- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

On April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., two troubled high school students flipped out and started shooting. Shortly after the seniors stalked and gunned down 12 classmates and a teacher, millions of horrified television viewers watched children running from buildings, sick with fear, hands up.

Schools like Columbine, even if they looked like big-box stores, were in national mythology safe havens and protected environments. But there we were, watching children being taken away in ambulances. The sight was not reassuring.

The massacre hit a national nerve. It was not only the death count. Psychologists interviewed on television after Columbine noted the high incidence of childhood depression and “spiritual emptiness.” Public soul-searching about schools dilated, bordering on hysteria for a while, then passed from the news, only to leave a residue of sadness and the uncomfortable feeling that the nation had witnessed something terrible and important, which it had.

Columbine signaled to millions that a new, toxic way of growing up was not just here or there. It had arrived nationwide, in the suburbs, in school districts where the aspiring middle class wished to live.

Columbine was an easy symbol. A shocker. Columbine was, after all, a “good school,” more academic than most, located in a sought-after district, the kind of school to which parents were drawn because of perceived educational quality.

As Columbine-like incidents were repeated in high schools nationwide in the years that followed, the limited expressive range of educational leaders was apparent. Official regret over bloody reflections of cultural disorder was disturbing in its formulaic emptiness. “It is certainly something that makes us pause and wonder why we have a community, a society, where this kind of violence takes place,” said Granger Ward, the local school superintendent, after a 2001 high school shooting at Granite Hills High School near San Diego.

Seventeen days earlier, at Santana High School in the same district, Charles Andrew Williams, 15, had murdered three classmates. He had been distraught over his classmates’ taunts and put-downs, threats and bullying.

Shortly after the shooting at Santana, the unmemorable U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige went on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and said, “Character education offers an opportunity to teach kids things like empathy, compassion, tolerance - all values that we all know are wonderful.”

When the nation saw the aerial shots of the Columbine High School campus, it looked more like a shopping mall or a small regional airport - charmless, utilitarian and institutional, delivering services as mandated.

Gone were the little brick and stucco citadels of learning that once had inspired a great deal of local pride. Few stopped to wonder if that ugliness reified the official view of public schools as service providers.

“A good education would be devoted to encouraging and refining the beautiful,” University of Chicago political philosopher Allan Bloom once observed. “But a pathologically misguided moralism instead turns such longing into a sin against the high goal of making everyone feel good, of overcoming nature in the name of equality.”

Ten years after Columbine, school principals and superintendents have learned to speak in neutral ways that will hold up in court. They have learned to object to all impositions of “cultural superiority.” They turn their heads and “understand,” even when they face the outre and the shocking.

When administrators talk about “moral education,” they almost certainly are thinking in a limited range, perhaps about “service education” or “community support.” When they try to set out character goals, they are likely to recommend “building self-discipline and empathy” or “teaching interpersonal relations.” They have no deeper language or affect.

Those with ambitions to be education leaders dutifully attend in-service workshops at the county department of education. They learn how to turn schools into self-esteem factories. They abide - or worse, believe in - bromides designed to signal something is being done, that efforts at treatment and prevention are in place.

Anomie is given legal and customary protection - that is, “rights.” When school procedures involve personal conduct, supervisors must worry first about the risk of a school board fight or litigation involving a First or 14th Amendment freedom. Justifying lapses in character or virtue with spurious psychology has become a public school art form. It comes candy-wrapped as “tolerance” or “sensitivity.”

Columbine showed the nation one ghastly measure of spiritual emptiness, and it was televised nationwide. Since then, a growing number of anxious parents have said no dice. They have stepped up their search for schools that are more than service providers and self-esteem factories, leaving the public system for educational alternatives they think are richer and less value-free.

Gilbert T. Sewall is the president of the Center for Education Studies and director of the American Textbook Council.

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