Joe Barrera

By now we are used to school shootings. We don’t like to admit it, but, yes, in spite of the heartbreak we have become inured to the sights and sounds of cops running into schools, innocent children screaming in terror and anguished parents waiting to see if their loved ones are dead or alive. We simply cannot allow this to continue.

Mass murder of our most precious resource will destroy our society and has to stop before we reach the point of no return, when the social compact which defines a civilized society is torn to shreds and we descend into even worse barbarism than we are in now. But how to do it?

There are too many guns in this country and too many crazy people wielding those guns. No doubt we need to address that problem but today I will leave the debate about how to do that to the usual fulminators on the left and right.

Today, I want to focus on the schools where daily we send our dearly beloved children, trusting that they will be safe and nurtured there.

Who does the killing? Since the massacre at Columbine, students killing students seems to be the common denominator all across the country. Common sense, therefore, dictates that we look at the kids, that we get to know them (and their parents and home situations), and then do something effective to truly educate them and to help them socially and psychologically even if we have to overthrow an entrenched bureaucracy. Under the present educational model, this is much easier said than done.

There are school models that are solutions but space prevents me from describing them here. The focus now is that the blame for the epidemic of school shootings can be laid at the feet of the American school culture. Yes, we have good schools and many students succeed. The downside is that the way we educate children in this country often breeds self-doubt, alienation, isolation, and for many adolescents, the most bitter and terrible loneliness. The truth is that too often these feelings can turn lethal.

After the elementary grades, the vast majority of schools use the standard “factory” model of learning, in which students undergo a daily regimen of “periods,” discrete blocks of time in which diverse subjects are presented to them by individual teachers over a lengthy day. This was a good system when it began in the 1890s as the Industrial Age was beginning and schools mimicked the assembly lines in factories. Industrialization demanded large numbers of workers to man the assembly lines, and this model provided them.

In the factory model, teachers are analogous to factory workers assembling automobiles, appliances, widgets, whatever. Very little attention is given to the unique needs of individuals, but the illusion is that “educated” students are the products, emerging at the end as “finished,” whose heads have been opened, so to speak, and knowledge poured into their minds during the brief time they enjoy the attention of teachers as they pass by on the assembly line of the average school day.

This is what happens, year-in, year-out, in middle school and high school. And then they’re ready for college and even more assembly line education, albeit a bit more sophisticated. This is not to disparage conscientious teachers whose efforts can produce reasonably well-educated and well-adjusted young people who know at least the rudiments of what is necessary to get by. But I have heard many good teachers say that their students learn in spite of the system, not because of the system.

This old model has to go. Some will claim that it has usefulness, but the reality is that it has destroyed creativity, imagination, and the true joy of learning. Above all, it leaves untold numbers of vulnerable kids alienated, feeling misunderstood, unwanted and unloved. This is what drives too many of them to pick up their guns and return to school, where they wreak indiscriminate vengeance on what they perceive as the machine-style system which has inflicted terrible emotional pain on them.

Like many others, I struggle to understand these kids. I feel that I would comprehend them a little better if they killed only adults, but so deep and incomprehensible is their bitterness that these children kill other children.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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