The Lessons of Littleton

By Peter Bearse

Once again we confront the tragedy of young people being killed by their schoolmates. Once again we bewail the tragedy like Biblical women, tearing out our hair and knashing our teeth and crying out for causes and solutions. Again, much the same shopping list of potential remedies is being trotted out. Amazingly, implications of the obvious are ignored.

Most obvious is the fact that, in Littleton as elsewhere, students observed their peers (as teenagers invariably do) and heard them making hateful, threatening and/or just plain crazy remarks. As elsewhere, not only were the remarks not reported but those hearing did not confront those making them to say: That's awful; you're wrong; let's talk; perhaps you need help or a friend; don't damage yourself with such strange or hateful claptrap. For if we are not sensitizing and educating young people to take their places in a moral community, we are shortchanging them. They need to be morally strong. They need to be able to demonstrate values-in-action. They need to know when and how to speak up and speak out. We are failing to teach our children the lessons of the Holocaust. Thus, they act or fail to act, as one book presenting such lessons is titled, as if they had all signed "A Contract of Mutual Indifference" to outrageous behavior in their own midst.

Values comprise the core of a good education. We avoid trying to teach values in schools. Meanwhile, too much of what youngsters encounter outside of the schools is moral relativism, as with the "I'm all right; you're all right" attitude. There are no standards except for those relating to tests and credentials. Yet, in the 1996 Survey of American Political Culture, a majority adults surveyed strongly favored teaching traditional values in public schools.

The second obvious fact is that there is little appreciation of the sanctity of life. Sanctity means more than just respect. This, too, is not conveyed by our educational system. Yet it can be and should be. Human life is like Joseph's coat of many colors. Each subject in school reflects a facet. The tree of life starts with biology. How many schools trace the intricate, marvelous development of human life from a fertilized egg -- the day to day development of the fetus -- and all that it takes henceforth, year after year, to develop a full human being? Educationally, the sanctity of life is revealed from biology to religion and through almost every subject of study in between. Unfortunately, it was fully revealed to Littleton students too late, by the deaths of 15 young men and women and a teacher with lives full of promise, snuffed out before their time. What a hard, tragic, incredibly sad way to learn such a basic lesson.

So the lessons of Littleton bear very much on the nature of the educational setting where the tragedy occurred -- the school as a moral community that reveals and honors the sanctity of human life.