Volume 17, Number 02, Spring 1999


In Coming of Age in America, published in 1963, Edgar Z. Friedenberg remarked on an American paradox: the public schools were expected to teach their students to be free citizens of a democratic society, but their daily workings taught compliance with arbitrary authority. This authority was challenged not many years after Friedenberg wrote and in some measure it retreated; but its essential powers remained and when possible were extended again. One of the tragic effects of the Columbine High School killings—not as brutal as the immediate deaths, but in the long run affecting many more victims—has been the creation of a new opportunity for the growth of arbitrary power in the schools.

Facing the fear and anger of parents who see no choice but to send their children to the public schools, school administrators have declared war on any trait in their students that seems to resemble the traits of the Columbine killers. Students who dress in the goth style, or spend time in small groups withdrawn from the general life of the school, or go to the Internet for their social life, or play computer games or roleplaying games, are under suspicion. Administrators and counselors feel free to order them to give up these differences, even without evidence of any actual misbehavior, as a preventive measure. Students who question or criticize such policies have in some cases been treated the same way.

A better illustration of Friedenberg's point could hardly be found. Preventive law enforcement is against all the American traditions that civics classes used to teach; freedom of speech and publication is at the core of those traditions. School administrators who pursue such policies are teaching the worst possible lessons for future citizens of a free country. And more immediately, they are demonstrating that inviolable rights are a fiction. How is this supposed to teach their students to respect each other's right to life, or any other right?

As the backstory of Columbine has come out, we have seen that the killers had no experience of such rights. As social misfits—"geeks" in the current idiom—they were subject to insults, physical mistreatment, and demands for unchosen services such as fetching lunch trays for physically stronger and more popular students. Their school administration felt no obligation to prevent any of this—unsurprisingly, as school administrations never have.

We are starting to see lawsuits against school administrations that tolerate abuse or harassment. This is a dangerous remedy and one that may itself create other abuses. But students are not in school by choice, or even by the choice of their parents. If the schools take possession of their persons by compulsion, it seems only fair that they should be obliged to guarantee their safety. If they want to prevent violence, they should be obliged to prevent the lesser violence of the socially acceptable as well.

Beyond this, schools need to face legal pressure to respect the rights of individual students. Students who criticize school policy, or hold unpopular opinions, or look different should not be subject to punishment or coercion, even in the name of preventing violence.

But, finally, this situation strengthens the case for disestablishing the public schools, whether through tax credits or vouchers or some other scheme. I find it cause for hope that the inspiration for this editorial came from a report on harassment of students that my sister sent me. She is a teacher at a private school, and she and the other teachers received the report from the school administration. This is why we need private schools—to preserve schools where students are safe from witch hunts.

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