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New & Views - Apr, 1992 Issue 

How Did Our Children Get This Way?
By Lon Woodbury

Recent studies estimate that about 25% of our children are "at-risk" of drug abuse, pregnancy, committing a crime, and/or dropping out of school. The statistical abstract of the United States seems to confirm this by estimating that by age 18, one in four girls had become pregnant at least once, and four in ten teen pregnancies ended in abortion. The number of personal tragedies and wasted lives these statistics represent is mind-boggling. The burden to the rest of us is staggering, both now and in the future. It raises the question if our schools, our justice system, our social agencies, and even our society itself will become overwhelmed by the escalating needs and demands of this adolescent subculture who act out of emotional pain, anger, and narcism. It makes sense that if we can understand what has caused this developing tragedy, we can do something effective to solve the problem.

There has been no shortage of explanations. At various times, blame has been put on television, an affluent economy, break-up of the family, rising expectations of minority groups, weakened churches, poverty, and women's liberation to name a few. These all are probably involved, or are perhaps symptoms, but a more useful explanation will come from looking at how American attitudes toward raising its young has developed during the 20th century.

Every society that has survived any length of time has found ways to meet all the needs of its young. Each has found a way to provide an answer for basic moral questions such as, "Who am I"." and "Why am I alive?," usually through some kind of religion, system of myths, and/or value structure. Each has fostered emotional growth by a system of discipline and consequences which teaches acceptable behavior. And, each has prepared their young for productive work by a system of schools and/or apprenticeships to foster mental growth and useful skills. Modern American society is providing for mental growth for an industrial and post-industrial society, but is doing poorly in emotional and value growth. We are reaping the consequences of this neglect, and we can see how it happened by using the evolution of our public school system as an example.

Our public school system was designed in the early 20th century by zealous behaviorists who focused on mental growth. Behaviorists tend to discount the importance of spiritual and emotional growth, and since these cannot be directly measured, they left those areas to the family, communities, and churches. The model the behaviorists based the schools on was the factory, which in the early 20th century had been doing miracles in mass production. The behaviorists designed a system, a "school" factory, to produce mental growth. This overall scheme worked alright for the first half of the century. The behaviorist school system fit our children's mental growth needs, and society met our children's other needs. By the 1990s, society had changed. The family had become fragmented, the community had lost much of its stability as we became a mobile society, churches had lost much of their influence, and everybody's lifestyle had become more sedentary.

Despite these changes in our society, most children are still fortunate enough to be raised in a supportive environment at home, and consequently most have adequate self-esteem, and can still take good advantage of our school system. This is proved by test scores of the top US high school students comparing well with the top students from all other nations. Unfortunately, the changes in society resulted in fewer children growing up in a supportive environment, and a growing minority of children who are emotional, moral and spiritual illiterates. The confusion, the low self-image, and the inability to accept or understand the consequences of actions on the part of these emotional, moral and spiritual illiterates make it difficult or impossible for them to take advantage of the mental education from our schools. At the same time, formal education has become a requirement to share in American prosperity. Their fear and their anger from sensing personal failure is directed both inward and outward, threatening to cripple a generation and overwhelm the public school system, social agencies, and the justice system.

As the crisis became apparent, our public schools responded as a typical factory would, re-tool and re-train the assembly line to meet the new needs. Using the best behaviorist knowledge, new courses for mental growth were added such as Sociology, Values Clarification and Sex Education. Curriculums and textbooks were redesigned. State legislatures and State education departments took on more power and education systems were centralized for better use of scarce resources. Teacher certification requirements were increased, as well as student graduation requirements. Tremendous resources and energy was poured into improving the behavior of educators and systems with the result ---- the problem continued to get worse.

The reason for this was the basic philosophy of our public school system discounted the real source of the problem, children's need for emotional and value growth. It is true our public schools are still doing well at what they were designed to do, but needs have changed drastically. Special Purpose Schools and Programs are on the cutting edge of experiments on how to meet all the needs of their students. They are taking children who are moral, emotional and spiritual illiterates, and these schools and programs are learning how to prepare them for productive lives. They do this by helping the students in emotional and value growth, along with mental growth. The results of this "whole child" approach border on the miraculous, as can be testified to by anyone who has seen the before and after results. What these schools have learned can be used as guides for the rest of society in raising our children. Traditional schools, and even parents, can learn from what Special Purpose Schools and Programs found has to be done. They should be listened to as pioneers who have found a way out of our dilemma.

Copyright 1992, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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