Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lords of the Flies

I know the title of this post repeats the observations of many people commenting on the current rash of bully-stories in various media. But it seems so utterly appropriate that I had to succumb.

The stories themselves are raw meat to the sensationalist television appetite currently in evidence. If a story isn't gross or gruesome or painful in some way, it's not worth reporting.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that when a young Irish immigrant hangs herself after suffering severe bullying in a Massachusetts high school, the news shows and papers are full of it, and the pundits are after the story from all directions, left, right, and center.

What I don't understand is why anyone is surprised by any of this. We are allowing our children to raise one another, without much in the way of parental supervision or real guidance, and then we look for scapegoats (pardon me, causes) when they turn into monsters out of a George Orwell novel.

Don't get me wrong. I do not think the answer is helicopter parents who whirl around their kids and stuff their schedules with all manner of "activities" to keep them from becoming "bored" and then shower them with technological gizmos that remove the little darlings further and further from reality.

But children--even teen-aged children--should not be left unsupervised for long periods of time, encountering only their peers who don't know anything more than they do. In order to become responsible adults, children need to be educated, and they are quite simply not equipped to educate one another.

The roots of both "education" and "pedagogy" involve leading: leading out into the world, leading children. When we leave the process to the children themselves, we set up a situation in which the blind are leading the people who can't see very well. Some of these kids may have some experience of the world, but--in light of how we're raising them these days--that experience is highly restricted, mostly by technology.

I mentioned on the Farm the other day that one of my parents' most enduring gifts to me was the chance to live among Japanese and Chinese people, rather than Americans, when we were stationed in Japan and Taiwan. But another gift that I'm only now able to assess (because I thought I was terribly deprived at the time) was limited time with people my own age. Most of my life out of school was spent with adults: writers and reporters at the Foreign Correspondents Club and the Friends of China Club in Taipei, my father's fellow NCOs at his base, our "household staff" (a couple I regarded as my second parents, the "houseboy" and his wife, Lee and A-qui).

When I was with my friends, we were constrained by an invisible net of etiquette: the knowledge that our behavior reflected on the American community in Taipei, so that lapses in judgment or inappropriate displays in public were treated as major infractions and punished accordingly. We were trained to be little ambassadors, and most of us took this role seriously. There were the occasional goofballs who ended up embarrassing everyone, but I was fortunate not to encounter any of those--probably because they didn't attend the Catholic international school where Mother Superior reigned supreme and didn't put up with any crap from uppity children.

Eventually I came to value my close interaction with adults, and I think it provided me with terrific role models: successful writers and cartoonists, diplomats, nuns, priests, bishops, missionaries, translators, career military people, Taiwanese intellectuals, and a variety of European business folk.

Modern kids don't seem to have many opportunities like these; they not only don't have my weird and wonderful parents, but they also seem to be living in a different universe: one that values virtual reality over the real world, one that devalues intellectual pursuits, and one that worships youth and a comic-book concept of beauty.

I don't know what to do about bullies. We may already be too far down the line to do much but sit back and watch the coming apocalypse. But if we want to save the next generation, we almost certainly have to start spending our time with them, leading them away from the mob, containing some of their freedom with real education and companionship. How are they possibly going to learn to be responsible adults if their time with real role models is limited to a few hours with teachers every day, and a very few transient moments with parents?

If we bring children into the world, it really is our responsibility to lead them out into it--not to let them find their own way among their own kind, let loose to run around the island, deciding for themselves who should be "king" and who should be voted off.

Image credit: The Education of the Children of Clovis, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1861, via Wikimedia Commons.