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Madness, Mass Shootings and an Open Society

Monday, December 17th, 2012

    

Everyone in America has seen the latest results of another dangerously mentally ill loner with family members who were in denial about the severity of his condition or disconnected from him. The killer, Adam Lanza, shot shot his own mother in the face before slaughtering twenty elementary school children and the heroic teachers and their principal who had sought to protect them, belonged in an institutional setting. The same can be said for homicidal schizophrenic Jared Loughner who shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, James Holmes, the Colorado shooter, has a gag order on his murder trial but his defense lawyers have already disclosed that their client is mentally ill in blocking access to his diaries under physician-client privilege. Seung-Hui Cho, who committed the Virginia Tech massacre, had previously stalked women, made suicidal threats and been ruled “an imminent danger to himself and others” was set free and unwell to be treated on “an outpatient basis” that never happened.

Predictably, a debate about gun control has erupted in the aftermath of senseless deaths. However, other countries are as heavily armed as the United States (in a few cases, more so). These countries also have severely mentally ill people, yet they don’t have the mass shootings that have become a dark cultural phenomenon we see here in America.  Or when on the rare occasions they do, the shooter is likely not to be insane, but a professional terrorist.

There have also been calls for improved school security ( the Obama administration and Congress cut school security grant funds in 2010 and 2011), stationing policemen in schools and even arming teachers, citing the example of Israeli schools and the Pearl High School shooter who was stopped by an assistant principal with a .45.  While more security is a reasonable precaution and a good idea, short of turning our schools into windowless, prison-like, fortresses and giving the staff AK-47’s,  anybody utterly willing to die in order to kill someone else stands a pretty good chance of success. If all guns vanished tomorrow, the crazies will use car bombs and IEDs instead; mass shootings are a “motivated crazy person” (or terrorist) problem – criminals with economic motives do not carry out these kinds of attacks.

There is no perfect answer here, but here are a few suggestions:

  • We need to revise our attitude toward mental illness with greater public education and access to mental health treatment, especially emergency treatment. Most mentally ill people are NOT dangerous but the warning signs of psychotic breakdown should become as widely recognized as the dangers of cigarette smoking.
  • For the very few people who are mentally ill and violent, we need to have public heath authorities accept that some degree of active supervision is required to ensure they receive treatment and take their medication if they are to live independently, and if they refuse, to institutionalize them temporarily until they do so. The key variable here is *violence* not just mental illness and strong due process safeguards must be in place to protect the individual and ensure they receive appropriate treatment with dignity.
  • Schools need much better training and planning for “active shooter” situations. At present, most schools have safety plans that emphasize locking students in enclosed rooms from which there seldom are any escape routes and the staff passively waiting for instructions from higher school authorities or police. While these plans may be good for unarmed intruders of unknown intent, they are dangerously counterproductive for heavily armed active shooters. Schools generally lack  enough secure rooms with doors that can delay such intruders for more than a few seconds and the standard emergency plan emphasis on “sitting tight” discourages the staff from engaging in reasonable risks to quickly evacuate students when the intruder is elsewhere in the building, or if possible, tactics to evade or if need be, resist, the shooter.

Messy Wars, Navigating Wicked Problems, and the Soul of American Foreign Policy

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Michael Few is a retired military officer and former editor of the Small Wars Journal: we are honored to offer our readers this guest post by a good friend of this blog.
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This fall, I’m hoping to begin teaching high school social studies as well as an elective on Global Issues or Wicked Problems (WPs). WPs are those messy, seemingly intractable problems that seem to evade solutions from conventional planning and decision making methods — terrorism, poverty, water rights, etc… These types of courses are already being taught in the school system where I live, and my hope is that I will be able to become a force multiplier given my experience and background.

Eventually, if this elective course takes off, then I would like the final project to be a collection of TEDx talks, where the students describe a problem, discuss past failed efforts to tame the problem, and offer coping strategies or new solutions.

As I am doing my initial reconnaissance of the student demographics, the first striking data point is their age. The incoming freshman class would have been born in 1998, and the senior class born in 1995. A second surprise that I received is the socio-ethnic backgrounds. Along with the expected mix of white, black and Hispanic children, my school district has a significant first generation Indian population, whose parents teach or work in the Research Triangle Park or surrounding universities. Moreover, there is a minority of Burmese refugees who have found a safe home after fleeing a repressive regime.

How do they see and understand the world?

The attacks of 9/11 were but a faint memory; the Cold War is ancient history. Their childhoods were formed with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the background, and their pop-culture heroes are Navy Seal Team Six and Call to Duty video games. Drone strikes and the intervention in Libya are normal for them.

It is the way things are. We fight terrorists in other countries in order to protect our way of life. But what is a terrorist or an insurgent? Is it simply someone that disagrees with you?

These students have much bigger problems to solve than simply pacifying villages in the remote areas of modernity. By 2040, when these students are in the prime of their lives, the world population is expected to be nearing nine billion with increased competition for basic resources as the world passes through peak oil and peak fresh water.

If the United States is to remain strong, then these children are our hope. They will be tasked with leading the nation, finding new solutions to coming crisis, and developing innovation in technology, science, governance, and medicine.

As I am developing my teaching philosophy, I am using the same process that served me well as a commander in the military. My purpose is to help develop, mentor, and coach: 1. leaders of character, 2.involved citizens in the nation who understand that rights must be complimented by responsibilities, and 3. the individual self-confidence to pursue a good life respecting themselves and others.

Initially, I want to challenge them to rethink what they’ve been taught or think they know. I want my students to think for themselves and determine what right should look like.

First, I began studying Reinhold Niebuhr. Now, I’m spending some time reading Saint Augustine’s “City of God” and rethinking Just War Theory. If we zoom up from just drone strikes and look at our continued military action across the globe, do we still have the moral high ground? I don’t know. As Saint Augustine wrote,

Whoever gives even moderate attention to human affairs and to our common nature, will recognize that if there is no man who does not wish to be joyful, neither is there anyone who does not wish to have peace. For even they who make war desire nothing but victory — desire, that is to say, to attain to peace with glory. For what else is victory than the conquest of those who resist us? And when this is done there is peace. It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war.

When I quoted Saint Augustine in a comment here, Mark Safranski, the Zen of Zen, replied,

The high ground is in the eye of the beholder. Some people cheered 9/11, including a few American radicals. With multiple-audiences watching 24/7, some will disapprove of our merely existing and bitterly resent and deny the legitimacy of our fighting back because they prefer us defeated and dead. Other audiences are more fair-minded and these are a good barometer – if we are winning them over, securing their admiration and isolating our opponents, our moral behavior in the big picture is apt to be reasonably on track. If we are repelling them, isolating ourselves, driving others to the side of our enemies, then chances are fairly good that we are going astray.

Zen’s point is well-taken, but I disagree. Following a moral life is not based on how others feel about you. It is through living a life that subscribes to your believed philosophy, spiritual norms, and values and beliefs particularly when you have to make an unpopular decision.

John Arquilla, in his most recent “Cool War,” said it best,

’It is well that war is so terrible,’ Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said, ‘lest we should grow too fond of it.’ For him, and generations of military leaders before and since, the carnage and other costs of war have driven a sense of reluctance to start a conflict, or even to join one already in progress.

Caution about going to war has formed a central aspect of the American public character. George Washington worried about being drawn into foreign wars through what Thomas Jefferson later called ‘entangling alliances.’ John Quincy Adams admonished Americans not to ‘go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ Their advice has generally been followed. Even when it came to helping thwart the adventurer-conquerors who started the twentieth century’s world wars, the United States stayed out of both from the outset, entering only when dragged into them.

Today, war has become too easy and not too terrible. With our global hegemony in military strength, we can force our will at any time and any place.

But, what is the right thing to do?

What is the moral high ground?

These are some of the questions that my students will eventually have to answer.

Educating Divided Minds for an Illiberal State

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Adam Elkus had well-constructed argument about the Thomas Friedman-Andrew Exum exchange:

Education and Security

Andrew Exum’s has a useful critique of Thomas Friedman’s recent piece. In a nutshell, Friedman makes the old argument that the US could buy friendship and allegiance by giving Middle Easterners more education and scholarship opportunities. To this, Exum has a rather terrific rejoinder:

“I am a proud graduate of the American University of Beirut, but do you know who else counted the AUB as their alma mater? The two most innovative terrorists in modern history, George Habbash and Imad Mughniyeh. U.S. universities and scholarship programs are nice things to do and sometimes forge important ties between peoples and future leaders, but they can also go horribly wrong and do not necessarily serve U.S. interests. There is certainly no guarantee a U.S.-style education leads to greater tolerance or gender and social equality.”

Habbash and Mughniyeh are hardly alone. Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog famously observed an distinct overrepresentation of scientists, engineers, and other highly educated professionals in both violent and nonviolent groups with illiberal ideologies. Gambetta and Hertog make an argument that the black-and-white mindset of certain technical groups correlate well with extremist ideologies, but I am unfamiliar with how this has been academically received so I won’t endorse their claims. To be sure, a look at 20th century history would also reveal a significant confluence of intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences being involved in either state or non-state illiberal movements. 

Indeed, the problem here may be the imbalance of educational systems that produce divided minds, where lopsided cultures of thought interact with enough disturbed individuals with a will to power. Stalin demonstrated what Communism looked like when a former Orthodox seminarian presided over a police state run by engineers; Mao one-upped him with Communism as the mystical rule of an all-powerful poet.

One of the more unfortunate trends among many bad ideas currently advertised as “education reform” is the denigration of the humanities and the reduction or elimination of the arts and history in public schools in favor of excessive standardized testing of rote skills and reasoning at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, mostly due to Federal coercion. That this has become particularly popular with GOP politicians (though many elitist Democrats echo them) would have appalled erudite conservatives like William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk or old school libertarians who would have seen nationalization of k-12 education policy as worse than the status quo.

In an effort to appear genuinely interested in improving education, some politicians couple this position with advocacy for STEM, as the teaching of science has also been undermined by the NCLB regime and a grassroots jihad by religious rights activists against the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes. While STEM in and of itself is a good thing and better science instruction is badly needed, STEM is no more a substitute for teaching the humanities well than your left hand is a substitute for your right foot.

The modes of thinking produced by quantitative-linear- closed system-analytical reductionist reasoning and qualitative-synthesizing-alinear-imaginative -extrapolative are complementary and synergistic. Students and citizens need both. Mass education that develops one while crippling the other yields a population sharing a deeply entrenched and self-perpetuating lacunae, hostile and suspicious of ideas and concepts that challenge the veracity of their insular mental models. This is an education that tills the soil for intolerance and authoritarianism to take root and grow

Education should be for a whole mind and a free man.

Systemic Curricular Choices Shape National Cognitive Traits

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

A brief point.

AFJ has a feature article by General Martin Dempsey on the need for the Army in it’s professional military education system to build future leaders who are critical thinkers:

Building Critical Thinkers

….The Army Leader Development Strategy identifies three critical leadership attributes for all Army leaders: character, presence and intellect. In addition to those three foundational attributes, we assert that strategic leaders must be inquisitive and open-minded. They must be able to think critically and be capable of developing creative solutions to complex problems. They must be historically minded; that is, they must be able to see and articulate issues in historical context. Possessed of a strong personal and professional ethic, strategic leaders must be able to navigate successfully in ethical “gray zones,” where absolutes may be elusive. Similarly, they must be comfortable with ambiguity and able to provide advice and make decisions with less, not more, information. While all leaders need these qualities, the complexity of problems will increase over the course of an officer’s career and require strategic leaders to develop greater sophistication of thought….

Read the rest here.

The nation is currently undergoing a debate about public education, of sorts. I say “of sorts” because the debate has largely been very dishonest on the part of proponents of certain kinds of “reforms” in which they hope to have a future financial interest, if radical changes can be legislatively imposed that will a) drastically lower labor costs and b) permit a “scalable” curriculum, to use the grammar of certain equity investor CEOs and lobbyists. The former does not concern this topic as much as the second, though the two will work in unison to create a profitable business model for a for-profit management company desiring to contract with local and state governments to run school systems.

“Scalability” builds upon Bush era NCLB legislation that emphasized standardized testing in basic math and reading skills, with punitive accountability measures for schools and districts failing to make “adequate yearly progress”. Due to the penalties and escalating standards, public schools have frequently narrowed their curriculums considerably, reducing instructional time for history, science, complex literature and the arts to put greater emphasis on basic skill drill instruction in just two subjects.

The net effect is that American public school students, roughly 88 % of all school children, spend a greater proportion of their day at concrete level cognitive activities than they did five or ten years ago and far less time on higher-level “critical thinking” like analysis or synthesis, making evaluative judgments, inquiry based learning or problem solving.

 “Scalability” means expanding on this dreary and unstimulating paradigm with digitally delivered, worksheet-like exercises to comprise the largest percentage of the instructional time for the largest number of children possible. It will be a low-cost, high-profit system of remedial education for would-be contractors, provided students are not able to “opt out”, except by leaving the public system entirely.

But only if their parents can afford it.

The US military relies upon the public schools to deliver the initial k-12 education of the overwhelming majority of their officer corps, to say nothing of the enlisted ranks. The soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who went to Andover or similar private institutions before enlisting are very, very few. Today some public schools are excellent, some are failing and the rest are in-between. Most make an effort to challenge students of all ability levels, from those needing extra help to those in AP courses and gifted programs. There is systemic resiliency in a diversity of experiences.

What will be the effect on  the military leadership in the future if critical thought is methodically removed from public education by a nationally imposed, remedially oriented, uniform, “scalable” curriculum that is effectively free of science, history, literature and the arts? What kind of cognitive culture will we be creating primarily to financially benefit a small cadre of highly politically connected, billionaire-backed, would-be contractors?

Can inculcating critical thinking really be left entirely to universities and, in the case of the military, mid-career education?

What kind of thinkers will that system produce?

Better?

Or worse?

“What we think, we become” – Buddha

John Seely Brown: “The Power of Pull”

Monday, November 1st, 2010

John Seely Brown, who is the co-author of The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion along with blogfriend John Hagel and Lang Davison, is primarily speaking about education and learning in an ecological paradigm.

Note to self: I need to read this book.

That said, “pull” is the fulcrum for all 20th century orgs that hope to adapt to the 21st, not just public education. Hierarchies, including states, can no longer completely dominate, only aspire to generally arbitrate, or concentrate their powers in an asymmetric fashion. To do this, over the long term, requires putting  attracting the allegiance of clients and allies capable of taking independent initiative in harmony with the org’s vision rather than relying primarily upon coercion to force people to mechanistically follow orders.

Not sure that too many people in our hallowed institutions “get it”.


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