Who are we becoming?

It’s regrettable that the Montana Behavioral Initiative (MBI) failed locally. The Initiative had one big idea right: the key to better schools is to focus on core values and practices more than on vague and sanctimonious goals. The failure was due in part to weaknesses in the model itself—mainly its reliance on primitive and noneducative behavior modification tactics (lists of rewards and “consequences” for various “inappropriate” behaviors)—and in part due to weak implementation. The staff-created video used to roll out the program for the students featured fart jokes. Is that what’s meant by being “relatable”? To lift children, we need to first stand above them.

What it got right was that the sort of community that people at school enacted was determined chiefly by the virtues that people practiced. Humans are intensely social creatures who tend to conform to the social norms around them. As Rene Girard has shown, even our desires take their shape through imitating the desires of those we associate with. A vivid recent example is “rapid onset gender dysphoria“, when the adoption of nonbinary gender roles spreads like an infection through a particular school.

As teachers and other school leaders adopt particular virtues and practices, and talk clearly and openly about them and try to live by them, their influence starts changing an institution at a deeper level than is normally accomplished by new policies and directives. The fundamental decision is one of identity. Who am I (and who are we)? The business world is full of stories about companies dramatically changing their practices (and bottom lines) by adopting company-wide practices such as aligning their speech and action with the precept that “the customer is always right.”

This is more powerful than relying on a vision statement or something such, typically written in vague and sanctimonious language, perhaps read rapidly and perfunctorily over the PA system each morning. Vague goals rarely come to mind or provide practical guidance when we are facing hard choices—how to respond to a student who uses bad language, for example.

MBI helpfully directed staff’s attention to the values they were enacting each day in each place in the school. It was also helpful that the choosing what values and clarifying them was left to the local level. It doesn’t really work to assign “core values” from on high. Unfortunately, that’s just what happened. Instead of any thoughtful discussion about what people really believed and lived for, at the local level the facillitators used fake consensus building (with whiteboards and flip chart paper) to arrive at the politically correct core values—in other words, to arrive at compliance with the values derived from the continuous propaganda from on high. So, of course, our values included such buzzwords as safety, pride, and diversity.

Extolling such virtues makes the ideologically possessed feel a warm glow of righteousness as they align themselves with a heavily propagandized political strategy of which they may or may not be conscious. The “free love” advocates of sixties radicalism may or may not have been conscious of Marcuse’s psycho-political theory that decoupling sexuality from morality would be adequate to destroy capitalism and bring down America, that great obstacle to global socialism.

At the time the school where I worked was doing “consensus building” activities during a professional development day, I advocated for virtues that are commonly mentioned among Aristotleans and Christians: kindess, honesty, persistence (now often called “grit”), generosity and courage. None of my suggestions made it to the whiteboard at the front of the room. We build consensus by ignoring people such as myself.