Why Schools Can’t Stop Terrorism

Imagine it in reverse: Take a group of 13-year-olds.  Any group, anywhere in the US of A. Have them watch one hour every six months of ISIS propaganda videos.  How many of them do you think will turn into Islamic militants? Pretty close to none, I’d guess. Yet when it comes to SOLVING violent crime, terrorism, STDs, drug abuse, or nearly any other social ill, that is just the sort of approach some well-meaning but poorly informed pundits continue to suggest.

It’s always possible, of course, that some students might find the videos so compelling that they’d join ISIS. But those students would have come from some sort of background that pushed them toward that decision in advance. There’s no way a couple of isolated hours of school videos could CREATE terrorists. The most they could do—in very unusual cases—would be to encourage some kids to follow through on decisions they had already made.

Yet throughout American history, reformers have blithely assumed that they could create any social reform they wanted, simply by slapping one or two hours of mandatory instruction into the public-school curriculum.

An hour of prevention is not a cure...

An hour of prevention is not a cure…

As Jonathan Zimmerman points out in his excellent new book Too Hot to Handle, this sort of mindset is quintessentially American. In the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, the USA and European nations all discovered a social problem. Too many men were visiting prostitutes and coming home with nasty sexually transmitted diseases. European governments responded by making new laws about hygiene and prostitution. American governments, instead, responded by adding mandatory sex-ed to public-school classes. The only way to end prostitution, Americans assumed at the time, was to play the “long game” and educate young people about its dangers.

American readers of a certain age might join me in remembering a similarly silly attempt to eradicate drug abuse in these United States. How? By adding mandatory DARE meetings to classrooms nationwide. (I honestly can’t remember what DARE stood for, since we all only called it “Drugs Are Really Excellent.”)

Now maybe, somehow, somewhere, there have been young people who have seen the light after a forty-five minute presentation in the gym about syphilis or meth. But in general, I think it’s safe to say that such messages can only hope—at the very best—to confirm students in decisions they’ve already made.

How NOT to end drug abuse...

How NOT to end drug abuse…

Yet there are still folks out there who assume that we can make real changes by inserting a class here or there about morals, hygiene, or politics. This week pundit Charles Haynes of the Religious Freedom Center offered a warmed-over recipe for solving our addiction to violence.

What do we do when ISIS and neoconfederates plant head-turning propaganda on the interwebs? Counter it with classes in tolerance and anti-racism. Haynes recommends two curricular add-ons: the Teaching Tolerance program of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Face to Faith from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

I’m not opposed to such programs. I don’t know the Face2Faith approach, but I’ve worked with the Teaching Tolerance materials, and they’re good. The problem, rather, is that too many people like Mr. Haynes think that by slapping such one-off workshops into regular public schools, we’ve somehow solved the problem.

It just doesn’t work that way. Education is not a simple commodity that can be packaged and shipped. Just like sex ed or drug-abuse education, educational programs only work if an entire community supports and embodies the desired message. Middle-school kids won’t decide to avoid drugs just because a cop comes to their English class and delivers a half-hour talk and a few coloring books. They will decide to avoid drugs if they come from a community that does not indulge in drug abuse.

Mr. Haynes ends with a stirring appeal:

At a time of growing religious extremism, deep racial divides, and widespread ignorance about “the other,” every school has a civic and moral obligation to counter messages of hate by educating for a more just, tolerant and free society.

Fair enough. But school can’t do it alone. If we want a more just, tolerant and free society, we have to work for a more just, tolerant, and free society. We can’t assume we’ve done our jobs if we’ve shown students a couple of hours of cheerful videos.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  August 10, 2015

    You had me until the last paragraph. You write, “school can’t do it alone. If we want a more just, tolerant and free society, we have to work for a more just, tolerant, and free society.”

    What does it mean to “work for” such a society? As you said previously, “educational programs only work if an entire community supports and embodies the desired message”. Doesn’t the same apply to having “a more just, tolerant and free society”?

    But isn’t the question of how to get an entire community to embrace a more just, tolerant and free society, the same as how to get an entire community to not indulge in drug abuse? How do you “work towards” such a thing if not by trying to educate and form the minds of the populace to embrace such things?

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you that simply slapping classes onto the curriculum isn’t likely to get it done. Nevertheless I still wonder how we as a free society are to go about “working towards” such goals while at the same time purporting to allow everyone to form his own mind and conscience in his own way without interference.

    • Rats, I liked that last paragraph. The point I was awkwardly trying to make is just the one you point out here: There are no shortcuts. If we want things to improve we have to figure out what we mean by “improvement.” Too often, reformers of various stripes have assumed that by inserting this or that class into public schools they have healed whatever problem they identify. It’s just not that easy.

      • Agellius

         /  August 11, 2015

        One thing that I’m skeptical about as a political conservative (realizing that I’m now straying from the topic, sorry) is this idea that “we” have to figure out what “we” mean by “improvement” and go about trying to accomplish it. I’m not clear how this squares with the idea of personal liberty, of government of the people by the people rather than of the people by the government; or of Justice Kennedy’s justification for abortion, and I assume gay marriage too: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If that’s true, then how can the government have the right to define for everyone what “we” mean by “improvement”? It seems to me that under those premises, the government’s job is simply to allow everyone to live as he sees fit and not to try to mold or “improve” society in one way or another.

        If all you meant was that we as individuals have to do these things, that’s a different matter and I would have no quarrel with it.

        Just for the record, I’m a Catholic before I’m a political conservative, and as a Catholic I’m not wedded to liberal democracy at all. But if we must have liberal democracy, then I want maximum individual and religious freedom, as defined by myself and my Church, and not by the government.

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