A recent article in the New York Times ( In School Efforts to End Bullying, Some See Agenda) discusses the revival of culture wars in connection with bullying in schools. Bullying in schools is not about politics, morality, religion, race, or ethnicity. Bullying occurs when students with their own insecurities or personal inadequacies seek to resolve those insecurities or inadequacies by picking on students who they perceive as powerless and vulnerable. In simple language, if you feel bad about yourself, you try to prove that you are more powerful, or have higher status than someone else.
Bullies pick on people who they believe they can humiliate and get away with it. You might call them cowards, but I tend to look at bullies as kids who are feeling inadequate and insecure, and bullying is their perverted way of supplanting their feelings of inadequacy.
Who better to pick on than kids who nobody will protect? Minority students; kids who are withdrawn and socially isolated; students of a religion that is unpopular in your community; students who are perceived as having a gender orientation that the school community may not defend. Students who are serious academically, but not perceived as socially connected. I can taunt this person and gain some popularity, and others in the school won't turn me in. If I pick on popular students in the majority, maybe there will be consequences.
Our religious, ethical, and legal values demand that we protect all students from bullying. As educators and school boards, we seek to accomplish this objective by implementing systemic improvements. One systemic improvement involves making sure that every student makes a connection with an adult who is perceived as a safe place to bring concerns. We can tell students that if they are bullied, they can bring their concerns to a designated administrator, but some students aren't going to have sufficient rapport with that administrator to bring those concerns forward. We can increase the likelihood that students will come forward, and concerns will get addressed, if all adults in the school are part of the system that protects all students.
But the great challenge, to which the New York Times article refers, is the question of how to create an environment of tolerance, without stepping into the middle of the culture wars. I think the answer is pretty simple. Our curriculum can support understanding without advocating. When we say that students who hold minority views on religion or gender orientation are entitled to be treated in school with dignity, that does not imply that we are advocating their particular religion or views on gender orientation. There is no idea more central to our American approach to democratic values than this idea: that you can live in America free from persecution, even if your views are different from the views of majority.
If a student is a Marxist, we can insist that the student should be free from bullying, even if most of us despise Marxism. We can even explain that there are some good people who espouse Marxism, without creating an environment that is conducive to Marxism. If a student is an atheist, the same. We know that there are going to be other students who think that the atheist is going to be denied salvation and whose parents regard atheism as abhorrent. But public education can teach that the atheist is entitled to respect, without teaching that his views are acceptable, or should be acceptable, to other students. I use these examples, because plugging in gender orientation right now makes my point more difficult for some folks to understand.
I'm a prisoner of my generation. I still have trouble talking about gender orientation freely and openly. But I think the folks who want to turn this issue of protecting students into an adjunct of the culture wars are doing a great disservice. Public education cannot advocate that gay marriage, or same sex couples, is an acceptable lifestyle. Teaching that is in opposition to the deeply held religious views of many of our students and their families. But we can insist that those families and their children do not humiliate students who disagree, or who come from families who live differently. Our message, in my opinion, needs to be that in a public school, as in America, there are going to be folks who live differently and hold different values. We can honor their right to hold those values, without having to be convinced that those values are worthy of belief.
This is an easy issue for folks who think of public schools as a great forum to try to create friction and force people to choose sides in the culture wars. Neither side of the culture wars has the right to expect that public education will become subservient to those views.
If you have strong values and deeply held beliefs, good for you. We need more people, not less, who live their values and who put their values first and foremost. If you adhere to those values at home with integrity, you are going to find that your children will be strong enough to keep their values as well. And public education should not be undermining their faith. But really, if they hear that they must respect other children who have different values or different lifestyles, I trust that your children's values are not so weak that they will all of a sudden abandon their values. In public schools we want to say to your children, bless you for having strong values; public school is not a place where we try to undermine values--we honor them. In the meantime, we need you to come to the crucible of the public school, recognizing that others who have different values are entitled to exactly the same respect as you.