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
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,
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