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.
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But the most basic flaw in promoting violence-prevention and conflict-resolution curricula within schools is even more subtle: it consists of substituting the hypothetical for the real, the past and future for the present, discourse for performance. As James Q. Wilson suggests, adolescents learn behaviors more through an osmotic process of daily interaction than through theoretical talk about ethics.(3) But violence-prevention and conflict-resolution courses help educators avoid existential confrontation and engagement. Violence prevention deals with past behavior, conflict resolution with future behavior, and both are convenient ways of escaping behavior in the present. It is one thing for a teacher within a classroom setting to discuss "cases" (real or imaginary, drawn from students' lives or from the newspapers) after the fact; it is a totally different thing for a teacher to define the limits of conduct with a student who is behaving transgressively, at the very moment the student is assaulting another student, defacing property, engaging in unacceptable behavior or unacceptable speech (e.g., telling a teacher to "fuck off"). It is one thing for a principal to add violence-prevention courses to the curriculum; it is a totally different thing for a principal to challenge all the teachers--and the entire school community--to adopt and enforce a uniform code of conduct--in brief, to resuscitate the now almost forgotten in loco parentis role.

Deborah Prothrow-Stith's approach has the advantage of recognizing that the social setting in which a young person grows up plays a major role in the phenomenon of imitative violence. No one can argue with her efforts to help individual students in their struggle with angry feelings or to teach them new ways of behaving and relating. Our tutors discuss these same issues with their students, although their conversations usually grow out of an academic context. In contrast with the social reproduction theorists, Prothrow-Stith squarely faces the reality that students do display seriously aggressive behaviors that culminate in harm to themselves or others. And she believes in the capacity of young adolescents to change their behavior.

How Antiviolence Normalizes Violence

How can one have any misgivings, then, about something so apparently beneficial as conflict-resolution classes? My reservations stem not from my reluctance to confront the sensitive but necessary topic of violence education but from a concern that creating these classes as the chief pedagogical response will further normalize the already normalized violence. The subtextual message is, "We expect this school to be violent, so let's talk about it." Rather than operating from the assumption that violence is unthinkable and unacceptable, violence-prevention courses give the entering students--especially those from overseas--the impression that violence is an institutionalized part of American life and that they might as well learn to cope with it. Violence-prevention courses also create the impression that schools are doing something--other than using metal detectors--about the problem, even though they do not address the fundamental causes. A violence-prevention curriculum, then, is one more method that has evolved for distracting attention from real issues.

It is in real-life experiences, not just in classroom discussions about morality, that adolescents and young adults learn to accept that different actors in the social world have differing perceptions about where limits are to be drawn. It is in existential confrontations that mature adults assert their own values through their insistence on high standards for academic work or their determination that students show respect for the environment, property, one another, the teacher, and themselves. It is this inability to cope with teacher-student disciplinary encounters that blocks [many pedagogical theorists] from theorizing the phenomenon of violence. Once again, we are faced with a neognostic duality, an assumption that intellectualized dialogues of the classroom are sufficient to embody morality and the acceptance of societal norms.

I have argued that students are often agents of violence. Conflict-resolution courses tend, however, to place the whole burden of the introduction of violence on students; likewise, they place the burden of its eradication on student-student dialogue. Like explanations that focus on one race, ethnic group, or sexual group as the source of violence (e.g., males are more aggressive than females), conflict-resolution courses posit the phenomenon of violence in a group or an individual, not as jointly constructed through the interaction of agent and institution, individual and society. The corridors of an inner-city school provide convincing evidence, on the contrary, that school violence is jointly constructed through the explosive chemistry of aggressive students and unmanageable "schools."

Conflict-resolution approaches, in summary, differ from social reproduction theory in that they recognize the existence of violence in the student. However, they too have to be judged as part of the discourse of avoidance, because they want to deal with asocial conduct either before the act or after, not in actu, at the moment of transgression. Older students, said to be peer mediators "trained in conflict mediation" by conflict-resolution teachers, ask younger bellicose students if they can agree not to bother one another, not to call one another's mother obscene names, not to insult one another. If they "feel comfortable" with such an agreement, they shake hands, congratulations are extended all around--and the fight resumes the next time they look at one another. Faculty continue to ignore student conduct in public space, and classrooms are turned into privatized mini-courts in which the onus of the culture of violence is shifted onto the two students who are encouraged to "work out" their anger, mutual hostility, and differences--and to create their own ethical expectations, since the adults have opted out of this task. But conflict-resolution enthusiasts are convinced of the efficacy of their newfound religion. Peers, they tell us, will listen to their peers. And any adult dialogue with youth about behavioral expectations is branded ineffective "preaching." They are, it seems, in possession of the truth; why, then, one wonders, does the school still need eighteen security guards to patrol the halls?


1. Reprinted, by permission, from Devine, Maximum Security, pp. 161-166. Copyright 1996 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
2. Deborah Prothrow-Stith with Michaele Weissman. Deadly Consequences. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
3. James Q. Wilson. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press, 1993.

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