One of the front-page stories in the Review last week was about a recently implemented program at the Forest Park Middle School designed to improve discipline and reduce the number of “student outbursts.”
The strategy, called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, is to reinforce good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. It sounds similar to part of the approach Grant-White Elementary School used a few years ago to maintain a positive learning environment called “caught doing good.” Administrators reported that since the initiative was started in September the number of disciplinary issues has declined by 20 percent.
Is that good news or bad news?
My answer begins by acknowledging that today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season in the church that focuses on repentance. These six weeks preceding Easter are grounded in the belief that you and I have been created good – in the image of God, in fact – but that we have also fallen. Now, everyone knows that a fall never hurt anyone. It’s the crash landing that causes the pain.
The needed turnaround, according to the Christian tradition, is to move away from serving yourself and turn toward serving God and the people around you.
You won’t see many folks walking around town today with a smudge of ashes on their forehead, because Ash Wednesday in particular and Lent in general don’t seem to resonate with the way many people view reality.
One reason for this shift is the Enlightenment, that cultural sea change that happened 300 years ago. A theologian named Wilbert Shenk wrote, “The crowning achievement of the Enlightenment was the emergence of the autonomous self. It was argued that the human being can achieve fullest potential only if set free.”
Frank Sinatra sold a lot of records on which he sang, “I’ve gotta be me.” Turns out, that’s not so good for the children we have been raising, some of whom are attending the Forest Park Middle School. A non-profit called the Children’s Society did a study in which it collected evidence from 30,000 children in the UK. Their report concludes:
“Most of the obstacles children face today are linked to the belief among adults that the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of their own life, rather than contribute to the good of others. …Excessive individualism is causing a range of problems for children including: high family break-up, teenage unkindness … too much competition in education and acceptance of income inequality.”
I am sure that the administration and teachers at the middle school chose their positive reinforcement tactic because it was based on scientific data and had a proven track record. I’m all for implementing techniques that work.
The problem is the figure of 20 percent. The problem is that techniques only chip away at the margins, because this mindset we’ve inherited ignores the part of human nature that is fallen. The problem that caused the sinking of the Titanic wasn’t technique. It was direction.
The report from the Children’s Society implies that what we need more than new techniques is to recognize where we are headed as a society and participate in creating a change as profound as was the Enlightenment. Ashes to ashes. We have met the enemy and they are us.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.