Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cyber-Bullying & Public Moral Education

Interesting article on cyber-bullying in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. That is to say, it's not a must-read in and of itself, but it leads to some interesting discussions. If you have a special interest in cyber-bullying, though, you can read the original article here.

Here's the issue: say you're the 42-year-old parent of a sixth-grade girl who has just received a series of text- and Facebook-messages from a classmate, in which she is addressed as "whore" and "prude," along with a couple four-letter words, and directed to perform sexual acts that you had assumed she'd never even heard of. Now, hopefully you have the wherewithal to recognize the obvious solution—stop giving your twelve-year-old unlimited access to technology whose social, or for that matter cognitive, impact you don't really understand; actually, hopefully you never gave her such access in the first place—but if you're the average American, chances are you don't and you did, and so you're left with a dilemma. You have neither the means nor the experience to protect your child; and at the same time, you want to lash out at someone, but the someone in question is someone else's 12-year-old, so you have no recourse whatsoever.

According Sunday's article, more and more parents are turning to schools to protect victims and punish bullies. The trouble is, almost all of the actual cyber-bullying goes on outside of school, and there is no consensus among school administrators, school boards, parents, or state governments as to how much authority the school has to resolve such issues.

I'm interested in this discussion because it relates to two important trends in how we, as a society, deal with kids. One is the increasing involvement of the state in child-rearing; the other is the increasing involvement of adults in the lives and especially the social-lives of children. These are both part of a larger trend of paternalism within this country, arising it seems from the growing societal fear that if anybody is ever left too much to their own devices they will probably injure themselves and others, physically or emotionally—and somebody somewhere might get sued… or worse!

I don't mean to be glib, though. The obsession with oversight and regulation isn't coming out of nowhere, and we had better understand why it's happening before we start making fun of it.

When a school punishes a student for something she did at home, it is encroaching on territory that would traditionally be addressed within the family. Not surprisingly, the parents of bullies are not always happy to have the school disciplining their children for out-of-school activities. One California father, for example, sued his local school-board when his daughter was suspended for posting a video she had shot of several of her friends insulting one of her classmates. He won the suit as well as a $107,150.80 settlement, to cover his legal fees.

Now, incidentally—or, in fact, not so incidentally—all evidence suggests that the dad in question here is a real asshole. To wit, when his daughter offered to take the video off Youtube—we're talking about a video of four eighth-graders calling another eighth-grader, by name, "ugly, spoiled, a brat, and a slut"—he decided to keep it up, "'as a public service announcement,' so viewers can see 'what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills.'"

Evidently, the father doesn't have much better judgment than his 13-year-old daughter—and is no less vindictive, vengeful, macho, and irresponsible. Can we, as a society, expect this man to provide his daughter with moral guidance that corresponds to how we hope she will behave as an adult citizen? Presumably not. If the school doesn't punish her for doing something nasty to another kid, it seems unlikely that her father will. (According to the article, he did in fact chastise her, with the scathing admonishment, "That wasn't a nice thing to do.")

Now, we can probably count on The Times to pick an especially shocking example, but I suspect that the girl in this anecdote is not unusual in having a parent who's unlikely to impart strong moral sensibilities. In the inner-city, there are obvious impediments to strong moral education—parental drug-addition, single parents working multiple jobs, and peer-groups with high rates of gang-membership, to name a few—but I believe that other subtler influences are at work in middle-class communities to the same effect.[1] If I am right that the society no longer consistently teaches and enforces its own ethical codes, then it is no surprise that it has fallen on public institutions to monitor people's behavior at a level it never did in the past: that is, not merely for criminal infractions, but for moral and ethical infractions as well.

A couple weeks ago, The Times printed another article relating to this topic. That one was a bit more cut and dried: it was about the attempt by school councilors, summer-camp directors, teachers, and administrators to discourage kids from having best friends. A lot of people who work with kids these days, it seems, believe that best friendships lead to cliques, bullying, and heartbreak. Well, that's love for you, I guess: thorny and not worth the trouble. The article quotes no research to support that finding, and all of the testimony from psychologists in the article is critical of this new approach, arguing that best friendships are good for kids and it's not a teacher or a councilor's place to try to interfere with that.

It's easy to be so enraged by such absurd examples that we reject any attempt to monitor children's social behavior—you can bet I was tearing my hair out while I read that one—but it is absolutely the job of adults to teach children morals, and if we refuse to interfere with them, we renege on that responsibility. Nor is carrying out that responsibility nearly so simple as it was fifty years ago. Hillary Stout, the author of the article on best friendships, does not fail to comment on the trend towards excessive adult involvement. "The days when children roamed the neighborhood and played with whomever they wanted to until the streetlights came on disappeared long ago," she writes—but gone too are the days when family and neighborhood and church and school all formed a single cohesive community and partook of a single culture and reinforced a single clear set of moral and ethical values.[2]

The job of a grade-school is not merely to educate academically but to build character and morality; this is actually one of the few ideas that the progressive movement and the no-excuses movement seem to agree on.[3] The no-excuses charter schools are inner-city urban schools, serving communities in which drug addition, gang-membership, teen pregnancy, and single-parenthood are rampant. At the very heart of the no-excuses movement is the need to create a safe learning environment and to instill in students core values that will make them responsible members of their community—both inside and outside the school. The great champion of progressive education of the past twenty years is a man named Ted Sizer, who taught for much of his career at my alma mater; it is one of the foundations of his philosophy that schools should be engaged in the task of educating not merely intellects, but whole citizens with strong moral characters.

  1. ^ At play here, I believe, is our national obsession with individualism and self interest on the one hand and, on the other, our tremendous diversity of cultural backgrounds, which leaves us with little agreement as to what even constitutes responsible citizenship. It may also be the case that the more closely the state monitors people, the less closely they monitor themselves.

  2. ^Obviously, technology also plays a big role in complicating the job of the moral educator. As I hinted earlier in this post, we really don't know much about what cell phones and internets and Facebooks and Twitters do to human interaction. It seems obvious that inhibitions, and especially inhibitions against negative social behavior, are dampened in online interactions, but I suspect that the problem goes deeper—people have an instinctual aversion to causing suffering in others; this instinct is probably much less active when you don't have to look your victim in the eye or hear their voice. What is much less clear is whether people are any thicker-skinned in online interactions—that is, they are more likely to treat each other brutally, but are they any less likely to be emotionally wounded by that brutality? There is ample reason to worry that the internet is indeed a more dangerous place, in terms of peer interactions, than the physical world.

  3. ^If you don't know what the "no excuses movement" is, why I'm opposing it to the progressive movement, or why I would choose to end my post on this point, please stop and read the intro to this blog.

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