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Jewish World Review March 8, 2001 / 13 Adar, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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The wrong question -- AFTER every tragic school shooting -- and many other shocking murders -- the question gets asked: "How could he do such a thing?" This has become the centerpiece of a whole set of rituals.

Another part of these rituals is the appearance of shrinks, like ambulance chasers, at the scene of the tragedy and in TV studios. Even when young killers had been given clean bills of health by psychiatrists and psychologists before they unleashed a murderous rampage, the shrinks have become confident know-it-alls after the fact and have told us what needs to be done by all and sundry. It always includes more use of the services of shrinks.

Yet another ritual is the televised display of grief by family and friends, and assertions of what good people the murder victims were. But the grief of the bereaved is far too personal for the TV tube, unless we are determined to turn all of life -- and death -- into daytime shock TV. As for the virtues of the victims, even if they had no special virtues, nobody had a right to kill them.

All these emotional releases shift the focus away from the outrage that was committed and from the young killer or killers who were responsible -- and who need to be held responsible and forced to pay a price commensurate with what they did. But the whole thrust of questions like "Why did he do it?" is toward lessening personal responsibility. Yet shrinks insist on explaining what they cannot explain and demonstrably could not predict.

Why did he do it? The question itself is so painfully naive as to be a harbinger of hand-wringing futility. Human beings have been killing other human beings for as long as we have written records. Ancient skeletons of murdered people show that these killings went on before humans were even capable of writing.

The real question is: Why don't most other people do things like this? The cave men were killers, and babies born into the world today come equipped with no more morality than the offspring of the cave men. If they turn out any better, it is because morality has been inculcated into them during their childhood.

Morality is civilization's first line of defense. Police and the criminal justice system are the last line of defense for those relatively few who are not stopped by society's other defenses. Unfortunately, there seem to be increasing numbers of people for whom morality means nothing.

Some of this may be part of the general trends of our times. However, most people are unaware of how much of the breakdown of morality is not just a happenstance, but is part of a decades-long systematic undermining of moral norms by the schools themselves. There are educational gurus whose books and packaged programs have been put into schools across the country, devoted to counteracting the morality taught to children by their parents with fads that used to be called "values clarification" and which now go by a variety of names.

Most moral principles do not require any clarification, nor is clarification what these programs offer. Just what part of "Thou shalt not kill" does anyone not understand? Is it rocket science to figure out what parents mean when they teach their children not to lie or steal?

What "values clarification" offered, and what similar programs continue to offer, is the prospect of having individuals -- children at that -- create their own morality, as they are supposed to create their own understanding of how to go about doing math. For years, our American school children have finished at or near the bottom in international tests of mathematics. So we know that this faddish approach to teaching math simply does not work.

There is no reason to expect or believe that do-it-yourself morality is any more successful. But that is what underlies many programs that emphasize "decision-making" -- meaning creating your own norms for making decisions. That is the real message of programs that get sold to the public as "drug prevention," "sex education" or whatever other false colors may be used.

The time is long overdue for parents and voters to stop buying the education establishment's line, and get the public schools out of the business of indoctrinating students or using them as guinea pigs. But parents who themselves received a dumbed-down education, garnished with psychobabble, may not be equipped to understand what is wrong with what is being done to their children or to have the backbone to be "judgmental" about it.

But if the fetish of being non-judgmental means more to you than your children, then what kind of parent are you?

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate