John Jensen: Bullying and the American Ethos

But for a tiny oversight in application, bullying would be celebrated rather than condemned. It aligns with an enduring American belief that exercising power over others is important. “Because I can do this to others, I’m better,” goes the thinking. Weekly, hundreds of thousands crowd into football stadiums to cheer one team grinding another into the turf. We celebrate the demonstration of power.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

Buying into this standard, those feeling underpowered and lacking a socially valued outlet readily take up destructive forms of it. Stepping up to the many opportunities for bullying, they ascend the ladder of social significance. Bullies are very important, right? So far, they haven’t managed to form a league and hire lobbyists, but just wait.

The drive to exercise power is at root primitive and instinctual. Two goats butt heads to determine which gets the favors of the ladies, the alpha wolf leads the pack by dominating other males, and the baddest gorilla governs the troupe the same way. Our evolutionary forebears had no doubt about the bottom line: He who eats the other, wins.

Such an instinct is lodged deeply in the human species as well. Once I entered a classroom a moment after an incident that left two staff people speechless. With no provocation, a bright five year old boy had just destroyed the work of another child, leaving her in tears. As I approached, he stood over her smiling, apparently gloating.

Presuming that an actual thought informed his deed, I knelt in front of him, addressed him by name, and while watching him for clues attempted slowly to describe the situation as he might see it: “So I can ruin others’ work…and if I can ruin others’ work… I’m really important.” At that, he broke into a wide grin and nodded vigorously. The staff and I then set to designing more constructive ways he could be “important.”

His oversight, common to all bullying, is that humans in their better moments prefer constructive uses of power over destructive, which in turn requires thought to weigh the conditions involved. The failure to recognize this is widespread because doing so depends on suspending the power of instinct and emotion, and turning instead to conscious reflection. To modify the instinctual tendency, thought is actually framed, developed, and passed from one person to another (commonly called education). People are instructed in how to think things through, and are urged to assess their actions in relation to a continuum stretching from poor to good to better to best.

Civilization’s problem. Correcting the oversight is a central problem of civilization. Facets of human nature help explain. On the one hand, our personal, instinctual drives for significance constantly return us to our primitive tools. On the other, the more complex society becomes, the more we depend on collective understanding to decipher what is in our best collective interest. That major political parties compete at the level of slogans should worry everyone. The further out in time and the broader the conditions the causal trail encounters, the harder it is to foresee and guide, so that simplistic rules almost inevitably founder. Later in time we face countless tradeoffs that demanding deeper understanding.

Even simple choices have a host of ramifications. A tribe finds a wandering sheep belonging to another tribe. They ask themselves questions: How hungry are we? How much do we need it? Do we quietly keep it or return it? How much would it cost us to return it? How will it affect our other alliances? The immediate benefit of keeping it is dinner for the tribe, while a longer term benefit from returning it lies in an abstraction, a gesture of good will leading them on a trail into future causality that they may or may not wish to develop.

Few may be able to foresee how circumstances will play out, and the further they stretch into the future the more we rely on the sheer quality of the deed itself, placing a significant burden on leaders. They may recognize something hard to view in the same way someone else doeshence difficult to agree on and leading them to punt the problem, hoping others will resolve it later. They cross their fingers that the leaders they pick will have the smarts to do the right thing later. The direct exercise of power in a complex society, in other words, is fraught with error. To express effort to obtain better outcomes, we need to account for the subtle as well as the obvious.

Our first thoughts about bullying, reflecting years of national angst about it, may be “kids behaving badly.” Nothing subtle there. Mainstream discussion goes mainly to counteracting the deed, the injuries caused, how kids should fend it off, how staff should intervene, and why everyone should regard it as terrible. Remarkably little is said about “What’s going on inside the bully? Why is he/she doing this?” The assumption appears to be that the problem can be solved just by treating what’s visible. But after we halt the deed, opening before us is its etiology. Where did it come from? We can use our mind on it like we’d set a top spinning and note where its internal dynamics take it. What dynamics drive bullying?

I’d like to offer a couple ideas and then note what they suggest for resolving bullying.

The evolutionary continuum. One context is the evolutionary continuum from lower vertebrates on up to humans. The limbic brain we have in common with them is programmed to expect benefit from dominance. Find an ecological niche where you possess an advantage over other species or members of your own, and leverage it for your benefit. In the main this is done by “nature red in tooth and claw,” the “fittest” surviving by sheer individual dominance. Yet many species (think ants, termites, simians, wild dogs, etc), find their survival in cooperating with others of their species in herds or social structures, so that a shared idea (if we can tolerate that word for animals) becomes dominant. They do better as they leave aside their individual concern, and order their effort for the benefit of the whole. We observe, in other words, a parallel between the actions of a dominant gorilla and a dominant human. Each must consider conditions that affect others.

All human activity can be placed somewhere along the continuum from passive to aggressive. Humans as assertive or aggressive act and as passive receive or are acted upon, and both are necessary for our survival. The cooperation that laces a civilization together entails a fine-grained appreciation of how one individual receives and then asserts; giving and receiving, acting and being acted upon. This model is so familiar that we expect it, but the two ends of the continuum heading in opposite directions are fraught with danger as we leave the limited but safe zone where causality is obvious and instinct is adequate, and enter the zone of complex ideas while still relying on instinct.

At the passive end of the continuum, humans begin and complete their lives in total dependence, leaving others free to disregard their interests. Child and elder abuse is a picture of the weak violated by the strong. Sustaining their interests means that a better idea displaces mistreatment and violation.

And at the assertive end of the continuum, danger lurks because there’s no boundary at which power naturally ceases or returns to balance. Hitler and Stalin aimed at world domination (the former almost with an operational nuclear bomb), but probably only the larger means at their disposal distinguish them from countless other tyrants who have taken pleasure in brutal aggression. It is toward this latter end of the continuum that we place bullying, defining it as “an unwanted use of power by a stronger over a weaker.”

With but half a thought we realize that it can apply to the conduct of nations, populations, and tribes. It can occur in business, politics, or social affairs with actors of any age to whom we might variously apply terms like superior power, attention-getting, image vs. reality, center of the universe, satisfying dominance, deception, rationalization, and lack of empathy, compassion, and guilt; and actions like browbeat, coerce, terrorize, intimidate, and brutalize.

Perpetrators’ actions span from the merely unkind to the lethal, from the obvious to the insidious and manipulative. Murder and assault are on the spectrum, but also a stronger country robbing a weaker, invaders taking an undeveloped society by conquest or exploiting it with economic means, an employer oppressing workers, or a neighborhood driving out the unwanted stranger. Present also are children spreading malicious gossip on the Internet, or physically pushing another on the playground. Any level of society may be the arena for an unwanted use of power by a stronger toward a weaker.

Starting with inclinations. Examining the passive-aggressive continuum more closely, we discover that we do not all start out at the same point on it. Our earliest beginning isn’t neutral but reveals innate tendencies. Children from their first breath may vary greatly in the likelihood with which they’ll become a bully. The mother of a three year old having problems with peers said to me in exasperation, “He was that way at one year old!”

From early on, a child may be a nascent sociopath, psychopath, schizophrenic, or physically prone to any of hundreds of illnesses. Some are social from the first, others withdrawn; some more aggressive and others passive. Siblings raised by parents striving to be equal in everything can still be dramatically different. Tendencies exist, in other words, with some oriented toward the aggressive end of the spectrum. They remain untamed by the inborn instinct to join the herd that helps a wildebeest survive. They’re willing to stand apart if they must, and if the messages they hear are “Run with your power,” they claim it as a feature of their identity. Presuming to understand the world and their place in it, they unwittingly drift into inappropriate expressions of their power.

Societies that design child-rearing and civic relationships around an advanced understanding of human nature can undoubtedly ameliorate negative factors. Whatever nature produces, nurture can elicit the best or worst from it, which assumes a conscious grasp of the factors. The Senoi of Southeast Asia, for example, reportedly eliminated aggression from their society by daily communal processing of each individual’s dream life.Treating the dream world as an anteroom to social behavior, they were able to identify and heal aggression before it even entered individuals’ waking awareness. While psychotherapists find common tools in ways people characterize their lives symbolically, the Senoi turned this into a system of healing that benefited all.

Processed successfully or not, the two contrasting tendencies operate in tandem. When immersed in our passive inclination, we tend to believe we can coast with things as they are, a root-level acceptance of conditions. All of us re-enter this state daily, in fact, when we give up managing our conscious life to go sleep at night. Children who resist going to bed, on the other hand, express an opposing assertive tendency so active in them that they don’t want to relinquish it even for urgently needed sleep. This assertive aspect drives all human productivity. The main influence creating civilization, said Jacob Bronowski in his insightful TV series The Ascent of Man, was “…man’s pleasure in doing what he does well, and having done it well, to do it even better.” This drive doesn’t rest with what is, but pursues what is becoming. This very moment we have something to assert, and do so gladly. Many so inclined, however, apply it from an early age to challenging norms, going beyond the givens, while some violate the norms further as career criminals.

The predictable existence of criminals and others who prey on their fellow man but do legally implies a requirement for government. It’s been reasonably argued that the best form of government for a given society is the one that best restrains its people’s destructiveness. With this rechanneled or at least contained, the constructive qualities of the majority are free to flower.

The work of the ethos. The job of reining in all possible harmful tendencies is too vast, too detailed, for government to carry out with coercive means, however. Doing most of the work instead is the idea people agree on for how to conduct their life together. They organize themselves by their mainstream thinking that’s often referred to as an ethos, the commonly understood version of a society’s life, its basic collection of attitudes and ideas. The ethos can accrue great power because unconscious and therefore unquestioned. Everyone assumes that it’s the current reality, the narrative defining their interests. Attuning to it, leaders understand what their people welcome or oppose. A host of good ideas are dismissed not because irrational or unworkable but just because they differ from the ethos.

While the ethos is comprised at least of ideas that can eventually be expressed outwardly and hence challenged and changed, another facet of human nature adding to its force is called the innate valuing process. This term describes the self-preserving quality of life, that we are programmed to enhance ourselves, to survive threats to our well-being, to be on the lookout for benefit. Slipping on the sidewalk, we catch ourselves in microseconds, faster than conscious thought, because we automatically know that standing is better than falling. A parallel concern proceeds up the entire scale of behavior. “How will this benefit me?” we inquire. “What are my goals?” Even suicides with their last act are saying, “I’m better off dead.”

The threads of our instinctual, emotional nature then are poised and ready to guide us whenever our thought processes don’t know what to do. Our tendencies equip us with a presumption about the task of the moment—our assertive side working in tandem with the innate valuing process—that we don’t want others’ good to diminish our own. For us to sacrifice personal benefit to aid another, we must be moved by a corrective thought. Somehow we value an aspect not obvious about human nature–how deeply we are bound together in sentiment, values, and actions; or the significance of self-sacrifice for others, or our surges of love for them. Our devotion to self-benefit is stretched as we realize we do not row our boat alone.

Bullying as expressing the ethos. We inquire then: how is bullying in our country bound up with our ethos and the innate valuing process? How does our ethos take an innate tendency and shape its outward expression to match what we perceive as our national identity? To take the opposite possibility, is bullying so completely inconsistent with Americas values that it’s instantly seized upon and corrected? Hardly. Only when it resulted in child deaths did it even appear on the national radar.

To understand how we could generate bullying in our society, ponder on the perspective the ethos of recent centuries has bequeathed to us. We might summarize it thus: We push boundaries, master the physical and human environment, do things our own way, and impose our values on those we encounter. We face trouble and overcome it, are powerful and unique. Others do not want us for enemies or we will defeat them. We create systems of human effort for our benefit.

There’s much to appreciate in that ethos, of course. In the direction of its flow, we gather up cooperative energy for grand purposes. But note the verbs, and how automatically we accept them: push, master, impose, overcome, defeat. Unless consciously guided into constructive purpose, in other words, our conception of our own power parallels the bull in a china closet. Every time we turn around, we nearly hit and break something. While one person’s assertive energy may unite the effort of thousands to meet a need, another’s may steal their livelihood, destroy their health, and impoverish them.

The same energy can generate polar opposite outcomes. The problem is not that we or any person or nation has power since power is innate. The problem arises when we guide it with instinctual, superficial thinking;when no value commonly reflected upon stands in its way. The Norse Vandals of the late Dark Ages made a good living by falling upon the seaside communities of Europe, seizing everything they could carry, and burning the rest. Their ethos was “Take what you can.” With more systematic organization, exploration from the late 1400s onward still aimed to plunder the heathens if they possessed anything movable worth taking. Unconcealed exploitation was the vehicle of choice. As the supply of portable plunder dropped, those with coercive power used it in the service of trade, so that traders and missionaries eventually generated an era of colonization, and nations could say “These are our possessions.”

Part Two

Ethos unquestioned. From your own early schooling, you can undoubtedly remember the simple facts I noted in Part One. Your memory of them, however, carries a crucial point about how an ethos conditions subsequent behavior. Do you remember what those facts presumed? Let me guess. I’ll bet you that the Vandals destroying European ports, and the 1400-1700 plundering of heathen wealth, and the decimation of the American Indian populations and the conquest of their land in the 1800s were all presented factually. You were told that these things happened, right? And enough said? Yet present was the raw use of power of a stronger toward a weaker. These were the deeds of bullies, but the educational idea proposed about them, the concept presumed and taught, was that these things were expected, appropriate actions. Sure, people suffered but these things “just happened.”

One of my high school classes had us reading parts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars–a fascinating tale of adventure in which one instinctively roots for Caesar. One day as we read about the hostile reaction of one of the tribes he was conquering, our dignified teacher made a single comment. She pointed out that these Roman troops were far from their homeland and were invading the lands of others who might reasonably take exception. The incident stands out as the sole occasion in my K-12 schooling in which our attention was invited to appreciate the viewpoint of those being bullied!

Such things are usually taught in a way that is at best value-free (if not also valueless), which is no small matter. That we examine the sweep of human behavior century by century without comment on its assumptions,we teach children to assume that when they grow up, they will respond the same way. That’s the effect of unconscious principles: “The road ahead is already well-lit, familiar, and obvious, and here is your weapon!” The unspoken assumptions “lock and load” their contents straight into the unconscious of the next person. What you see countless people have done before you, people you identify with because they were strong and active, you presume you also will do when it is your turn—and with barely a conscious thought. Unless a better idea has intervened to reshape our tendency, we follow the model that our brain has presumed correct.

Sometimes the unconscious ethos bursts into awareness as events contrast it with a competing one. In the early 1960s, the War on Poverty was an eddy in the mainstream ethos, reflecting the part that says, “We take care of our own.” It attempted to stretch the definition of “our own” based on an emerging recognition that a third of Americans were poor—undereducated, underhoused, underemployed, and in poor health. The initiatives in “The Great Society” were advanced to turn this around.

Then the prospect of war loomed, and a closer match with the mainstream ethos. Could we discipline ourselves to ignore it? Conditions in Indochina at best bore only a remote and possible link to our national well-being but we couldn’t tolerate even that. Then came Sputnik, opening the space race, and perhaps you can you recall the public reaction:

“Race? Did you say’race’”? If there’s a race, then our ethos declares we have to win it. There may or may not be a race to dominate Southeast Asia, but just to be on the safe side, we’ll assume there is and we have to win it. If there’s a race in space, we have to win it–which we declare to be reaching the moon. If there’s a race to produce nuclear bombs, we have to win that too, even already perched atop an arsenal capable of destroying all life on earth. Visiting the moon, producing weapons, and a war in Southeast Asia were more closely aligned with our national ethos than feeding, clothing, housing, and insuring the civil rights of our own people.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Non-rational ethos is vulnerable. The big story of the twentieth century was war and ideological conflict that drew the maximum from our national resources and skills, proving once again that demonstrating power is very, very important. So then still remembering that history vividly, we carried a mindset with us, and in 2001 came the insult and injury of 9-11.

An al Queda member named Saad Al-Faqih described the strategy. He wrote: “Saad Al-Faqih interview, Jamestown Foundation, Spotlight on Terror, www.Jamestown.

org, Feb5, 2004.)

All this just before the 2004 presidential election was apparently intended to re-elect George W. Bush by reminding Americans that they were under threat. An unconscious ethos that others could caricature as ‘cowboy’ led this country into a decade of war. Our confidence in our power reminded us that we must use it against presumed enemies a half a world away.

We did these things because allowing ourselves to be led unconsciously instead of drawing our assumptions out of the shadows into the light, and insisting on grilling them with cold reason. When any of us are uncertain, we return to our fundamental assumptions for guidance. But except for a brief isolationism before World War II, Americans have never met a war they didn’t like. Exerting military power feels natural to us. We almost welcome war as a nation, and like it so much that we even borrow from future taxpayers to create the largest army in the history of the worldnow so large as to be fiscally unsustainable. And economic power? Of course. We free up business to do even better what it does profitably already. Just turn it loose. Don’t hinder the exercise of power. Remove any restraints that can be politically negotiated, and expect even better results. Our society believes in impact, in removing limits on strength

There’s no better proof that such thinking is non-rational, that it just plays out unconscious assumptions, than the record of what happened from those uses of power for the last ten years. We now have a national debt so large it threatens the entire global economy, and experience the worst recession in 70 years and the near implosion of our financial system.

This is what “the brightest people in the room” brought us by playing out the self-interested aspects of our national ethos.

While our military fulfills our self-image as the world’s policeman, Wall Street epitomizes the same in commerce. Gather big money, make big profit, and pay unimaginably large salaries. We’re the exceptional Americans, greatest country in the world—heck, in all of history if you ask me. We’re the light to the world, an example for generations to come, and therefore? Implied in that narrative is an ominous thread, “…and therefore trust me on this.” Trust my use of strength, my exertion of power. Trust that my intentions for you are benevolent. Think about the people who epitomize this attitude. Although you must grant their intelligence taking them one at a time, when driven by unconscious assumptions they can’t help themselves. It’s as though they’re in room where everyone says “Yes” followed by applause and foot-stomping. Collectively we have not yet accepted the evident premise that an irrational ethos drives us that can only be contained by more comprehensive values.

Once grasping that the ethos is non-rational (by which I mean simply not employing or being concerned with the processes of reasoning), we readily follow its expression into the dark-side outgrowth of bullying. Education is founded on an appeal to ideas. Bereft of them, the human system acts upon its inherent tendencies. Set spinning on any surface, it does something, but the something may not turn out best if the best isn’t in mind. We expect education to correct this on the basis that ideas are the only antidote to tendency. We note the tendency, examine the conscious thought accompanying it, and inquire what contribution to it might correct it. We teach a new ethos by delineating the current one and improving on it. We need to find what fits with our society, how to apply what we know, how to reward what we want.

The picture above implies several directions for addressing school bullying.

1. Be truthful in describing the prevailing ethos. While many will surely reduce such an attempt to dueling slogans, the issue strikes deeply. Admitting the truth about how our society has both previously and currently used power may well be cognitively dissonant for many. A way to tell if someone’s thinking is simply frozen is to state a simple historical fact in a undeniable sentence and ask them if they can say it while accepting its truth. What you find is that people cannot say smoothly and congruently something their unconscious mind protests. They will evade, skip words, forget their order, grin, shake their head “no,” and so on. Here are some sentences to try out for fun. Invite others to state them as the facts they are:

Our ancestors bullied American Indians.

Early industries bullied workers.

Religions bullied people of different belief.

Political majorities bullied minorities.

Racial majorities bullied minorities.

One might object that these truths don’t apply always and everywhere. That this is fortunately true accounts for at least the precarious existence of civilization. But such protests tend to look at the quality of a deed as a stand-alone issue that is actually systemic. You could write a history of the world about people’s uses of power for and against each other. This theme is of course major in any recounting of history, but it can also perpetuate the oversight noted in the first paragraph of Part One. We can describe behavior as “the presumed human experience” instead of founding it on the premise that humans, lacking instincts capable of guiding their complex actions, need to rely on better ideas.

We have such experiences, in other words, because our innate tendency is extremely unsophisticated. Innately we reach for what we want and push in front of others unless informed by a thoughtful idea that describes a fuller continuum of human behavior. We need only “revert” just a little before we find ourselves in a pre-conscious tendency, and are in the soup, thoughtlessly impaled by conditions appearing to threaten our “interests.”

Our task then is to face the reality of what we do, abstract from those actions the ideas that must have informed them, and weigh them against the kind of human society we prefer. We need to grasp salient features of human nature—such as our passive and assertive qualities and how the innate valuing process impels us to express our assertive side to obtain what appears to benefit us.

Upon recognizing that our society’s manner of using power is central to its ethos, we notice its presence in many social patterns that earn names such as oligarchy, plutocracy, otherism, and prejudice based on race, religion, gender, or age. We take our place closer to the primitive as power relations in our society make it axiomatic that the powerless don’t make it in politics. The poor—because they are powerless—never run the country, leaving their concerns to be negotiated at the margins of the interests of the more powerful. Despite their abstractly-grasped equality before the law, out there on the margins, they await the verdict of others that “They shouldn’t starve” or “They shouldn’t die helpless.” Food stamps and hospital ER rooms are presumed to take the edge off their needs.

Those with a religious bent need especially to be careful of how the instinctive tendency to exert power can lead them into actions that violate their principles. The conviction that God guides them they extrapolate into “We know God’s Will,” and reason next that “We can execute God’s commands!” The brutal, tortuous centuries of inter-faith war is a blood-chilling testimony to the basic mistake of their reasoning. We note its embers surviving to this day, in fact, in the bill recently passed by the Michigan State Senate declaring that one should not term it “bullying” if one person’s comments to another are an expression of a sincere religious belief—a patent attempt to legitimize the bullying of gays and lesbians.

Instead, those aspiring to bring more religion to America might heed the prophet Isaiah’s picture of the Messiah to come: “A bruised reed he shall not break, and the smoking flax he shall not quench.” Hold those images for a moment and intuit the state of mind of one who restrains himself from breaking the bruised reed and quenching the spark in the flax. What quality is at work there? The obvious meaning is extreme gentleness toward others, extreme respect for their fragility, a viewpoint at the polar end of the continuum from bullying, a refusal to take advantage.

We need to face what’s hard to face about our collective actions. Our worthy intentions can be fused with unworthy. We free the people of Iraq (presented to us as a noble act) and gain access to its great oil wealth, so that today 50% more oil flows from Iraq wells than before the war. No one believes we would have invaded Iraq had it not been floating on oil. We need to expose our hidden purpose to use our power for our own gain.

This perspective helps us understand bullying. Imagine your experience if you buy into the narrative but are powerless yourself, if your society celebrates demonstrations of power but you have none. You’re set up for frustration. With time on your hands, you might revert to the exercise of power over others with no other point at stake than just to feel more powerful.

The exercise of power feeds upon itself and predictably turns up in schools where teachers often slap themselves upside the head, saying “Who thought this up?” To illustrate: shortly after Sputnik, people wondered out loud about the effectiveness of Soviet education. Royce Van Norman wrote then in the Phi Delta Kappan:

Is it not ironic that in a planned society of controlled workers given compulsory assignments, where religious expression is suppressed, the press controlled, and all media of communication censored, where a puppet government is encouraged but denied any real authority, where great attention is given to efficiency and character reports, and attendance at cultural assemblies is mandatory, where it is avowed that all will be administered to each according to his needs and performance required from each according to his abilities, and where those who flee are tracked down, returned, and punished for trying to escape–in short in the milieu of the typical large American secondary school–we attempt to teach “the democratic system”?

Yes, that describes our own schools. Our style of pedagogy has yet to align with our ideals. The governing assumption, without which we apparently are unable to educate, is that those with more power control those with less of it. The national ethos continues with every new day at school: “You will do what we say, or else!”

2. Convey a different ethos. We need to examine how human nature expresses itself in both its passive and assertive manner, how these forms of experience are channeled by the unconscious assumptions they answer to, and how we can shape them consciously to create a society that works for all. The issue is larger than politics, which is certainly a zone in which people seek greater strength specifically to use it over others they hope are weaker. To eliminate the problem overall means altering the assumptive world of the ethos. If a remedy exists, one must find it in the realm of ideas that modify the ethos.

Entire school bodies—staff and students—would do well to re-instruct themselves in a cooperative version of human society capable of sustaining civilization–if we are to improve on the primitive, instinct-driven model in use now. A school might examine its exercise of power, how power is channeled constructively by negotiation and cooperation, how big people can exercise power more considerately over the little. School should be an island of safety for all, where people appreciate rather than dominate, where cooperation rather than control is “what we do.” We identify the strivings for significance that each manifests, and provide rules for a field within which emotional needs can be satisfied, and a longer-term direction for the expression of personal power.

I don’t propose a simplistic revolution that just replaces one exercise of power with another. We acknowledge existing constructive features of society, but stretch beyond them toward making the whole thing work for everyone. Students each need a balance of expression of their own power, respect for others, and the ability to contribute to the well-being of all. The school-based ethos should say to bullies, “We understand your needs for significance. Let us consider you as an individual, and arrange together a means for you to find satisfaction in actions that work for all.”

3. Teach different behaviors. An ethos matters eventually as it is expressed in habits of behavior: “In this situation, I do X instead of Y.” In schools, contrasting patterns of power-driven versus cooperative social concepts show up in actions. Having started from the principle in 1. above, we examine its practical expression and reinforce attitudes and actions that create a harmonious, sharing, mutually-supportive social world.Wherever we can, we modify the patterns of control in our schools that are vestiges of the old power-driven model.

At every turn possible, we give students responsibility for carrying out ever more significant actions that benefit the whole, so they see a different kind of social experience from the inside. A teacher describing his classroom said that he had found that the best way to increase students’ confidence and motivation was to give them responsibility in all possible ways till they were running the classroom.

Elaborating on that simple picture presents us with an advanced concept of society: “We can take control of everything that affects us and work together for the best results possible.” We use the legal structure of school administration to create a community in which power is dispersed broadly so that all feel a personal investment in the productivity of the whole. We provide a setting poised to make it easy for students to discover that the right effort they choose brings good results and social success. We teach how expressing individual energy contributes to society and benefits themselves. What can I do, we want them asking, that is “worth it” to society?

4. Combine power with civility. We accommodate people’s enjoyment of their use of power by acknowledging how civilized society does this. It limits the exercise of power to minimize its injury to anyone. People contain their use of power within rules they agree to, which converts the expression of power into an enormous field of agreement, within which minor differences of skill and effort replace murder and exploitation. Our exercise of power becomes socially useful as it’s guided by “rules of the game” that everyone agrees will enhance the whole.

At one level, the power of competitors is against each other, but in another sense it plays out an intensive level of cooperation, hand in glove. I line up, you line up. I run, you run, I stop, you stop. Football games appeal to spectators only because an intricate array of agreed-on rules enhance the demonstration of personal skill. The good rules of commerce improve the operation of the game as a whole, so that even losers are winners because the experience overall is a plus. It’s too limited to assert that “Because we win, that’s what makes things right.” Rather, we first sustain a context in which everyone can win in some way, by some measure, and within those parameters assert one skill over another. This game-like thinking is basic to trade. First we create a stable field in which factors (like ownership, contract, schedule, and specifications) operate predictably. Then we channel our effort through that context for the benefit of ourselves and others.

5. Apply to bullying. We need to think through how the uses of power a student encounters teach him the wrong conclusions. We check how our assumptions play out in a system that leads him awry. If he assumes that only power gets respect and he feels underpowered, he logically attempts ways to exert it. He seeks to increase his power by demonstrating the little he has against someone else.

If, in other words, we have created a system that teaches precisely the wrong message unconsciously, we have to leverage ourselves back into rational thought. Those with resources for research could help: How do organizational factors of impersonality and control on the one hand correlate with the incidence of bullying on the other? Attention appears to have been given to external definitions of who is bullying–factors that can be checked off on a questionnaire like race, economic status, and location, but that a teacher can do nothing about. How about more information that matters to the learning activities of the day: What is this student feeling? What is he thinking? Why is he unhappy? Such answers reasonably should inform instructional options. And schools have their own ethos that, like those of the nation, exert an unconscious force telling students, “This is what we do.” What is the relationship between a school’s ethos and bullying behavior?

Schools affect students in ways seldom discussed openly because they depend on direct intuition of elusive qualities. As my wife pursued education through online courses, she came into contact with the ethos of several colleges and universities. While the quality of their offerings varied, they were in general a trouble to work with. Recently she undertook courses with a religious-affiliated university, and a few months into them noted a change in her experience.

“These people are nice to you,” she exclaimed. Her school’s Idea moulded its Tendency instead of the other way around. Could students at your school say the same?

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.
11 12, 2011
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