Post 14: The Education of Adam Lanza

Wednesday, December, 19, 12 § 5 Comments

Like all of us, I’ve been trying to digest the tragedy in Newtown this week.

I’ve been grieving from afar, been holding my daughter more tightly. Checking on her more often at night.

Perhaps the experience is too raw for us to make meaning of it, but as much as I try to keep them at bay, the questions arise. Why did he do it? How did Adam Lanza lose touch with his humanity? How are we creating young men like Lanza, like James Holmes from the Aurora shooting?

For me this is not a gun control issue. Neither is it an issue that can only be addressed by psychiatrists.

For me, this is an education issue, and it implicates us all.

As a society, we had our opportunity to reach Adam Lanza and James Holmes during the years and years they spent in school and in classrooms. We failed. We focused on academic skill-building when we needed to focus on who they were as people. We gave them worksheets and exams when they needed interaction and exploration and mentors. We gave them false success and an empty diploma when they need self-esteem and a place in the world.

You’re bristling, maybe, as you read this: Schools cannot be held accountable for everything.

I agree. Schools cannot fix broken families. They cannot solve poverty, cannot create social equity. Repairing social fabric and creating a more equitable economy are massive undertakings, and will only begin when the adults of our nation find ways to recreate values and check our love of capitalism.

But schools–if we imagine them differently–can reach young people. Even “seriously disturbed” young people. Schools can create communities that embrace children for who they are, and guide them toward a discovery of their own paths, toward the confidence, critical thinking, and wisdom they need to stay human in a dehumanized world.

People talk a lot about schools that cover a child from “cradle to career”: from the confining structure of the crib to the confining structure of the job.

They’re on the wrong track.

We need “womb-to-wisdom” schooling. We need to take a hard look at ourselves, at our schools, and at what we should offer the young people whom we have the honor and privilege and responsibility of teaching. We need to begin reimagining–and now.

Seth Biderman – December 20, 2012


§ 5 Responses to Post 14: The Education of Adam Lanza

  • Zoë Nelsen says:

    The reflection below was crafted just before reading this post. It was an email response to the preparedness of our students for final examinations. Many learners didn’t come equipped with pencils, even for these “important” demonstrations of knowledge. What I express below links my passion as a teacher to a strong belief that connecting to our place, our food and water are essential to feeling our humanity. This I feel schools can do a better job at, now.

    I’m thinking of placed-based models of education, where daily, students are required to know how to use more tools than a pencil. Where first they are asked to carry shovels and soil, then reflect on the experience with an essay, a photograph, a dance, a nutritional meal to share…

    It absolutely amazes me the lack of awareness many of youth have of the natural world. They want to work, to shovel snow and ice. Reflecting on my semester with mostly middle school students, I clearly recognize the potential we have in this young, intelligent and diverse group. As a P.E. teacher, I am partially charged to help integrate physical activity into the curriculum. I envision care and connection to this campus and the surrounding landscape. I hope to collectively figure out ways to learn with our students, how to sharpen more than pencils.

  • Nanda says:

    Odd that all the experts kept saying schools were safer etc. In the video I completed one young woman, Jesse, talks about how her friend sat with her with a stop watch and timed how many fights broke out when she was at school, and it was every ten minutes, and she decided at that point in time to homeschool. She was tired of the bullying. Another teacher interviewed said bullying came from kids that were not happy and the kids she worked with in alternative approaches like homeschoolers were happy and not isolated. Also families were close, kids not taken away from mothers at an early age and how important this fact is in our society. When I taught in public school I dealt with racial issues, the overcrowded classrooms, labeling of kids with learning issues and I found very little merit. The gifted kids suffered too in other ways and Wes Beach mentions this in his history as an educator. As Seth articulates in this article:IT IS A LARGER question in front of us. I get frustrated by more testing, more standards and more ‘outside in’ approaches that do not develop or focus on spirit or autonomy in children. If parents need a school to drop off their kids in order to work at a job they are stuck in economic issues, and so it is an economic issue too around how we support single parents or people who are not prepared to deal with parenting. We we need help in these areas, in teen pregnancy, early childhood education, many areas. Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh said ..”this is like this because that is like that” so there is no one to blame but a whole legacy. Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Call Me by My True Name,” speaks to this in our society since it is not about pointing fingers but a way we have to take it ALL on not just political jockeying.

  • Ellen Biderman says:

    Seth, I agree about your assessment of education, but don’t necessarily think that it explains the mass killer phenomenon. Killing, severe mental illness and access to guns are not easily solved by better schools alone. While you talk about the need for cultural and systemic change, which i agree with, we have an immediate challenge of being responsible for those with mental illness and limiting access to powerful guns. We have to work on all fronts simultaneously to make change and to care for our children in safe and loving ways.


  • Thanks for the comments, Mom, Nanda and Zoe. The connection that Zoe writes about is what concerns me. Our schools are not fostering connection to place, to food, to water—or to self. The ¨legacy¨of modern Western schooling, as Nanda calls it, is a process of disconnection. It is a process of taking in skills and knowledge bases that often have little to do with what matters in the moment in a child’s life.

    It is dangerous, I think, to treat Adam Lanza as an isolated phenomen. For me, his actions represent are not the crazed actions of a very ill person but the extreme end of a spectrum of behaviors and values that are being learned by millions of young people, especially young men, in America. Much of this learning comes from outside of school, but schools are complicit in not offering an intervention.

    I taught nine years. In that time, two of my male students had ¨psychotic breaks.¨ One tried to kill himself, the other did. Another male student died after passing out drunk in a snow bank. All of these students, like Adam Lanza and James Holmes, were high school graduates. They were given a diploma that is supposed to mean that they were ready to integrate into society.

    I get that high school was invented to be a primarily economic institution, preparing kids for jobs. But times have changed. Yes, we have to get guns under control, but while the politicians hash out that same old battle in Washington, millions of young men and women are going to return to school in January, be told to sit in their desks, and for yet another semester of their young lives, have their inner lives and their desire for connection ignored.

    Embracing the young people in America is, to my mind, far more important and far more urgent than is regulating guns.

  • anne geffner says:

    my response to newtown is throw out all forms of academic learning that is not acquired through play. gun control is not the answer. school reform could be. today’s world consists of 2 parents or 1 needing to work. schools need to provide a more nurturing environment and focus on relationships not academics. are we raising children who are skilled in tech knowledge but not human contact?

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