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Desperadoes and thieves

October 29, 2011

“The desperadoes and thieves of today were school boys ten years ago, and if society is ever to find complete protection against such offenders, it will probably be through the schools… The implication is that, to a very great extent, the future safety and welfare of society depend upon the school; in other words, that the school is the greatest moral agent in the world today. Unfortunately, it is too often regarded merely as a place where young children acquire a certain skill in language, reading, writing, and number, and a certain knowledge of geographical, historical, and scientific facts – a skill and a knowledge that are supposed to be useful in helping the individual to make his way in, or sometimes against, the world. If this were all the school accomplished in the life of the nation, it would fall far short of the complete achievement of the purpose for which it is designed. This narrow conception of its purpose has led some teachers to view their responsibilities lightly. What teachers need most is not higher scholarship, not better technique in instruction, not greater skill in management, but a keener perception of their function in moulding the life of the nation, and a more intense desire and stronger determination to discharge that function fully and efficiently.”

As we consider and confront the many desperadoes wreaking havoc in the world today, this passage offers a striking resonance in purpose. While I would like to think that the family, not the school, should be the ‘greatest moral agent,’ it may well be that the greatest potential in this regard rests with the school. Schools and parents, together, bear a great responsibility in shaping the habits, character, values, and attitudes that will, in turn, shape tomorrow’s society.

On a daily basis, we are faced with people who are eager to separate us from our wealth by whatever means possible. The fact that they return with equal efforts day after day tells me that they are quite able to sleep at night. While I will never understand how this is possible (call me naïve), I can only conclude that something went terribly wrong along the path for these people. How did the rights of the ‘self’ come to completely engulf and overwhelm the rights of the ‘other?’ The unfortunate outcome is caveat emptor run amok.

We are, first and last, social creatures. Our very survival as a species has always hinged on this fact. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln’s words apply in equal measure to the family unit, the village, the nation, and as forced into play by global trade, the world at large. With enhanced interdependence comes matching fragility. Competing interests must be balanced with interests in common. It is the growing imbalance of these interests that has resulted in the collapse of every so-called great society.

2400 years ago, the first great Athenian experiment in democracy collapsed under the weight of its own success. In effect, success is an excellent predictor of failure. Unregulated forces, allowed to grow to a position of dominance over others, are inevitably doomed. The ‘others’ will either rise up to challenge and strike down the dominant player, or will simply withdraw, leaving the aggressor alone on the field. What is the sound of one army in battle? Athens’ grain supply was cut off by Sparta, leading quickly to Athens’ defeat and relegation to a lesser state. The further into history we look, the further into the future we see.

“Unlimited activity, of whatever kind, must end in bankruptcy.” Goethe

“The greatness of the human soul is shown by knowing how to keep within proper bounds.” Pascal

The particularly troubling reality of today is that, in a global economy, all systems are mere components in one great (meaning large, not good) system. One missing nut in the hull structure sees the entire vessel at the bottom of the ocean. Interconnectivity and interdependence encircles the planet and places every system and sub-system in a position of exposure. No nation, no business, no family unit is immune from the effects of a souvlaki vendor’s cart veering off the road and over a cliff into the Mediterranean. One bad apple, indeed, can spoil the entire barrel. The challenge nowadays is that we’re all in one big barrel. Do you hear butterfly wings flapping over Athens… Brussels… Washington… Beijing…?

All immoderate systems will eventually implode.

The notion that a free market will successfully regulate itself is patently absurd. I suppose that, if you call constant wars among shifting powers a regulatory framework, perhaps I’m wrong. Left to its own devices, a free market will always result in a small number of dominant forces rising to the top. Corrupting power… check that… absolutely corrupting power will, every time, end in a revolution. Disparity of wealth leads only to uprising. The gathering of all systems into one global collection of intertwined systems can only shine a brighter light on the disparity, the corruption, and the fragility of the whole. Interesting times, indeed.

I would contend that our greatest worries in the world today are derived directly from, and compounded by, our failure to provide character and values education. A society devoid of citizenry is a society doomed. The passage cited here at the top is both a damning indictment of our system of education (can’t wait for it to fail so it can be replaced), and at the same time, a bold statement of immense importance going forward. Our own ambitions, considered to the exclusion of the ‘other’ lead nowhere good. Running an entire system into the mountainside, and jumping off with all the gold just before impact, is not acceptable. Those who cannot see this are the unfortunate products of our collective failure to educate.

If our public school system were to embrace the notion captured in the cited passage, I would rise and applaud with great enthusiasm.

Well, here’s the thing, folks. This passage actually comes from a book I was reading yesterday. The book is called Principles of Method. Written for studies in education, this bold prescription for our schools was authorized by the Ministry of Education for the Province of Ontario. Are you ready for the punch line? Priced at $0.63, it was published in 1930.


The spirit of educating citizenry is not new. More than a century ago, Dr. John Dewey published Democracy and Education, much quoted and even more ignored. Talk is cheap. Action speaks volumes. Employers demand skills. Educators respond by delivering those skills, too often at the expense of character and values education. Such short-sighted actions, it’s sad to say, leave us in our current predicament.

“Hire for attitude, train for skill.” Perhaps to the surprise of hardliners, this stance drives right to the bottom line. Ask Southwest Airlines. Ask Dr. Dewey. Ask Aristotle.

I tell you this ‘story’ only so I can tell you this one.

Late yesterday afternoon, I received an email from a friend. We were conversing on the failures of public discourse resulting from the placement of “money ahead of morality,” as he put it.

Here’s an excerpt from his message that offers no small measure of hope in the face of a worldwide morality meltdown.

“My son Chris (who is in Grade 12) was telling me about an incident at his school the other day. He was outside, off to the side of the school and he noticed a group of about a dozen Grade 9 boys who were threatening and about to beat up a group of four Asian boys. My son and a couple of his Grade 12 friends immediately walked over and stood alongside the Asian boys. He told the group of 12 that if they were going to beat up the group of four, they would have to go through him (and his friends)… the group of 12 changed their minds rather quickly.

I asked Chris what made him stand up for those boys. He replied that he just can’t stand arrogance… now, I don’t condone violence and I am very glad that the matter was resolved without incident… but I am very proud of him.”

… and so you should be, James. And so you should be.

Best regards,

Kevin Graham

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