Failure to Hold: The Politics of School Violence

Given the recent discussion in media outlets on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine, it seems useful to reprint my review of Julie Webber’s (2003) volume Failure to Hold: The Politics of School Violence (Rowman & Littlefield).

What makes the book stand out from other recent work on school violence (e.g., DiGiulio 2001; Newman 2004) is the author’s starting point. With her focus on problems of Western political philosophy, Webber links the analyses of school violence, popular culture and the hidden curriculum (given as rules about the nature of conflict and its uses) to a state policy of “containment” and the crisis of Western democracy. Emphasizing public schools as citizen-building institutions, she asks: “Why do they [student shooters] take their rage to school and direct it at students, not teachers, not administrators, but random students?” (p. 8). Extent analyses fail to explain, “how the acts are meaningful in the context of the culture and why they commit acts against fellow students, as if they were, literally, infrastructure” (p. 10).

Webber does not seek to explain school shootings as such (though in effect she does offer a theory) a fact one is alerted to early on. “The reader looking for a simple answer will find only a meditation on citizenship as it relates to educational experiences in the wake of traumatic events in public schools…” (p. 2).

The book is broken into two sections. The first section offers “readings” of school shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Springfield, Oregon, all having taken place prior to Columbine. Webber focuses on the public and media’s reaction to the shootings. With a mix of interesting details about each case, these chapters offer nuanced thematic conjectures, queries and observations. With them Webber aims to demonstrate “some of the fallacious reasoning that is behind the formulations of school policy” where she is critical of the “public’s willingness to believe that popular culture and armaments are directly correlated with school violence” (p. 12).

For example, the West Paducah case is used to critique the “violent [or predatory] culture” argument. Ignoring the known concrete psychological suffering of students at school, where the hidden curriculum imposes impossible expectations of identity and performance, Webber says: “the public chose to pin the motive for shootings on a blank form of violent culture that is not tied to any specific generative source or responsible party.” This, she contends, completely ignores the obvious message in students shooting up their school. “School violence” is a term the literal meaning of which is consistently denied: the school itself is given no role in triggering students’ shooting rampage (p. 146). We are left with a generic notion of culture, which “somehow ‘gets violent’, sometimes with the help of Hollywood, but usually all by itself” (p. 21). Webber discusses the impact of television on youth, insisting that it makes little sense to blame the media separate from the public when the media has become the public sphere, the social. She claims that censoring violent media without broader social change may actually escalate the problem, because students are denied “fantasy spaces” to act out their rage (p. 160).

This raises one notable weakness of the volume: the under-theorizing of the significance of the public/private distinction for U.S. political thought, and the role “school safety” initiatives play in eroding (or transforming) the public. It is not that the media has become the public sphere but rather that the monopoly media and its disinformation have worked toward demise of a public sphere in the sense outlined by Habermas’ (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

As another example, Webber uses the Jonesboro case, to critique school safety advocate Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. It is only at this point, on page 48, that the significance of the book’s title is addressed. Thomas Hobbes’ argument that the protective layer of inhibition is regulated by government is contrasted with Grossman’s notion that “holding” is a physical component of the brain, which is natural but has been corrupted by the “leakage” of military technology to the general public. Imparting an authoritarian structure to this brain, Webber sums up Grossman: “Traditional authority, he argues, was based in positive social values such as respect for the law, worship of heroes who saved the day, responsible programming, and fiction that refrained from using realism as a symbolic or literary device” (p. 48).

In discussing bullying and rage in this chapter, Webber suggests that the failure of U.S. democracy to bring about real equality be considered a source of violence. “The pretense of democratic equality and the equalization of all social values give students the impression that [students] deserve prestige and power at the school,” an expectation which is unfulfilled in practice. “Raging boys” want respect of a leading clique or to take its place. “The public does not give them a chance to see how they might unite against the society in order to change it in constructive ways” (p. 58).

The second half of the book argues out in various ways Webber’s theory of school violence, which in a nutshell is caused by a kind of social repression fomented by a hidden curriculum that denies conflict and identity formation and imposes hegemonic norms that are in decline.

Chapter four, one of the most interestingly odd chapters, explores the school prayer movement that uses the shootings to bring “the Christian God back to school,” where God, and not adults (parents), will protect the young (Webber points out that turning children against their parents and families is a hallmark of fascist regimes). Webber brings out how this movement, whose practice requires holding prayer sessions while standing around a flagpole hoisting the flag of the United States “binds prayer to American citizenship” (p. 95). It also serves to further obscure the lines between the private and public. Chapter five, the most abstract chapter of the book juxtaposes the writings of Nietzsche with those of Dewey in an attempt to present a theoretical model to understand school shootings and the contradictions of democratic citizenship as developed in the West. The chapter focuses on the existing political model’s difficulty in publicly dealing with trauma, which results in “bad conscience” (ignoring life’s experiences and the conclusions drawn from them). She writes that the “Deweyan model of experience” denies the “reality of conflict and resentment in public life” and this denial “leads to Nietzschean resentment and bad conscience on the part of the public” (p. 190). Chapter six attempts the same, but on the psychological plane, using the psychoanalytic insights of child psychologist D. W. Winnicott.

The book is peppered with this psychoanalytic perspective. Chapter seven explores pedagogical problems occurring in schools as they respond to fears and concerns generated by “school violence,” and the philosophical stances needed to help create safe spaces, in the nonphysical or social-psychological sense. The concluding chapter argues that responses to school shootings are predicated on the Cold War policy of “containment”. Webber points to the threat this poses for American democracy “as we know it” with its links to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. “Containment” response to school violence are in fact a form of violence, Webber argues, denying students the necessary experience required for developing mature democratic citizens.

Importantly, Webber does not deny a role for weapons and violent media. For example, she points to the “fetishism of stockpiling,” where there were 200 million guns in private hands in 1995, where the top 20 percent of private firearms owners possessed 55 percent of privately owned firearms (p. 35). That the public and media often downplay the stockpiling behavior of school shooters suggest an effort to conceal just how “normal” such “fetishes” actually are among men. Violent media (popular culture) is not so much indicted as it is analyzed in terms of its role as fantasy in “holding” students. “As long as the fantasy holds them, they will continue to do in line with the hidden curriculum…” She continues:

But once they are deprived [note that this is a root meaning of the word private] of fantasy and give way to the realization that expectations set by the hidden curriculum will not be met, or even compromised partially, another mode of existence takes hold of them. They are then led to the space (conjuncture or rupture) between the Real and Fantasy. That nothing holds them means that nothing sustains them, except an automatic reversion to type, an enhanced or hypermove to practice. Knowledge is now on the side of doing. The ethical gap maintained by fantasy has closed. And, as Jean Baudrillard states, “We have passed from the Other to the Same, from alienation to identification” (p. 7).

The logic that fantasy leads to practice is used by the Secret Service to arbitrarily target all youth as “potentially violent” in an effort to “prevent violence before it starts” (Borum and Vossekuil 1999; Vossekuil et al. 2002).

Despite some difficulties, on the whole Webber’s analysis is fresh and full of insight. But it is also a book that requires a great deal of patience and work on the part of the reader. It is best treated as a conversation, working through the numerous themes which, because of their breath, are necessarily incomplete and call upon the reader for elaboration.

References

Borum, Randy, and Bryan Vossekuil. 1999. Threat Assessment: Defining an Approach to for Evaluating Risk of Targeted Violence. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 17 (3):323-337.

DiGiulio, Robert C. 2001. Educate, Medicate, or Litigate? What Teachers, Parents and Administrators Must Do about Student Behavior. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Newman, Katherine S. 2004. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books.

Vossekuil, Bryan, Robert A. Fein, Marisa Reddy, Randy Borum, and William Modzeleski. 2002. The Final Report and Findings of the Safe Schools Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Department of Education.

Note: Edited from the originally published version appearing in the June 2005 edition of the Newsletter of the New York State Foundations of Education Association.

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