A World of Their Own

  On Tuesday of last week, Charles "Andy" Williams, fifteen, walked out of the bathroom in his Santee, California high school with a smile on his face and a .22 in his hand. Within a few minutes, two kids were dead and another thirteen were wounded. But this was only the most recent in a series of seemingly inexplicable shootings in American high schools. As with the shootings in Littleton, Paducah, and Ashland, people are asking how this could have happened. Hours after the shooting we learned that Williams had been the object of the kind of bullying and harassment that is typical in American high schools. Classmates told reporters that he'd been called a "dork," a "freak," and a "nerd." If you're wondering "Where were the adults?" it's clear you don't know how most American teenagers are growing up today. American teenagers operate in what has been called a "parallel culture" that operates free of adult interference. As Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, wrote in the New York Times, American high schools are the site of something unique in American society: "a gang in which individuals of the same age group define each other's world." This definition includes the imposition of standards that have no relationship to what's needed for success in the real world. Instead of stepping in and challenging the false values, which are being imposed by elite cliques, or even challenging the kind of cruelty endured by kids like Andy Williams, teachers and administrators adopt a hands-off approach. It's called "non-directed teaching," and kids are allowed to follow their own rules wherever it may take them. And where do they get these rules? From themselves, with help from the corporations who covet their business. Teenagers are a 150-billion dollar per year market! Companies study today's teenagers to see what they want, and then programmers present kids with an often cruder and more sexualized version of themselves -- always stressing that kids should make their own decisions. Kids then imitate this "version of themselves," and the result is what NYU professor Douglas Rushkoff calls a "feedback loop." This loop, which is completely adult-free, both validates and shapes teenagers' ideas about right and wrong, what's important and what isn't. So we've got American kids operating from an artificial set of rules unrelated to real life; they're going to schools where adults don't question those rules, watching media that validates those rules, and being wooed by advertisers who tell them how insightful they really are. Worst of all, their parents are complicit in the creation of the parallel culture. Whether it's because of a lack of time, or a desire not to "repress" their children, American parents have adopted a hands-off approach to parenting. Instead of direct supervision they get what's called "guilt money" -- money given in lieu of real parental involvement. The lack of supervision and the money reinforce the parallel culture. It's created a creature I call the "autonomous teenager." Well, the autonomous teenager has got to go if we're to avoid horrors like Santee. What we've forgotten is that we are still dealing with children here. And children need adult supervision. Until we remember the seemingly obvious, we are destined to continue asking ourselves "how this could have happened," and never getting the right answer. For further reference: Botstein, Leon. "Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood." New York Times, 17 May 1999. Rosenfeld, Megan. "'Merchants of Cool,' Hot on Teens' Trail." Washington Post, 27 February 2001.


Chuck Colson


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