Schools Can’t Solve Terrorism

Did you see the story? IMHO, one of the scariest aspects of the murders at Charlie Hebdo was the support given to the shooters by dissident French schoolchildren. Understandably, French society was horrified. Sadly, though, they’ve resorted to an ineffectual tradition of pass-the-buck education reform to address the problem.

We are not all Charlie...

We are not all Charlie…

As reported in the New York Times, significant numbers of kids in French schools refused to honor a moment of silence for the shooting victims. Teacher Eric Bettancourt reported that three-quarters of his class protested in favor of the murderers. One student told Bettancourt that the murders were justified.

What to do?

As have generations of well-intentioned reformers in the USA, the French seem to be engaging in the ineffective and counterproductive symbolic politics of educational culture wars. From now on, the education minister insists, students who sympathize with these kinds of attacks will be punished. About 1,000 teachers will get extra training in the tenets of secularism, or “laicite.” Schools will now have an official day of celebration for laicite. And students will endure a new program of “moral and civic training.”

I don’t know much about French education. But I do know that in the United States, this same impulse toward culture-war educational symbolism has proven useless for generations.

As I argue in my new book (now available), throughout the twentieth century conservative activists have imposed similar cultural symbolism on America’s public schools. If only students recite the Lord’s Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, many conservatives have felt, society as a whole would magically become more reverent and patriotic.

Progressives, too, share this myopic understanding of the relationship between social norms and educational programs. Ever since the glory days of John Dewey at Chicago’s Lab School, progressives have assumed that putting students into cooperative groups will transform America into a true democracy.

French politicians seem to share these simplistic ideas.

I sympathize. It’s easy to want to do something to fix a bad situation. But slapping new punishments and programs on dissenting schoolchildren won’t do the job.

As have generations of American school reformers, these French fixes assume that opposition to laicite stems, at root, from ignorance, rather than dissent. If students can have an annual assembly in which the benefits of secularism are clearly laid out, reformers might suggest, then anger toward the secular order will wither.

In the American case, some earnest school reformers have had similarly naïve ideas about creationism. As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued so convincingly, opposition to evolution does not in fact correlate neatly with ignorance about evolution. Rather, as they put it (emphasis added),

it appears that anti-evolutionists choose not to accept evolution, choose to ignore scientific arguments demonstrating evolution, or express skepticism . . . as a hedge between what they have been taught in school and seen in museums on the one hand, and what they may have heard in church, on the other.

French support for terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo does not result from a simple lack of knowledge.  Punishing it will only make it stronger. Canned speeches and skits for schoolchildren will only make dissenting children laugh.

It does not take professional academic studies of education and schools to understand this point.  All it takes is any experience with schools themselves.  If a teacher told you something and you disagreed, how did that make you feel? If she went on to punish you for disagreeing, did that make you likely to agree with her?

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