Kids: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

If you have kids in public schools these days, you are likely hearing about lockdown drills and run-hide-fight training. What are we supposed to think about them? On one hand, we all want our kids to be safe. On the other, watching six-year-olds cower and tremble about a threat that they will (statistically) likely never encounter seems kooky. In the Atlantic last week, Joe Pinsker asked historian Paula Fass for some context of scaring kids straight. Prof. Fass offered two good examples, but we can come up with a lot more. And that fact points us to a central, odd truth about the nature of American schooling.

Pinsker ran through some of the central dilemmas of lockdown training. In actual fact, students are extremely unlikely to experience a school shooting. Yet the training for them can be deeply upsetting. As Pinsker wrote,

These lockdowns can be scarring, causing some kids to cry and wet themselves. Others have written letters bidding their family goodbye or drafted wills that specify what to do with their belongings. . . . children are being trained to anticipate an outcome that is both terrifying and extremely unlikely to happen to them.

Pinsker wondered if there had been similar scare tactics employed in schools in the twentieth century. Paula Fass pointed out two big ones: duck-and-cover drills and kidnapping scares. Like school shootings, both threats were terrifying, but statistically speaking, both were also extremely unlikely.

Like me, SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably now thinking the obvious: We could extend this list of unlikely-but-scary scenarios forever. Schools have always sought to terrify students into feeling an exaggerated anxiety.

Consider just a few examples:

1.) Sex. If you’ve experienced any sex-education curriculum lately, you know that they rely on a fear of STIs and unplanned pregnancies to get their points across.

2.) Drugs. It wasn’t only in the 1930s that school leaders warned students of “Reefer Madness.”

3.) Health. You might not be old enough to remember polio, but for those who lived through it, children were told not to go swimming for fear of contracting the disease. In the 1980s, too, children were warned that they could catch HIV merely from being near a positive person.

It seems to me we need to reverse Pinsker’s question. He asked,

In postwar America, have kids ever been so afraid and so regularly prompted to imagine their own suffering?

But we need to ask instead: Has there ever been a time when students were NOT regularly shocked and scared? When students were NOT shown clips of dope-smoking creeps or atomic devastation in an attempt to scare them into proper behavior?

And the big question: Why have schools always felt a need for such scare tactics?

I’ve got a couple of ideas. First, I think school leaders and parents tend to see scare tactics as developmentally appropriate. Like drivers-ed crash videos, scare tactics are thought to be necessary to pierce the adolescent fog surrounding students’ brains, to make them understand the real dangers of certain things. Also, I think school administrators and politicians understand that exaggerated fears are politically required, even if they are not practically relevant. No school leader could survive an election if she told parents she was doing nothing to prevent a threat because the actual threat was so miniscule.

Is there more? Are there other reasons you can think of why schools have always hoped to terrify children about highly unlikely dangers?

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