Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Towards Human Security for Our Public Schools

A traditional approach to school security is failing.  Security is a basic human need that we all relate to viscerally. I personally recall the day, twenty years ago now, when as a long-term substitute teacher in Fairfax, VA, the massacre at Columbine occurred.  When I walked into my classroom that day, it felt like walking into a coffin.  My class was half its usual size;  many students and parents were afraid to even come. For the students who were there, the shooting was all they could talk about.  This cloud has hung over my teaching career, in middle and high school, and now at university.  
Today, hundreds of buried young bodies later, I wish that we as a country had ended our deadly denial then.  We did not, so schools face intense security challenges and many resemble prison architecture, with metal detectors and only one viable entrance.  For decades the lack of safety has interfered especially with the ability of minority students to regularly attend school.  Common sense regulation of guns, especially weapons of war that do not have a place in civilian life, is of course paramount.  But I’d like here to explore a broader question:  what would a human security approach to schools look like?  Now is the time to ask this question, as schools throughout Florida and the nation grapple with new policy mandates and organized demands for safer schools.  Indeed, a generation raised on active shooter drills is on the march to save their own lives, and one another’s.  
As we wrestle with this question, some counties are headed in the wrong direction, such as through arming teachers, which represents a classic traditional approach to thinking about security that has been failing us since I began my teaching career.  Instead, we need a new approach often called by peace educators “human security”—defined as an approach that believes the best way to have security is to build community.  
Human security expands our traditional ideas about security beyond policing, surveillance and making buildings harder targets.  Human security is more comprehensive, attuned to the needs of the human beings that make up an institution, rather than just the institution or building itself.  As a concept originally from international relations, it argued that we needed to pay as much attention to the security of civilians in a war zone as we were paying to the security of the capital or the government.  Human security would obviously be concerned with larger-scale, shocking school massacres.  Yet it would refuse to overlook the smaller scale, more marginalized kinds of everyday violence experienced by young people in lower-income districts.  
As a more comprehensive approach focused on meeting human needs, the framework of human security understands that insecurity can come from horrific shootings—and insecurity can also come from those who are supposed to protect us! As the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues, black and other minority students have shared social media video of school resource officers (SRO) assaulting them.  In the midst of America’s struggle for public gun safety, schools are facing new pressure and sometimes state mandates to hire more SROs (as is the case where I live FL).  A human security approach to this conversation will bring as much focus to bear on accountability for security officers as on working to prevent the next attack before it occurs.  Human security values prevention, not reaction.  Human security is egalitarian, not authoritarian.  
Restorative Justice (RJ), an approach gaining more and more momentum in school districts across the US, would be an essential part of a human security approach for schools.  RJ honors the victim of a crime by putting her needs first (not the needs of the school administration or the government).  Making the victim whole (if possible) and trying to bring the perpetrator back into the community as a valued and productive member is the intention. RJ uses tools such as mediation and dialogue to achieve its challenging goals.  
More holistic in its approach than traditional thinking about security, a human security approach to schools would also recognize the numerous security concerns of faculty, staff and students outside of the school building.  For years educators have discussed “wrap around services” for students facing health concerns, abuse, homelessness, hunger or other threats.  I would describe progress as real but spotty.  The resources have been dwindling, rather than growing, to address needs as conservative state and local governments continue to cut essential services.  
This reminds us that any conversation about security is inescapably political, as it involves making choices about where public resources go, and who is defined as a victim versus who is considered a threat.  Are minority students more safe, or less safe, with more armed security in a school?  Will young women be safe in the custody of older men?  How does a securitized environment impact a student’s ability to learn?  How does it shape their views of what it means to be a citizen?  We already know that fear impedes brain development and information processing.  So does hunger, chronic illness or homelessness.  From a human security perspective, these are all security matters. This means that if we truly want to secure students and teachers, and not just school buildings, we need to be addressing “school” security from the community inward, not from the school building out.  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Six Mistakes We Keep Making When We Oppose Bullying and Violence in School

1.     We still blame the victim, disliking the victim for their “weakness” or difference.  What this really means, of course, is that we dislike our own weaknesses.  The victim reminds us of our own vulnerabilities.  It also means that we too often internally, maybe unconsciously, look to strongmen (bullies in government in other words) to hide behind and keep us safe. 

2.     We treat bullying like it’s a simple, interpersonal problem.   This fails to see the connection between what we call “bullying” (which calls to mind funny Bart Simpson images) and what I call narrative violence—the larger historical, socio-political and cultural narratives that link larger historical forces to everyday life.  These narratives describe the worth and qualities of particular social groups—Muslims, girls, Jews, black people, immigrants, low income kids, overweight kids, kids with special medical or other needs.  The cultural stories we tell about them are often the justification bullies turn to for picking their victim;  they often know who will not be able to fight back.  

3.     We still have “both sides” disease.  This clip below shows just what I mean.  The young man in this clip (credit:  Independent Lens’ “The Bully”), Cole, is clearly the victim in the scenario.  This is unequivocal;  the local police have had to become involved.  Yet the Asst. Principal revicitimizes the younger student by insisting that he forgive and make friends with his bully, without any acknowledgement of the harm done or any acknowledgement of a need for safety.  She equates Cole’s refusal to shake hands with the bully’s threats to injure and kill.  She demonstrates no awareness of the power dynamics at play or the false equivalence of her argument. 

A schoolroom argument is just an argument—bullying by nature involves an imbalance of power.  Instead of using her adult and institutional power to stop the abuse, she acts to protect herself and avoid controversy by arguing that “both sides” were equally wrong.  But aren’t there two sides to every story?  Certainly, but that doesn’t preclude the clear guilt of one party in the specific cases of bullying.  It is obviously, for example, never ok for a teacher to call a Muslim student a “rag head Taliban” as happened in Florida, or for groups of students to chant “build that wall” at immigrant students.  Effective responses to bullying must be aware of power dynamics and insist on a safe environment for the victim before attempting reconciliation.  Otherwise, justice is not served and “both-sides disease” prevails. 

4.     We don’t listen to young people.  They tell us time and time again that the problem is much larger and more common than we acknowledge (see Duckworth, Williams and Allen 2012)—perhaps because this implicates us, we struggle to hear them.  For many complicated reasons, we don’t listen.  We have our own fears and vulnerabilities as adults, and the path of least resistance sparkles like the ocean. 

5.     We divorce lessons on school violence and anti-bullying from the “real” curriculum.   While we must work to create a culture of peace throughout a school,  also important is ensuring that dynamics of conflict, root causes of violence and principles of peace building are all explicit in our curriculum.  An interdisciplinary, experiential curriculum lends itself to this. 

6.     We respect bullies.   We defer to them.  We promote them.   In fact, we elect them. 


Thursday, April 20, 2017

How is a student like…and not like..a customer?

 Much is written currently about the changes and challenges of higher education.  Concerns seem to center around either perceived old dinosaurs clinging to their brick and mortar, small classrooms and priorities for the university centered on research passions, community service, and personal relationships with students.  Reformers, and even market disrupters, as they style themselves, focus on technology, cost cutting, privatization and job placement;  they often reduce the relationship between a professor and student to that of a service-provider and customer.  This binary distorts some nuances, as they all do, but sets the stage.  Given that so much of the institutional conflict on campuses these days stems from this divergence in worldview, it’s worth asking:  how is a student like…and not like…a customer? 

A student is like a customer in that she is paying for a particular service to be provided, and often going into dangerous amounts of debt to do so, especially in the case of for-profit colleges (though rising costs are not limited to for-profits).  She deserves readily returned phone calls and emails, thoughtful feedback on work, clear standards set and readings and assignments that are up to date and which speak to course objectives.  Especially at the graduate level, which I teach, he deserves mentoring, experiential learning opportunities, opportunities to network and for professional exposure and development. 

Yet the similarities between a student and a customer end there, revealing the limitations of this analogy that regrettably seems to drive the direction of change in higher education today.  In debating what sort of changes are best, we often fail to remember that our choice doesn’t have to be between the status quo and market-driven reforms;  other reforms are possible and needed.

So then, while the comparison of a student to a customer has some utility, what does this analogy miss?  How is a student not like a customer?  The most key point here is that learning is a process, not a product.  The process of learning may well (and should) continue long after the “product” of a class or a degree is delivered.  In addition, with the consumer/business owner relationship, the consumer rarely co-constructs the end product, let alone the process involved in delivery.  Even with engaged-consumer models in which businesses try to involve consumers in marketing or advertising via social media, this cannot be compared with the co-construction of learning in which students may co-create educational goals along with faculty, produce knowledge in partnership with them and meaningfully self-assess.  This is especially, though one hopes not exclusively, true of adult learners. 

Secondly, the purpose of one’s relationship with a customer, it is fair to say, is to make a profit.  Of course any institution of higher education needs to be financially healthy, but unless you are a for-profit university (many of which are now currently under federal investigation), the relationship between a professor and student ought not to be motivated by money, but rather out of a desire to mentor and support the student.  Professors and students alike are responsible for building classroom community.  While the financial pressure universities are under in the current economy has been observed countless times, most faculty would object rather passionately to compromising educational goals, and the student experience, for financial purposes.  By contrast, profit is of course the reason businesses exist. 

Moreover, students, unlike customers, are simply not always right.  (The same could be said of faculty.)  Perhaps Starbucks did not mistake my order; they are likely to replace my drink regardless if I’m unhappy with it.  The same of course cannot be said of all students, some of whom are at times unhappy with a grade, the volume of reading or a challenging and uncomfortable discussion. 

Consider the sanctions of a professor in MN who was teaching about structural racism and was reported to the administration by three of her white, male students.  This is where I see the difference between a student and a customer most starkly.  Many students welcome uncomfortable and controversial dialogues and experiences that take them out of their comfort zone;  others, perhaps especially those most socially privileged, do not.  Yet facilitating such dialogues and designing such experiences remains an essential task of effective faculty—especially when one teaches conflict resolution as I do. 

The task of maintaining a meaningful research agenda highlights another area of higher education where an exclusively business model or culture fails us.  Conducting research demands intellectual freedom and autonomy, whereas employees in a corporation are simply expected to complete their task as asked.  Any given faculty member can share an example of censorship, or attempted censorship, reinforcing the need for a commitment to academic freedom.  Most recently, I can recall a meeting a new colleague at the International Studies Association 2015 conference who told me her environmental science colleagues at her Oklahoma university were under a gag order from the Dean as pertains to research which drew connections between fracking and the rise in earthquakes in the Midwestern U.S.  My own area of research, peace and conflict resolution, is by nature controversial and emotional, and sometimes unavoidably political, making this distinction between the mission of a business and the mission of a university important to my research personally. 

 This brings me to a final aspect where students differ considerably from customers:  the job of education is not merely to provide workers and employees for the economy, though that is one critical contribution.  It is also to, along with families and other social institutions, shape citizens for a healthy and free democracy.  These two goals are not, as I view it, inherently in conflict, but can become so when higher education policies lose sight of the latter to pursue the former.   To maximize learning and professional benefits for students, ultimately we must understand them perhaps as customers in a limited sense, but indeed as much more than that. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

On the American Epistemology of the Gutcheck

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Epistemology is one of those cornerstone terms that worries grad students and obsesses their faculty members such as yours truly.  It’s your theory of knowledge—the unconscious tests you do mentally to figure whether some theory or fact is in fact true.  Can it be trusted?  Acted upon?  Think of it like a filter, shaped by our culture, history and education.  If a river is all of the stimuli and information we receive and interpret minute by minute in our daily lives, epistemology is the kayak we forget we’re in.  Or the prescription glasses we forget we’re wearing.

Everything we see, think, hear and do, each practical, personal or policy choice we make, has gone through this filter—whether we’ve realized it or not.  Hence the obsession with epistemology on the part of devoted faculty members worldwide—we don’t just want our students to think about X subject, we want them to think about thinking.  How do we go about assessing what we accept as true and what we reject as false, or if not false exactly, opinion that doesn’t merit being the basis of research, policy or life choices.


This is why I’m so concerned with what would appear to be the American epistemology of the Gutcheck.  Colbert mocked it, but CNN didn’t appear to get the joke, presenting the Gutcheck as an actual thing, a reliable means of determining what is or is not true.  A disturbing amount of journalists and political elites seem to be on board with this perhaps uniquely American epistemology.  Your gut is all you need.  There isn’t a need for a deep sense of history, data or empiricism.  There’s recently been a ‘gut check’ for about everything from torture to climate change.   GWB was criticized for relying on a gut check to run much of his foreign policy but the prior examples suggest that this is not simply a conservative thing.  There is something masculinist and simplistic to such an epistemology, of course, and it’s easy to conclude that Gutcheck’s popularity is partly a response to a violent and chaotic post-9/11 world.  That’s surely a factor, but this epistemology—the epistemology of individualism and self-reliance, in somewhat more charitable terms, has always been part of Americana, with roots back to Emerson and Twain.  At its best it can arguably encourage independence of mind and a willingness to hold unpopular opinions, healthy tendencies for a democracy.  But at its worst the Epistemology of the Gutcheck is dangerous—reductive, macho, anti-scientific and ahistorical—leaving us without any solid ground on which to base votes, public policy choices or anything else.  Followed to its (ill)logical conclusion, it becomes okay to have not just your own opinions, but your own facts. And that’s where real social unraveling begins.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Dialogue, satire and the attack on Charlie Hebdo

As I watched the recent attack on the Charlie Hebdo publication in horror with everyone else, the role of deep historical memory, even historical trauma, was clear at a number of levels.  The details of this specific attack are still unfolding, and in fact at least as I write, the attackers remain at large in an unfolding hostage situation.  But the outlines of the context raise some questions, as well as possibilities for clarity and progress. 

Juan Cole does a powerful job of discussing some more recent history which may have, he argues, radicalized the attackers, such as the invasion of Iraq and related torture at Abu Ghraib.  As we think about radicalization, identity and history, though, I’m also led to ask two other questions. 

Given that we know schools, like the media, faith institutions and families, are a key institution of “identity making”, I first wonder what the schooling of the two suspects was like.  The NYT reported that at least one of them had dropped out of school, and no doubt consequently were poor and unemployed.  What were their classrooms like? Did schools reach out to include them?  Did teachers have the skill and autonomy they need to meet the needs of such students?  Were they allowed to express their identity or told not to? Was their own history or identity taught at all? Recognized and respected?  No school, teacher or curriculum obviously are to blame for their bloody crimes, but if we are to understand the systems of which we are all a part, these are questions worth asking. 

Second, a reflection on dialogue and satire.  Dialogue is probably the most common tool practiced by peace educators and peace builders.  As distinct from debate, dialogue has as a goal improved relationships and understanding between participants. Debate is focused on “winning” an argument, a criteria which cannot help but be subjective (which I must admit despite my love for a good debate).  This is why so many debates end with both parties feeling they’ve won. 

What is the role of satire, such as that published by Charlie Hebdo, in debate and dialogue? Is there something in the nature of satire’s lampooning and mockery that shut dialogue, and perhaps debate, down?  Or alternatively, does satire indeed provoke debates that we’d otherwise be afraid to have?  Voltaire and Mark Twain are among my favorite thinkers, and Colbert my favorite comic, so forcing myself to consider alternative views that question satire here is difficult.   Does it indeed mock that which demands mocking as a form of a check on power?  In which case…does anyone need to mock the mockers?  My concern about those (Bill Maher comes to mind) who set themselves up as satirists is that too often they don’t actually need to marshal a logical chain of argument.  They simply need to caricature.  It would be wrong to say satire doesn’t involve an intellectual argument; no fan of Twain could claim so.  

Yet the dialogue facilitator in me, the peace builder and student of Elise Boulding and Ghandi, knows that making peace with an enemy, and acknowledging their humanity, is the harder but more sustainable path.  For this, reform of inequitable global systems, a legacy of the historical trauma of colonialism, is a must. 

Avowed academic and supporter of academic freedom that I am, I can only “come down” on the side (why must there always be “sides? Isn’t that itself simplistic?)  of #jesuischarlie.  After all, free speech is necessary for the dialogue I call for above and the murdered journalists fought for it bravely.  Yet satire, if it is to be useful, must target power.  I look forward to increased publication in mainstream Western media of lampooning of such realities as xenophobia, Islamophobia, and white, male and Western privilege. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Oral histories, peace education and teaching 9/11

Based on the research I've been gathering for the past year, presented in my new book, oral history emerged as the most prominent and popular, as well as arguably the most effective, way teachers engaged their students in learning about 9/11.  Several aspects made this a good fit for teachers wanting to engage their students beyond surface, inadequate or in fact nonexistent explanations of the events of 9/11 in most textbooks. 

First oral histories are a strong fit for the goals of peace education in general.  As I note in my new book, the use of oral histories helps students imagine themselves as participants and agents in the unfolding drama of history, not just readers or students.  From the stand point of a peace educator’s commitment towards social justice, this is key.  Otherwise students are less able to imagine themselves as powerful actors capable of bringing about change.  Too often students understand history as something they are removed from that is either irrelevant to today or which they don’t really have access to.  Howard Zinn seminally warned against this elite top-down approach to history, calling attention to the dangers of such an approach for the health of a democracy. 

Oral history is a much more engaging approach for students than the average history textbook as well.  By asking students to gather oral histories of 9/11 from parents, other relatives or neighbors, students connected with the obviously painful emotional content of the material.  Oral histories thus allowed students to view history something as directly relevant to themselves, addressing a constant concern of history teachers. 

Pragmatically speaking, oral histories also meet state and local curriculum requirements for writing, research, critical thinking and oral presentation. In an era (at least in the US) of standardization and “objective” testing, teachers are typically required to demonstrate a direct connection between what they do and a particular state objective.  9/11 is not “on the test” in many cases so teachers wishing to address it must be creative and sometimes even subversive when addressing it, especially if doing so in a perceived non-orthodox manner. 

Oral histories also helped address some challenges specifically regarding teaching 9/11, according to my qualitative data.  Because the 9/11 era remains such a controversial and politicized topic, teachers needed way to allow students to access multiple historical views and narratives of what occurred.  Oral histories provided for this multi-vocality as students were bound to encounter a variety of views in their interviews.  

Oral history in the classroom can also be thought of as a collective methodology.  Students learned in community with the family members or others that they interviewed.  They also strengthened/built community in the classroom as most teachers using this lesson asked students to present what they had found in their interviews.  Oral history also helped students understand the gravity and emotional power of 9/11, its massive significance to US history, since it allows students to access primary sources (i.e. the people they are interviewing).   Hearing the memories of the terror and shock of that day directly from people who experienced it in the course of gathering oral histories also allowed students to access what educators call the “affective domain”, that is, the realm of emotion rather than mere intellect.  This is a much more powerful and long-lasting type of knowledge.  For these reasons, asking students to gather oral histories regarding the experiences of older friends and family on 9/11/2001 proved to be one of the most popular lessons by those few teachers who did decide to implement a full lesson or unit on the 9/11 era.