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Educating for Democracy: What's Behind School Bullying?

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A recent law passed by the Massachusetts legislature and signed by Governor Deval Patrick (5/3/10) has "outlawed" bullying in the public schools. I remember trying to avoid the school bullies when I was at P.S. 79--Creston JHS in the Bronx--since some of them were not just verbal bullies but had the heft to back up their attitude (several ninth graders were well over six feet tall.). However, I also remember the schoolyard chants that we used in order to defend ourselves--often at a safe distance--from the bullies: "Sticks and stones..." and "I'm rubber, you're glue..." It never occurred to me that being called a "fag" or worse--along with most of the rest of us in the SP's--was something that could be considered illegal or result in the dismissal of one of my teachers on school yard duty if he didn't report it.

But what seems to be happening now is a growing trend toward bullying and, according to several reports, a disproportionate tendency to contemplate or commit suicide by those young people who are bullied by their peers. In an excellent article in "The New American," Raven Claburgh writes very thoughtfully about one of the causes for bullying: the attitude of parents.

She notes that children might even gain approval of parents who themselves are bullies and regard their child's behavior as "healthy" and "normal." I have even heard of parents who are suing schools for suspending their children for bullying. But I think that this practice of dehumanization, which is what bullying is, turning a person into an object that can be humiliated, reflects a society in which various forms of bullying are the social norm.

This is evident in the driving practices of many people who tailgate, cut off other drivers, and are generally obnoxious and dangerous on the road (from my experience, Brooklyn drivers are near the top in discourteous behavior). Bullying of spouses or significant others serves as a model for young learners who see their parents or parent engaged in it constantly. Bullying occurs in team sports, even at the little league level when parents or even coaches think that belittling the other team--especially the weakest players--is good for "team spirit." And, of course, and military officials would argue by necessity, bullying is a standard practice in the military in order to get young recruits "into shape."

For me, however, the most socially accepted model of bullying is in the workplace, as I know from anecdotes among my working class students as well as the way in which teachers are being treated by the Bloomberg Administration. Say what you will about the Mayor's positive attributes, of which I will admit there are many: he is the classic example of the bully. His attitude toward those who disagree with him, at least as publicly recorded, is contemptuous, dismissive and disrespectful. Often his preferred form of communication is through intimidation. And he is the role model for many other bullies in this city.

On the other hand, the way one can combat bullying is through empathy, a higher form of human development. The greatness of Shakespeare's plays is not only in his beautiful and powerful poetry, but in his ability to "empathize" with such a diverse cast of characters as kings, beggars, Africans and Jews (Shylock's famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" is an example), women and youth, the elderly and the sick. Empathy makes bullying impossible because it demands that one person have feelings for another and can, as the old Native American adage goes: "walk in the other person's moccasins." But our culture does not seem to value empathy. That's for "bleeding hearts."

My favorite phony examples of empathy are when a politician says: "I feel your pain," or "we're all Haitians" or "my heart goes out to you" (Is that an offer for a heart transplant?). There is no way someone who is remote from us can "feel our pain" or be a person other than they are; they're just spouting words and to me, hypocritical ones. In a society in which one's worth is determined by how much one can "produce" for financial gain, empathy is not "fiscally responsible," even though, or so it seems to me, kindness and consideration for an employee can result in a much more productive one.

Another example of providing models for bullying which seems to be growing in popularity is what passes for news and politics in the public arena: belittling and dismissive comments about people with whom we disagree, especially those who are unable to defend themselves, and "demonizing the opposition," so that those on both sides of an argument begin to resemble grotesque caricatures of what they really are. The treatment of illegal immigrants, many of whom are children fleeing poverty, as exemplified by Arizona, with some others eagerly ready to follow its example, I would consider "state-sanctioned bullying." I'm not naïve enough to think that this kind of political bullying has not gone on since the mid-nineteenth century when the new immigrants were exploited and stereotyped in order to "show them their place." But in the present economic crisis facing this country, and the global crisis facing the planet, these childish games belong in the school yard, if at all; not the state houses of our nation. Most illegal immigrants are victims of misfortune, not "enemies" to be disparaged and humiliated.

In terms of how bullying is becoming a major issue in education, the industrial model that is being imposed on the public schools in this and other cities will make bullying the norm for young learners. In NYC the Mayor and Chancellor Klein bully their principals, who will, in turn, bully their teachers who will then, in the interest of improving the meaningless test scores on which their future careers will depend, will find themselves using bullying tactics to get their students to "produce."

Bullying is a symptom of the way our society is increasingly treating its citizens: not as valuable simply in being human, but in terms of monetary value as the sole determinant of worth. Of course, we give lip service to the philanthropists and those who give their lives to public service. But the core of American enterprise lies elsewhere: and, I believe, it is becoming increasingly rotten.