THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1997)

Violence: The Latest Curricular Specialty
John Devine

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.

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?

John 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. 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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