It’s because we’re a bunch of degenerates

In sixth grade, I was the victim of bullying. Looking back, I can kind of see why: I was unassuming, not terribly self-aware, I wore chunky black wraparound glasses that reflected my parents’ values of function over form. Not that this excuses the bullying. Thank god, though, that at that time the “internet” was accessed on a 14.4k modem that you used to login to a unix terminal and check email using pine. You couldn’t get into Facebook wars or anything of the sort. The bullying stopped when I came home.

Some rights reserved by Amy Fleming

That’s not the case these days. The Internet and cellphones mean that teenagers are always connected – to their friends, and to their bullies, and we don’t know what to do about it – call parent meetings? File lawsuits? Danah Boyd tells us: “No amount of legislation requiring education is going to do squat until we actually find intervention mechanisms that work.” Ah, intervention. In other words, trying to solve a problem after it happens. But as Boyd herself acknowledges later in her article,

The issues here are systemic. And it’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem here. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle for attention, validation, and status. And unless we find effective ways of getting to the root of the problem, the Internet will just continue to be used to reinforce what is pervasive.

“Getting to the root of the problem.” In other words, we should find the cause and prevent the problem before it happens. So how do we do that?

Boyd gives us a place to start. In her research she found that

Bullying was when someone picked on someone or physically hurt someone who didn’t deserve it. I’d ask how they knew if someone deserved it and the response was incredulous, “oh, you know.” So I pushed harder… “what if you don’t know?” I asked. I got blank stares so I took a different tactic. “What if someone’s messing with someone and that other person thinks they’re being mean?” This got their attention, but not in the way that I expected. Most told me that you know when someone is messing with you and that if you don’t, you’re stupid.

So teenagers can’t recognize other points of view or see how their actions are affecting others, because if they could, they wouldn’t think that someone getting upset at being messed with was “stupid.” In other research, Boyd expands on this further:

Not only are most young people often ill-equipped to recognize how their meanness, cruelty, and pranking might cause pain, but most adults are themselves are ill-equipped to help young people in a productive way. Worse, many adults are themselves perpetuating the idea that being cruel is socially acceptable. Not only has cruelty and deception become status quo on TV talk shows; it plays a central role in televised entertainment and political debates. In contemporary culture, it has become acceptable to be outright cruel to any public figure, whether they’re a celebrity, reality TV contestant, or teenager awaiting trial.

So teenagers act like this because many adults do. I’m not surprised. How do teachers help teens break this attitude when the adults in their lives model that exact attitude all the time? It seems like a losing battle – one that requires radical solutions.

Don’t model ethics. Teach ethics.

As teachers, we’re always told to model good values and behaviors for our students. But how often is it that students get to see us in “authentic” situations? We’re perpetually interacting with them in an academic context, dealing with few of the real-life situations they deal with outside the classroom. So what’s the use in modeling ethics if we’re never going to actually be in situations where we can model it – especially the kinds of interactions that Boyd describes? In Korea, schools have a moral education curriculum throughout all grade levels that has at times included “Moral judgment and moral discussion…rather than moral inculcation.” Yes, there are classes where students are TAUGHT what is moral and what is not. Autocratic? Outmoded? Not suited to our students? Maybe. But Boyd’s writing demonstrates that our students do not know morality.

Now in all fairness, Korea has its fair share of bullying problems as well. So having ethics or morality classes is not some panacea. But it does at least allow students to acquire the knowledge of ethics. Then we need to work on the application of that knowledge. Now if teachers are ill-suited to do this because we don’t see students in authentic situations, who is left? A group that is rarely mentioned in the discussion about the responsibility for a child’s education:


And the problem is that while everyone has heard of some anecdote about lovely children coming from awful parents, there’s a larger body of evidence out there that the quality of parenting directly influences the outcome of the children. As George Carlin said, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Judging from recent parental reactions I’ve seen to accusations of their children cheating, I’m going to say that in the case of repeat bullying and other immoral behavior, the parents are often just as one-sided, defensive, and close-minded as their kids.

Alright, I’ve pointed the finger like every polemic should do, but I haven’t really offered a solution. As Boyd says, the problem is “systemic.” Which means that it needs to be dealt with as a system. This makes the old argument for the school to build a community. If the parents, teachers, students, and admin are all regularly involved, it makes it easier to pick up the phone and talk out a problem rather than mete out unilateral punishments that result in court cases. And when you do that, I think you realize that it’s not an issue of controlling technology. It’s an issue of raising empathetic, conscientious children.

11 thoughts on “It’s because we’re a bunch of degenerates”

  1. Thoughtful and insightful post Matt. Your thoughts challenged me in a couple of ways. First, I believe you are absolutely correct in that we need to teach ethics and moral behavior – not merely model these in our daily interactions with students, parents, and other school staff members. Modeling is great, but it is not sufficient. Teenagers do not necessarily clue into the fact that we are modeling – let alone what we are modeling. I think that insight only comes later, when (IF) they reflect back upon teachers, coaches, and other people who served as role models for them in their “formative years.” Unfortunately, my middle school recently did away with our dedicated time in the school calendar for just such a class we had previously. The reason given – some teachers are not using this time effectively, or at all, for the intended curriculum. While I am sure this was the case, I am not sure we are serving our students’ needs by throwing the whole idea of the affective domain in middle school out the window. By the way, we replaced this with another period of math instruction, as it was decided the time we spent on math did not meet the standards of schools in the Middle East region.
    I also felt challenged by your conclusion that we need to create a community environment around the school – around our kids really. You are exactly right in that we need to have a environment of trust in which students, parents, teachers, administrators, counselors feel they can communicate openly, without the “threats” and “punishment” hanging over the discussion. Communicate and work to solve the real problem. Shutting down access and connectivity is not THE solution. There are many intermediate steps – and one of which is, as you said, working together to raise conscientious kids.

    1. It sounds like your school is grappling with the age-old dilemma of whether middle school should be developing students characters or their academics- not that training these is inherently mutually exclusive, but there is only so much time in the school year to devote to these things. But one of the ways to do this, and to raise community bonds, is to have a strong extracurricular activities program. I love seeing schools where parents, students, and teachers are on campus after school and on the weekends – its not that I want to have an insane workload or completely work-oriented life, but the very best schools create a culture where this extra involvement doesn’t feel like an extra responsibility, but rather a manifestation of a healthy social life.

  2. I am struggling to write the blog post addressing this question because in some regards, it is so simple. I completely agree with you that we must teach ethics in schools and I also agree that parents are key in instilling values and ethics. I guess to me, the answer is simple – it is the how of it that is difficult.

    How do we address the issue of time? Personally, I believe that we can create citizens while also addressing academics. But this requires training, and creating an ethics program that is valuable and meanigful to students takes time and constant attention. Every teacher has to feel passionately about instilling these values.

    With regards to parenting, this has been the age old question for as long as I have been teaching, and I am sure well beyond that. The main problem is that we all share different values.

    I have a friend whose child is very sensitive. Recently, he has started hitting and the parents are okay with it, because they are glad he’s “finally standing up for himself.” So while I am trying to discipline my child and reinforce no hitting (she’s three, hit quite a lot when she was 18 months, and rarely hits now except in retaliation) I am having a hard time. Her response when I say, say we don’t hit is “but he hit me first or but he hit my friend.” So I remain adamant that it is not how we solve problems, but at the same time, that other child is not being told anything. So as a parent, I have to be able to communicate to my three year old why the stakes are different for her than for him. I venture to guess that my words mean little compared to what is being modeled, and not by my own parenting.

    At first, we thought about simply removing oursleves from the situation. If she isn’t allowed to interact with bullies, then we have some control. But this actually won’t help her once she goes to school, so this is a totally useless solution.

    I guess my main point here is that at some point, we have to take the personal out of it and agree that creating emphathetic, compassionate citizens is more important than our personal stake, be it in our classroom (academics) or our homes (my child is tougher than yours).

    If we adopt the same vision, perhaps we’ll all get there.

    1. I like the idea of doing “whole child” development during a dedicated homeroom period, because you remove the influence of grades and can make it purely about the students. But I can easily see incorporating ethical discussions into my history classes – for example, discussing the ethics of various leaders and their decisions. I already do this in some cases, such as the ethics of war, but it’s not a core goal. Of course, English literature also offers many avenues to explore ethics.

  3. This was a great post (with a fab title!). Boyd’s article really opened my eyes and you are totally right that modeling is NOT enough especially when what is being modeled for students after they leave school really stinks. Ethics should be explicitly taught and it seems so obvious to me now! After your post, I ran across this story about a father suing his son’s school because of the way his son was punished for cheating ( It actually made me sad for so many reasons; the lawyer father who thinks it’s appropriate to sue over this; his son who cheated and, although his name isn’t mentioned, probably everyone in his little world knows AND the people who are being hateful to the family about it. What was modeled and taught to all these different players?! What a mess.

    Do you feel that Koreans behave any differently because they have acquired knowledge of ethics?

    1. I really can only use crime rates as a proxy for whether people are behaving ethically, and according to the US State Department, The crime rate in the Republic of Korea is low. But I’m not able to control for the myriad other factors that might influence ethical behavior. Do I believe Koreans behave better because they have acquired knowledge of ethics? Honestly, yes. I never felt in danger, never worried about staying out late, was always paid on time. But aside from anecdotes, can I prove it? No.

  4. Great Discussions!!!

    Having taught HS Mathematics passionately and ACADEMICALLY for 43 years, and having seen how screwed up some kids were, and then understanding the reason after meeting the parents at Parent Conferences, I think it is obvious that parents don’t know much about good parenting.

    While I believe in modeling good ethics, it is pretty obvious we need to TEACH good ethics. (What are ethics anyway, except justifications for my behavior???) But the good part, we can all be against bullying and talk about that in a classroom.

    So my point!!! The world, parents, and schools are equally screwed up. I MADE time in my classroom to rant and rave about the immorality and the logical contradictions in the political races (yes, I was a frustrated History teacher), I would rant and rave about the ignorance about science discoveries and the logical contradictions in Religion (yes I was a frustrated Science teacher) and I would rant and rave about bullying at school and how unfairly the world treats poor people and minorities (after all, my school was a “truly global community” who pays local hire teachers less than overseas hire teachers).

    Reasoning doesn’t mature until what 23, 24, 25 (if ever). ((I should have googled this but you can and correct me????)) So you scare the shit out of a child who darts into the road. They must know (be impressed) to stop and look both ways. Many high school kids are wonderful, bright, and enthusiastic, but their reasoning is not too good (still to controlled by their parents’ ethics).

    My ranting and raving made them pause, think, (occasionally scared my new Asian students), laugh, and once in a while even applaud. I tried to make an impact!!! I knew I was right (my values and ethics), and most of the kids understood my point. I just wanted them to know that they had to look both ways (but that in politics only one way was right!!!!)

    As teachers, it is your passion that affects the kids, not just in a planned 45 minute character building session where only half the teachers will really give it a go, and especially not just in Middle School. It is not a particular discipline, method of teaching, curriculum, or age level that makes the difference. Day in and day out we must teach kids that how they treat each other is as important as what they know. Hopefully, reasoning ties it all together.

    And I always found time to squeeze in the math!!!!

    1. My ranting and raving made them pause, think, (occasionally scared my new Asian students), laugh, and once in a while even applaud.

      I’m still building up the confidence to be able to do that, but I think I have to be more aware of the cultural context in which I work than you did. I live in a society where questioning and challenging is apt to be equated with attacking and degrading, and where the “truth” – especially in terms of religion and politics – is to varying extents dictated by government figures and enforced by legal authority. The western definition of academic freedom simply doesn’t apply. It’s not to say that my students here don’t have their own thoughts, but I do need to be careful about how I challenge their ideas.

  5. Your caveat is spot on, but to bring this full circle to technology, and bullying (already noted as two mutually exclusive sets), teachers who care about their kids will learn to take every opportunity to help these kids grow, learn, and learn to question and try to check their own behavior. Parents, curriculum and admin aren’t there when the opportunity arises.

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