of questions the discipline will help students answer.” They also tended to begin discussions by posing a question and then giving students a few minutes to ponder it. Here again, the goal was to inspire deep thinking in lieu of “canned” responses—in short, to develop curious students who will come to take responsibility for their own learning.

—David Ruenzel


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