Acton Commentary

Weakened Culture, Weakened Schools


As both sides of the Atlantic reel from the latest bout of school shootings, this time in Erfurt, Germany, fundamental questions about our society and its institutions are tragically brought to the forefront. One eyewitness account of the shooting in Erfurt stated: “It was chilling. I saw this big placard with the word 'HELP' taped to a window.” Such a sign, taped to a school window, is emblematic not just of the danger those students faced, but of a culture in crisis.

In recent years, the West has experienced a number of school shootings. These tragedies have defied explanation. Everything from psychoanalysis to fundamental questions about the organization of many cultural and social institutions have been offered in an attempt to aid in our understanding of these diabolical events. An interesting feature of many such explanations has been a general failure to acknowledge the role of free choice for evil that ends in such carnage. Such failure is not, however, surprising in a moral culture that is uneasy with the idea of personal responsibility. It also seems that another very important thing has been overlooked—the divisions within contemporary culture and its inability to communicate ultimate meaning to the young in Western society.

In past times, it was up to the institutions of culture to communicate the permanent ideas that formed the foundation of a civilization's life. Institutions such as families, churches, mosques, synagogues, community organizations, and, most especially, schools were all part of the training one received in the fundamental values of his or her culture. Schools were seen as particularly important, as they were supposed to communicate to the young not just the ideas that formed the basis of society, but also the values central to the very survival of that society. This was much easier to do when there was a supportive culture that inundated and surrounded the mission of the school—intact families, greater religious practice, and a certain common level of agreement as to the basics of right and wrong.

In the past few decades, Western culture has become much less sure of, and in many venues, hostile to its own core values. As it pertains to schools, much debate has centered on the hopeless amorality (and I would say, immorality) that many of our contemporary schools embody. Major community dustups over issues like school prayer, sex education, and creationism in the science curriculum are indicators that a certain shared moral and cultural vision has broken down. As such, it has become very difficult for our schools to communicate those foundational values that form a person's vision of his own worth and the worth of others.

The question that presents itself for examination, however, is one that asks whether schools are a cause or a symptom of the present moral malaise that has moved some despairing students to murder teachers and fellow students. I think the answer is a complicated “both.” Perhaps to an unprecedented extent in history, a common moral vision is not shared throughout Western society. Many examples of this breakdown abound. A prominent example recently occurred at the University of California, Berkley, where students were given academic credit for outings to strip bars and participation in group debauchery. It is well established that many high school sex education programs have had the effect, intended or not, of increasing sexual activity among the young, leading to damaged lives. In many schools, the Judeo-Christian values that undergird Western culture are openly derided and replaced by moral visions that are hostile to the value and dignity of each and every human person. Such are the convictions that are the very cultural air we breathe. As Congressman J.C. Watts so pointedly articulated:

“It is no coincidence that a society which undermines parental authority, which marginalizes religion, and which steeps its children in a violent and sexually obsessed popular culture produces children who are unruly, undisciplined, nihilistic, and in some cases infatuated with murder and quite prepared to act on these infatuations.”

No doubt, the suffocating worldview created by institutional moral relativism has aided in creating an educational atmosphere devoid of any real meaning. Thus, courses in Western civilization become vague courses in “multicultural awareness,” and self-esteem, divorced from accomplishment, becomes the interpretive key for everything. If we are serious about reinvigorating the social and cultural institutions of the West, we need to understand the spiritual crisis that is at the heart of many of our educational institutions. At the heart of those institutions are people who are despairing, not just because the building is run down or the computer lab empty—but because their lives seem meaningless.

While it is important to examine the social and economic structures that harm our educational institutions, it is more important to call out the pernicious ideas that form the foundation of those structures. Institutions such as our schools will never be reformed without an authentic conversion of hearts. If structures are modified, even for the better, the structural changes might camouflage the despair, but will not defeat it. Future reforms must go to the heart of the present crisis, rather than just looking at structures. For too long “structural review” has been the emphasis. Such an outlook may win a few battles, but it will lose the war.