Our Killing Schools, Part 1
Defining the Problem
In light of this week’s tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, I am rushing to print what will be a three-part essay that shall attempt to give a philosophic explanation for all of the school shootings that have occurred over the last 25 years. Before we can fix the problem, we must first identify and understand its deepest causes. Because of the timeliness of the issue, I will publish Part 2 on Tuesday, May 31 and Part 3 on Friday, June 3.
What has happened, at bottom? The feeling of valuelessness was reached with the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by means of the concept “aim,” the concept “unity,” or the concept “truth.” Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking: the character of existence is not “true,” is false. One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world. Briefly: the categories “aim,” “unity,” “being,” which we used to project some value into the world—we pull out again; so the world looks valueless.—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
There’s been another mass school shooting committed by an American teenage boy!
On Tuesday, May 24, 2022, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and executed 19 children and two teachers. Details of the shooting are still emerging.
Four years earlier, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz murdered 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In 2012, a deranged 20-year-old walked into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, and executed 20 young children and six teachers and administrators.
The Uvalde mass murder is part of a larger pattern in the United States of teenage boys committing mass murder at their local school. Over the course of the last 25 years, sixteen teenage boys have committed a mass murder at an American elementary or high school.
The statistics are frightening. Between 1997 and 2022, these teen killers have murdered 113 students and teachers, and wounded over 150 more, in the 15 most well publicized school shootings.
Previously unknown places such as Pearl, Mississippi (1997); West Paducah, Kentucky (1997); Jonesboro, Arkansas (1998); Springfield, Oregon (1998); Littleton, Colorado (1999); Santee, California (2001); Red Lake, Minnesota (2005); and Chardon, Ohio (2012); Newtown, Connecticut (2012); Sparks, Nevada (2013); Marysville, Washington (2014); Marshall County, Kentucky (2018); Parkland, Florida (2018); Oxford, Michigan (2021); and now Uvalde, Texas (2022) have become a part of the American consciousness.
The best known of these 14 killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, massacred 13 students and teachers at Columbine High School and then killed themselves. The boys’ original goal (planned over a year before the attack) was to bomb and level the entire school in a series of massive explosions and then to shoot everyone left alive. They hoped to kill every single person at the school (over 2,000 students, plus 150 teachers and staff).
Less well known to Americans but no less shocking is the fact that scores of boys around the United States have been arrested since 1999 for conspiracy to commit large-scale shootings and/or bombings at their respective schools.
Here are just a few examples.
In May 1999, just days after the Columbine massacre, four boys in Port Huron, Michigan (two fourteen-year-olds, and a twelve- and a thirteen-year-old) were arrested for planning to rape several girls at school and then shoot 154 students from a list they’d drawn up.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, three boys were arrested in 2001 for attempting to carry-out a “Columbine-like” massacre with propane bombs and semi-automatic rifles. Their plan was to shoot as many people as possible and to then take 10 seventh-graders hostage, execute them, and then kill themselves.
That same year, three teenage boys were arrested in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for conspiracy to commit mass murder at their school. After the killing spree, they planned to meet on the school roof, drink alcohol, smoke pot, drop acid and then shoot each other in the head.
Three years later, a seventeen-year-old boy in Nebraska was arrested at his school with 20 homemade bombs and a rifle. According to officials, the boy “intended to kill everyone in the school except three friends.”
On December 14, 2012—the same day as the Sandy Hook massacre—an 18-year-old boy in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, was arrested for conspiracy to launch a massive bombing and shooting attack at his high school.
In the years since Columbine, many teenage boys have been arrested for conspiracy to bomb their schools.
In 2001, for instance, an 18-year-old boy in Elmira, New York, smuggled 14 pipe bombs, three smaller bombs, a propane tank, a sawed-off shotgun, and a 22-calibre pistol into his high school with plans to massacre his fellow students. Fortunately, he was caught and the plan foiled.
In 2013, a 17-year-old boy in Albany, Oregon, was arrested with an arsenal of explosives including a Molotov cocktail, a napalm bomb, and several Drano bombs. His goal was to launch a more “successful version” of the Columbine slaughter. The boy had “operational plans” about the attack and floorplans of the school.
Fast forward to the present. Two days after this week’s shooting in Uvalde, four boys (two seventeen-year-olds and two minors) in Donna, Texas, were arrested for conspiracy to carry out an armed attack against an unnamed school in the district.
Despite statistics suggesting that overall school violence has declined in recent years, millions of parents send their children to school every year worried they may never come home. And with every new school shooting or attempted bombing, many Americans experience a sense of déjà vu all over again, and they wonder why so many of our adolescent boys seem to be so angry and why some are expressing their anger by targeting their school for a mass murder.
Immediately after the Columbine massacre, the cover of Newsweek asked the big question: “Why?” Time magazine put the faces of Harris and Klebold on the cover page with this byline: “The monsters next door. What made them do it?”
These questions continue to haunt Americans, particularly in the light of the Sandy Hook, Parkland, and the Uvalde massacres. Attempting to explain why this is happening and why now, America’s media celebrities, policymakers, and politicians have all advanced arguments to explain what’s going on.
On the Left, some liberals blame America’s “gun-crazed” culture, while others blame the vacuity of suburban life, “Goth” culture, or the lack of “anger management” classes in our public schools.
On the Right, some conservatives blame Hollywood, rap music, and video games for their gratuitous glorification of violence, while others mention the lack of God, prayer, and the Ten Commandments in the schools.
And of course, everyone blames the bullying.
These standard explanations miss the point entirely. They trivialize the problem by addressing symptoms rather than causes, or they deal with proximate rather than ultimate causes. The sad fact of the matter is that our policymakers simply do not know what to do, and so they take the path of least resistance by either trying to ban guns or turning our schools into virtual prisons.
Just look at America’s government schools today. In a post-Columbine world, many of our schools look and feel more like penitentiaries than places of learning. In order to ensure the safety of our children, some schools are now protected by barbed wire, metal detectors, armed guards, bomb-sniffing dogs, and closed-circuit television monitors linked directly to local police stations. Virtually all schools in the United States have protocols in place—including active shooter drills—in case of a mass shooting.
And yet, the shootings continue.
And now, some are calling on policymakers to copy Israeli security measures, which use the various apparatuses of the Zionist security state and intelligence networks (including the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, which is the U.S. equivalent of the FBI) to monitor the acquisitions of weapons and social media activity. Israeli schools have one entry point and one exit, barricades surrounding them, and one security officer on motorcycle.
Is this really what we want for America’s schools?
By looking in all the wrong places and by not asking the right questions, the media and our politicians have taken us down the wrong path. If we ever hope to stop these massacres, we must discover the deeper causes that have provoked so many adolescent boys to target America’s schools for death and destruction.
This means that we must begin anew and ask some obvious but neglected questions:
Why are statistically meaningful numbers of America’s teenage boys targeting, attacking, and committing mass murder (or attempting to do so) at our government schools?
Why are they so full of nihilistic rage?
Why are they alienated from the most basic moral norms?
Why do they lack a moral fail-safe to check their seething impulse to kill indiscriminately?
These unsettling questions challenge us to go beyond the standard “it’s the guns and video games” explanations and to take a closer look at what is going on inside America’s schools.
The important question is not how did they kill, but rather why did they kill? To answer it, we must examine what is being taught in the classroom and how it is being taught. Then and only then can we begin to understand why students are targeting their schools for mass shootings and bombings.
In the rest of this essay and in the two to follow, I will examine these school massacres by placing them in a broader philosophic context.
My thesis is as simple as it will be controversial: I argue that the theory and practice of Progressive education—the dominant educational philosophy in America’s schools—is the root cause of the intellectual and moral chaos that defines our education system and the crisis of our teenage boys.
My working hypothesis asks readers to take seriously the possibility that our schools are teaching toxic ideas that have created a generation of morally-mutant teenage killers—modern day Frankensteins if you will—who are targeting and attacking the principal source of their frustration, anger, and hatred. More ominously, I am suggesting that America’s teenage school shooters and bombers represent only the most dramatic and heinous symptoms of an infectious intellectual disease that is destroying the minds and souls of America’s children.
For many Americans, possibly the most disturbing quality of these teen terrorists is their seemingly ordinary and innocent appearance. (This is not uniformly true but mostly true.)
Consider the sociological profile of these adolescent boys. First, the killers were seemingly and mostly “ordinary” boys from small-town or suburban America; second, they ranged in age from eleven to eighteen with an average age of 15-16; third, most of the boys had no past criminal record or history of violence—indeed, some seemed rather “nerdish” and straight out of boy-scout central casting.
In other words, not one of these boys fit the image of a typical schoolyard thug—not one of them was a “tough,” a “punk,” or a “gangbanger.” They didn’t have criminal records. It’s also interesting to note that none of these school massacres has occurred in a big city. The phenomenon seems to be almost entirely limited to rural white America and the suburbs.
Your typical teenage thug is not on his school’s honor roll, does not sob uncontrollably immediately after committing an act of violence, nor does he commit suicide. What most Americans first saw in the scared faces of these adolescent killers was not so much an evil monster but rather the “boy next door.”
Understandably, then, we secretly worry that these boys are not freakish aberrations but bellwethers. We worry that many more are just waiting in the wings ready for that last tumbler to fall into place activating their fateful plunge into the abyss.
My interest in this subject was initially inspired by my experiences as a college professor. Every year I meet hundreds of recently graduated high school students, and I am most often struck by four things: first, that students are poorly educated; second, that they hated their high school experience; third, that they are unwilling to make moral judgments; and finally, that they have inflated opinions of their level of knowledge and they are not open to criticism.
The result is an often-explosive mixture of ignorance, resentment, nihilism, and narcissism. Thus, the crisis of our schools is a philosophical issue, and to understand that crisis we must know what Progressive education is and the ways in which it has affected America’s children.
For skeptical readers, let me be clear about what I am and am not arguing in this essay and the two to follow.
First, this three-part essay is not concerned with mass shootings per se, with school shootings by adults, or with other kinds of violence in America’s schools. Instead, it is an attempt to understand and explain why so many teenage boys are targeting their schools for mass murder.
Second, methodologically, this essay does not offer a social-scientific explanation that connects all the causal dots. Instead, it offers a broader philosophic and cultural explanation that is meant to be suggestive rather than demonstrable. If nothing else, I hope to challenge Americans to confront the unthinkable: that something terribly wrong is going on inside America’s schools.
Finally, these essays will not argue that all students subjected to Progressive education necessarily become violent or even psychologically unhealthy; obviously most students manage to cope with and overcome the problems with their schools, more or less successfully. Nor do these essays suggest that Progressive education is the sole cause of mass murders at schools. Obviously each one of these boys will have had different personal contexts (i.e., different families, friends, enemies, and teachers), different personalities and psychologies, and different life experiences.
Still, they all shared several related things in common: they all attended government schools; they were all exposed to Progressive education in one form or another; and they all targeted and attacked their schools.
This is our entry point. We may not be able to identify the unique and particular trip wire that sent each one of these very different boys over the edge, but we can examine the broader philosophical causes that set the stage.
In the next essay in this three-part series, I will examine how Progressive education has corrupted the cognitive, moral, and psychological attributes and abilities of America’s children.
. John Cloud, “Just a routine school shooting,” CNN.com, May 24, 1999: http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/time/1999/05/24/school.shooting.html.
. Kevin Vaughan and Deborah Frazier, “‘Columbine’ talk escaped adults,” Rocky Mountain News, February 9, 2001, http://m.rockymountainnews.com/news/2001/feb/09/columbine-talk-escaped-adults.
. Brian MacQuarrie and Anand Vaishnav, “Details of alleged plot revealed,” Boston Globe, November 27, 2001; David Kohn, “To Stop a Massacre,” CBS, April 29, 2009, http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500164_162-509196.html.
. “Nebraska teen’s bomb plot foiled,” USA TODAY, March 18, 2004, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-03-18-school-nebraska_x.htm.
. Laura Summers, “Bartlesville student accused of school massacre plot,” Tulsa World, December 15, 2012, http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=11&articleid=20121215_16_A10_BARTLE817329.
. AP/School Violence Resource Center, “Fatal Shootings at Schools and Colleges,” Time, April 16, 2007: https://web.archive.org/web/20110513171642/http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0%2C8599%2C1611004%2C00.html.
. “Grant Acord Update: Ore. teen who allegedly planned school bomb attack called self ‘Russian grim reaper,’ court docs say,” CBS News, May 29, 2013: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/grant-acord-update-ore-teen-who-allegedly-planned-school-bomb-attack-called-self-russian-grim-reaper-court-docs-say/.
. Audrey Conklin, “Texas Police arrest 4 males, including 2 juveniles, in connection to threats against school: report,” FoxNews.com, May 26, 2022: https://www.foxnews.com/us/texas-police-arrest-four-threats-school-donna.
. Benjamin Weinthal, “Texas school shooting: Could Israeli school security methods serve as model for US schools?,” FoxNews.com, May 27, 2022: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/uvalde-shooting-israel-school-security-methods-model-us.
. From the beginning, reporting on the Columbine shooting was almost entirely mistaken. The Columbine attack had nothing to do with “Goths” or the so-called “Trench Coat Mafia.” Nor was it directed at jocks, “preps,” minorities, homosexuals, or Christians.
*C. Bradley Thompson, “Our Killing Schools,” Society 51, 210–220 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-014-9767-0