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September 5, 2011

A new school year: Can we educate to prevent rioting?

Reuel S. Amdur

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The recent rioting, involving property destruction, arson, assaults, looting, and robbery, has raised questions about the morals of those involved. To put it simply, one might ask, "Where did these young people learn their behavior?" Or their morals. Alternatively, "How can we teach pro-social attitudes and behavior?"

While these are valid questions, we also need to recognize that behavior is not determined only by pro-social attitudes. Behavior is also situational.  Thus, killing is usually against general and personal norms.  However, it is quite acceptable and even normative in military combat. 

Behavior is also affected by anger, including the pent-up frustration and anger that low income and minority British young people may have felt because of deprivations, not only ongoing ones but also the additional ones created by the government’s new austerity measures.  Additionally, the impact of crowd behavior needs to be considered.  Being part of a crowd can modify behavior and eclipse, or partially eclipse a person’s values and morality.

Having set down these limitations, it nevertheless is possible to teach/promote pro-social behavior and attitudes.  The rote learning of a set of behavioral moral codes, however, is not particularly effective.  Memorizing the Ten Commandments will have at best limited influence on behavior.

What does appear to be effective is to be part of a situation involving a good element of participatory democracy.  In this model, the authority figure (for example, the teacher at school or the parent at home) acts rationally and the young person is part of the rational decision-making. 

While the “free school” approach may be criticized on a variety of grounds, the democratic, participatory aspect helps to create citizens who have strong pro-social, though quite possibly non-traditional, values.  Even if they don’t know how to spell. So while the “free school” model may be too extreme, implementation of some elements of the model may be effective in promoting our pro-social citizen.

Let us assume that we begin with a pro-social authority figure.  When that person is consistent and rational in demands, young people will tend to incorporate the rules and values.  As well, authority should not always be something “out there”.  The young person needs to experience exercising authority.

Courage is one aspect of leadership that is important in inculcating pro-social attitudes.  If an authority figure is not prepared to stand up for what is right, how can the young person identify with the pro-social message?  Thus, for example, a teacher may need to be prepared to disagree openly with an administrator on issues of principle.

In a larger sense, schools need to be less authoritarian than they have been traditionally.  That means that the model should be one of free inquiry as opposed to rigid indoctrination.  And the authority structures should be loosened, more horizontal, less pyramidal.

These are some of the things that the social sciences and psychology tell us about how to encourage young people to become pro-social, moral citizens, even if also more likely to be somewhat non-conformist. 

But even with this opportunity for positive pro-social development, when people are thrown into the maelstrom of events such as those in the recent British disturbances, there is no guaranteed that the pro-social values will always be on top.  At least, the values should serve to limit or modify potential anti-social behavior.  For example, our model citizen coming out of our quasi-free school would not be likely to torch an apartment building full of people and would probably attempt to dissuade others from doing so.

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