In the wake of last week's massacre at Columbine High School, the debate now turns to prevention. For their part, Denver school officials have decided to bar students from wearing trench coats to school. The real solution, alas, is far more complicated than that.
The greatest problem facing schools today isn't a handful of students who come to campus wearing dreary "goth" clothes, but millions of students who graduate as modern Visigoths. These new barbarians and moral illiterates have been taught to do what they feel and at all times to be self-expressive. There is only one sin in this new system and that is to be "judgmental."
To get a sense of why two trench coat-clad misfits armed with sawed-off shotguns and homemade bombs would unleash a torrent of death and mayhem on their classmates, one must understand how radically schools have changed in the past 40 years.
First, the reigning orthodoxy within America's education establishment since the late '50s and '60s has been child-centered or "nondirected" learning, with an emphasis on boosting students' self-esteem and "values clarification."
Teachers don't instruct, they facilitate. And at many schools, students aren't given letter grades so nobody fails. Instead, they are told their work is "satisfactory," or "needs improvement."
This approach is reflected in the curricula, too, which places learning "issues" over academic skills, rigor, and mental discipline.
Under the current education fads, students' self-esteem is merely boosted without the influence of an adult's guidance. Yet it's an amoral universe. Kids only need to be to make their own choices as they see fit. One choice is as good as the next.
Of course, for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, their choices had deadly consequences.
Columbine High officials could have seen the red flags if they'd only bothered to open their eyes and exercised the moral faculty of judgment.
Harris and Klebold gave ample warning of their designs, including making a class project video last September, which depicted them walking down school corridors systematically blasting popular students with shotguns and pistols.
What did their teacher think of this grim exercise of self-expression? Did he deem it "satisfactory," or did he think it "needed improvement"? He won't say.
The second great educational development of the last quarter-century is the advent of students' rights. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have made tremendous headway with lawsuits against public schools that conduct random locker searches, suspend or expel known troublemakers "without due process," and enforce even modest dress codes.
The ACLU won a number of these cases before the Supreme Court, giving rise to the notion that student privacy outweighs a school's interest in fostering a safe learning environment.
And it's unclear just what lawmakers and pundits mean by "prevention." Certainly the judges have ideas of their own.
Just a few days before the shootings in Colorado, a school program in Beaumont, Texas that brought local clergy to counsel students about morality and civic virtues was struck down as unconstitutional by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The "Clergy in the Schools" program let students discuss morality and civic virtues. Local school officials say it helped increase school safety. And pastors and priests didn't even discuss religion.
So what was the problem, exactly? Too judgmental, the court said.
The school district's "creation of a special program that recruits only clergymen to render volunteer counseling makes a clear statement that it favors religion over nonreligion," the three-judge panel wrote.
"Good men need no laws, and bad men are not made better by them," goes the adage. But people aren't born good. Virtue is taught. It is instilled by parents and teachers, and perfected by habit. This is the heart of real education.
But the solution isn't so simple as permitting school prayer. There needs to be a fundamental shift in American culture back to an understanding of morality.
Fact is, one law or 1,000 laws especially those drawn in haste cannot fix fatal character flaws. Lawmakers may ban guns or restrict violent video games. They may even outlaw trench coats.
Yet none of those measures will matter until Americans stand strongly again for the idea of liberty rooted in moral principle, not moral relativism. Only this kind of "prevention" will ever work.