Introduce a Little Anarchy

By Tony Russo

A less-preachy version of what follows can be found as part of the Big Picture segment of the Todcast.

If we’re going to have a civilized society, parents are going to have to adopt safe pinger-pointing techniques and teach their children to do the same. Following a first-grader’s suspension from school for participating in a finger gun battle on the playground, for sure, but also more generally, we have a seriously finger-pointing problem in this country.

The incident at White Marsh school, so far has provided ammunition (pun still not really intended but what are you gonna do?) for people who want to slam school policy, bemoan gun culture, praise gun culture, support school policy and, because it is constitutionally required, blame violent videogames, television and movies. It is as if there is a million dollar prize in the race to miss the point.

Many of us have an attachment to cause and effect as maniacal as it is misdirected.

Some people choose believe everything happens for a reason (I am not one of these people). But even this crowd would admit it is ridiculous to try and follow the chain of events that led from the Big Bang to any (and every) particular event. So we do the next best thing: We review an effect, follow a short timeline backward, choose a moment that best fits our worldview and dub it the cause. This helps us continue our lives in two different ways.

Way number one:

It reaffirms the fact of cause and effect. Every time we choose an effect and attribute to it a cause, we remind ourselves what vast (pretend) control we have over the random. Bad and random things can be avoided if we can only keep our eye out for signs of the cause. Preventing the cause prevents the effect. For example, teaching kids not to talk to strangers prevents child abductions and molestations.

Way number two:

It allows us to assign blame. And really what could be so simple and satisfying? We find the person who was either responsible for the event (the cause) or who was responsible for preventing the cause (the… anti? … effect?) and tell that person they are bad or a failure.
Of effects we are seemingly fearless. It’s truly mind-boggling.

So far in this finger-shooting scandal, it looks as if we have a cause: the “Zero Tolerance” policy enacted by the school system. And we have an effect: a possible miscarriage of justice.

For someone of the “everything happens for a reason” stripe, it’s all that’s needed to be afraid and angry and to have an opinion.
But if we’re going to be intellectually honest (and we are) it is immediately clear that this is not as simple, ridiculous or causal as we’d like it to be.

Let’s pretend for a moment that everyone involved, including the teachers, is a rational actor. That is, they believe they have a good, justifiable reason for each of their actions.

Did you know teachers could purchase insurance against claims of misconduct (which could range from anything to committing assault while breaking up a fight to misapplying the Zero Tolerance policy)?

Add to the threat of suit aspects of the 21st century teacher-type personality:

After several dark decades for the profession (the 70s, 80s and 90s, during which my education took place) there has been a bit of a purge of what I call Three Reason teachers. (What are the three best reasons to be a teacher? June July and August) Although they still exist, Three Reasoners are a minority and a dying breed. There was a while, too, when teachers were women who married and got pregnant after college and were “ready to reenter the work force” armed with nothing but a liberal arts degree and the desire to get as much money for as little time investment as possible. Nowadays, they go into public relations, mostly.

Today’s teachers are professionals with two very specific qualities, the ability to think creatively and a maniacal need for order and a clear chain of command (see paragraph 1). It is not unlike the military. Except in the military, the higher up the ranks you go, the more autonomy you have. Officers are encouraged to think more creatively than grunts and intelligence and creative thinking can be rewarded at all levels. In education it is the opposite. The more likely you are to think for yourself, to find a way to get things done within the massive and significant constraints of operational rules, the less likely you are to rise through the administration. This means the 50 Americans with the least ability to think for themselves are running the state school systems. Hell, at least we know where they are.

But before we do too much piling on, let’s put ourselves in an administrator’s position. In my experience, whenever something that defies reason occurs in the school system it is related to the bureaucracy crashing into reason. Imagine a rule that applies equally to everyone in all cases and satisfies, not only all the people to whom it applies, but also the all the people to whom it will ever apply. Imagine a rule for which there are no mitigating circumstances, to opportunities for leniency, no chance for alternate explanations. Now imagine being put in a position where if you fail to properly enforce this rule, not only is your job at stake, but also your home, your kid’s future and every dime you’ve ever saved.

Weigh that against making someone else’s kid feel bad for a few days and it is pretty easy to see why rules are followed into the absurd. If we have the courage, we can see how big a part of the problem we are. We want rules that protect us in every case while never inconveniencing us in any way. We demand mistake-free applications of rules meant to thwart or control a random universe.

We spend a lot of time disappointed and disillusioned.

The point is: calling for more rules when rules fail is very rarely useful or productive, but just as with cause and effect finding new ways to blame people it is comforting and easier than doing the hard work of figuring out what is true and fair.

What is true and fair is, when it comes to discipline, too much is required of teachers relative to the power given them.

If by sending our kids to school, we surrendered the illusion that they were the most special beings on the planet and admitted they behaved abominably way more often than we liked, that might be a first step.

Unfortunately, too many parents (like me) were subjected to teachers who thought “The Wall” was an instructional video and have lost the ability to trust and respect teachers as professionals. We see them only as the first in a long line of authority figures bent on destroying any shred of individuality and blindly snuffing out any creative spark they can find. We see them as too lenient with other people’s children and too strict on our own. We are irritated by the fact that they can’t see our kids for the extraordinary creatures they are because they spend too much time tolerating kids whose parents frankly don’t care as much as we.

Certainly the facts are somewhere in the middle. I suspect after a few weeks of taking a good hard look at the Zero Tolerance policy, the story will go away. In the end, we don’t trust teachers enough to grant them autonomy, and they don’t trust us enough to act without well defined policies. The price we pay is, every now and again kids get crushed, or disillusioned which isn’t that big a deal. In fact, it’s an education unto itself.