The America of hunting rifles and gun safety classes in school is now a lost world. Instead, metal detectors, police officers, and K-9 units have become increasingly commonplace, depending on the school. This change in American school culture is certainly not one for the better. But what happened? Are Americans just to expect more horrific school shootings? Why are young students—typically male—killing their fellows in senseless acts of violence?
Although school shootings have not been entirely unheard of in American history, they have risen in frequency over recent decades and they cannot be divorced from the cultural changes happening all around us.
Guns and anger are not unique to America. The sin of wrath and murderous hatred has afflicted humanity since the Fall, as the story of Cain and Abel so explicitly reveals. Nevertheless, God’s common grace has had a role in restraining murderous impulses. Throughout human history, societies have upheld murder as a capital offense, given human life a sense of purpose through religion, and tempered wrath with the consolations and formative role of family life. Notably, sons uniquely respect fathers and look to them for acceptance and guidance to steward their masculine gifts, fostering a sense of belonging, accomplishment, and agency.
In America’s history, both Judaism and Christianity have taught that human life is sacred, that there is a final judgment, and that all people have a purpose, determined by God’s own wise and loving will. In Christianity, one finds a transformation of the human heart by the operation of the Holy Spirit, in which love displaces hatred. Considering the beliefs, practices, and realities that help restrain fallen humanity’s baser impulses will reveal several factors involved in the school violence phenomenon.
First, cultural changes have stripped away many of these common grace truths necessary to stave off certain forms of violence. In the rush for social change and the expulsion of Christian mores, American childhood has been redefined. What seems particularly odd and disturbing about the current situation is how young these murderers are. Indeed, has anything changed more radically in the past couple of decades than the American childhood, particularly boyhood?
Screens have replaced interaction with the real world and real people, manifesting in social isolation and a lost sense of agency. Angry and disordered music, alongside violent video games, dominates the media landscape of the young. The cheapness and worthlessness of human life is further confirmed by pornography. Traditional religious practices and beliefs have declined. Dual-income and single-parent households combine with long hours in school to weaken the bonds of fellowship and sense of identity in the American family.
Indeed, it seems that many see primary and secondary education as a form of state-sponsored daycare more than anything else. Particularly in poorer parts of the country, the traditional family, with a married father and mother committed to their union until death do them part, proves the rare exception rather than the rule. In other circles, obsession over resumes, college acceptance, successful careers, and social normalcy has created an over-scheduled, hyper-organized obstacle course that resembles (and probably helps explain the popularity of) The Hunger Games, in which people are simply cogs in the greater machine of consumeristic society.
Meanwhile, modern school architecture often resembles a penitentiary; is it any wonder that its inhabitants act accordingly? For some students, the massiveness of some schools can reinforce the sense of insignificance. None of these factors are healthy for a child’s soul or developing worldview.
So what is to be done? The current trends warrant significant changes in American schooling, family life, and childhood. Classical academies, parish schools, charter schools, homeschool families, and other approaches that resist the tide of public school norms have proven that radically different models to teaching, student life, and the formation of children are not only possible, but deeply desirable. Policies in favor of school choice would help allow more families to take advantage of these alternatives, while public schools seem to suffer a degree of institutional paralysis and bureaucratic inertia. In addition, American society must become more scrupulous in its media consumption and screen time. Parents must take control of their children’s media engagement.
Most importantly, if a culture holds human life as cheap and meaningless or mocks the innocence of childhood, widespread violence should not be a surprise. If sons are denied their fathers, uncontrolled wrath and a basic crisis of identity should be expected. Finally, there must be a renewal of traditional family life and morality—the very things American culture has marked out as objects of subversion and scorn.
If the problem is this basic, nothing less than reform at the foundations will do.