Violence: The Latest Curricular Specialty
John Devine
Devine, a 1993-94 HFG grantee, is Director of the School Partnership Program in New York City and teaches at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. His book Maximum Security: The Culture of Violence in Inner City Schools was published by The University of Chicago Press in 1996.
1 | 2 | back to TOC

In Maximum Security: The Culture of Violence in Inner-City Schools (1996, Chicago),(1) John Devine analyzes the violence and disorder that afflict inner-city high schools as teachers cede their traditional responsibility for student conduct to school security specialists and their technology of surveillance. Devine's understanding of school violence, derived from a decade's work running a tutoring program in several of New York City's most troubled high schools, leads him to criticize both pedagogical theorists and some practitioners for ignoring the reality of school violence. In the following excerpt, he voices his misgivings about an increasingly popular approach to school violence, the "conflict resolution" movement.
How to Get an Antiviolence Grant

What I have been referring to as a discourse of avoidance regarding school violence is not the only discourse. One strand of discourse currently featured in the educational literature--and widely reported in the press and on TV--has been attempting to address the topic directly. In 1993 the New York Times reported on this trend under a headline that read, "Schools Try to Tame Violent Pupils, One Punch and One Taunt at a Time." The article relates how this novel approach concentrates on teaching children peaceful alternatives to conflict within a classroom setting. Federal agencies are now making millions of dollars available for "conflict resolution" classes, for creating "safe haven" rooms in schools, and for "peer mediation" programs. Getting a federal grant has become simple: just start your own conflict-resolution program. "Conflict resolution" has become the buzz word of the 1990s: gym teachers and ESL teachers are suddenly being converted into conflict-resolution teachers, and community-based agencies are coming into schools, each one marketing its own unique curriculum and methodology for teaching nonviolence to children and youth.

To reduce the sharp increases in violence, many psychologists and public health specialists have recommended teaching children and youth ways to handle their emotions more positively. The foremost proponent of this approach is Deborah Prothrow-Stith.(2) She, together with her coauthor, Michaele Weissman, writes that her program is based on the assumption that "truthful information about the risks of fighting could and would change students' attitudes about fighting and, over time, their behavior" (p. 161). Using the successful national campaign against smoking as her model, she builds her program on the idea that "individuals who understand the health risks confronting them are more likely to make healthy decisions." Applied to the issue of violence, Prothrow-Stith is convinced that teachers and other professionals can work with adolescents "to help them develop the cognitive capacity and moral reasoning power to turn away from the danger on the streets" (p.18). Once students understand clearly that violence is harmful to their health, so the argument runs, they will surely abandon it the way many smokers gave up smoking.

Citing Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning, Prothrow-Stith contends that if young people reach the stage in which they "have the cognitive ability to understand the world they live in," and in which "they can see beyond themselves and understand their own actions in a moral and legal context," they are more likely to act in accordance with the moral logic they have learned (p. 62). But to know the good is not necessarily to do it.

However necessary it is to develop students' moral cognition through teaching, this can be no substitute for the central mechanism of delivering ethical standards to adolescents: the encounter between mature adult and maturing adolescent in an existential situation, where values conflict or are challenged, where the outer borders of conduct are tested and defined.

The schools in which we operate all have violence-prevention courses, peer-mediation programs, and conflict-resolution programs. Following a particularly virulent period of violent episodes, a principal will increase the number of these courses. Our own program could just as easily be labeled a violence-prevention program, since, as many of the log excerpts in this book testify, we spend a great deal of our time attempting to convince students that some of their behavior is self-destructive. But neither our program nor the violence-prevention programs are the solutions to the problem of systematic school violence.

Statistics can be trotted out to "prove" that these violence-prevention classes and other cognitive approaches have culminated in a decrease in fighting and physical violence. The specialized teachers who conduct these sessions often describe them as stimulating and exciting. A tenth-grade teacher enthusiastically related to me the successes this approach was producing in her students. In the same breath, she also related how many students, reconciled briefly and superficially during a conflict-resolution session, go outside after school and finish their fights. That same week, the principal had asked me, in desperate tones, to do a study of why a sudden eruption of violence had occurred. The partisans of conflict-resolution courses and peer-mediation programs partake of the same ambivalent discourse of violence referred to earlier: on the one hand, they report how, thanks to these courses, the school has become an "oasis of safety"; on the other hand, they refer to the latest stabbing incident or the latest fight that was discussed in the conflict-resolution course. Unlike the social reproductionists [theorists for whom school violence consists of a dominant culture's subjugation of youth], the conflict resolutionists locate violence primarily in the students, in their homes, in the community, on the streets--anywhere but in the structure of the school itself. In their search for origins, violence is the "other," not the self.
Violence as a Curricular Specialty

This newest response to violence is not only inadequate and flawed, it also distracts from a fuller understanding of the etiology of the anarchic behavior. By making violence prevention the latest specialty--a course offering added to the curriculum (and one that crowds other basic required courses out of the schedule)--this movement attempts to circumscribe the phenomenon and to "cure" it without adequately diagnosing it. In these "schools," the majority of teachers (those not involved in teaching conflict-resolution courses) become confirmed in their view that dealing with violence and aggressive students is a subspecialty that they had better not get involved with because they are neither trained in this area nor given that specific responsibility. Conflict-resolution teachers who have gone through a few weeks of basic training in this esoteric specialty have now been added to the list of those who have whittled away at the teacher's role, which used to encompass more responsibilities.

1 | 2 | back to TOC

 
© 2011 || The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation