Product Safety Alert: Progressive Education

by | Apr 19, 2024

Educational practices linked to school shootings demand an investigation of the public schools.
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli / unsplash

In the twenty-five years since Columbine (April 20, 1999), school shootings have plagued our country with at least forty more attacks.

Where is the courage to call out the prime suspect in this national disaster? After 9/11, we called out Islamic states that sponsor terrorism. After a residential building collapse in Florida in 2021, and more recently, a slew of airline mishaps, we called out American industry for the lapse in product safety. But after three decades of school shootings, we have not called out schools and educational practices.

Are America’s public schools producing school shooters? This article offers the evidence, calls on educators to take responsibility, and urges them to examine the practices that may have led to school shootings. To understand how schools could produce school shooters we can look to industry. Consider consumer products like automobiles, homes, food and medicines. In industry, the term “product escape” refers to a flaw in production that may harm consumers. Nationwide school shootings suggest an egregious flaw in educational practice.

The flaw was introduced in the late 1980s when progressive educators implemented learner-centered education in schools that were designed for teacher-directed instruction. Influenced by John Dewey’s criticism of traditional education, progressives opposed the public schools’ narrow focus on preparing students to join the modern workforce and indifference to who they were as unique individuals.[1] Progressives demanded that the individual be liberated from this factory model of education and take charge of his own learning. Hostile to traditional instruction, learner-centered education provoked a conflict so severe that it incited school shootings.

Leading the conflict were Luke Woodham, who attacked students at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi in 1997 and Eric Harris who attacked Columbine High School with Dylan Klebold in Littleton, Colorado in 1999. Woodham and Harris had become angry progressives complaining of oppression and demanding to learn in their own way. Evidence of their transformation comes from personal journals they kept in the months leading up to their attacks. Self-assured, Woodham advised fellow learners to liberate themselves and learn independently.

“My advice to any man who has been tortured by humanity is this: . . . Hate humanity! Hate humanities! . . . Hate what humanity has made you! Hate what you have become! Most of all, hate the accurssed [sic] god of Christianity. Hate him for making humanity Hate him for making you! Hate him for flinging you into a monsterous [sic] life you did not ask for nor deserve! Fill your heart, mind, and soul with hatred; until it’s all you know. Until your conscience becomes a firey [sic] tomb of hatred for the goodness in you soul. Hate everyone and everything. Hate where you were and are. Hate until you can’t anymore. Then learn, read poetry books, philosophy books, history books, science books, auto biographies and biographies. Become a sponge for knowledge. Study the philosophies of others and condense the parts you like as your own. Make your own rules. Live by your own laws. For now, truly, you should be at peace and your own true self. Live your life in a bold, new way. For you, dear friend, are a superman.” [2]

Harris aimed to attack Columbine High School on April 19, the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.[3] In a journal entry dated 4/21/98, Harris revealed his motive when he gave the progressive argument against traditional instruction in schools.

“Ever wonder why we go to school? Besides getting a so-called education. It’s not too obvious to most of you stupid fucks but for those who think a little more and deeper you should realize it. Its society’s way of turning all the young people into good little robots and factory workers. That’s why we sit in desks in rows and go by bell schedules, to get prepared for the real world cause “that’s what its like.” Well god damn it no it isn’t! one thing that separates us from other animals is the fact that we can carry actual thoughts. So why don’t we? People go on day by day routine shit. Why can’t we learn in school how we want to, why can’t we sit on desks and on shelves and put our feet up and relax while we learn? Cause that’s not what the “real world is like.” Well hey fuckheads, there is no such thing as an actual “real world.” “[4]

Their writings suggest that Harris and Woodham had absorbed the central idea of learner-centered education: subjectivism. Subjectivism holds that knowledge is shaped by an individual’s personal perspective and is not a grasp of objective reality. Consequently, Harris concluded that “there is no such thing as an actual ‘real world’” about which we are educated. We know our thoughts about the world, but not the world as it really is. Grasping the wider implication, Harris became radicalized against schools that force false education upon students. Equally radicalized, Woodham’s advice was to throw out the false education, tailor knowledge to one’s desires and live by one’s own laws.

The crucial question is this: Why would these students who demanded to learn in their own way attack their schools rather than protest peacefully, drop out or enroll in a progressive private school? The likely reason was revealed after the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007. Another long-standing progressive practice turned their philosophic disagreement into a violent conflict.

As reports emerged from Virginia Tech, Dr. John Simmons, emeritus professor of English Education at Florida State University, became alarmed. The shooter, Seung-hui Cho, was an English major with a history of intimidating behavior and disturbing writing. Responding to the attack, Professor Simmons issued a safety warning to English teachers in the September 2007 issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. In an article titled, “Dealing with Troubled Writers: A Literacy Teacher’s Dilemma,” Professor Simmons warned that personal writing assignments introduced in the public schools in the 1970s and which validate the writer’s emotions, can lead troubled students to violence. Of particular significance is Professor Simmons’ discussion of personal journals, which have been recovered after many school shootings.

“The movement to feature personal writing among classroom activities and assignments was exacerbated by the emergence of the Bay Area Writing Project in 1971. Soon becoming the National Writing Project (NWP), it is still very much alive throughout the United States today. A most popular outgrowth of the personal writing movement was the journal writing assignment in which students in their English classes would begin each period by writing in their notebooks on whatever came into their minds or on some cryptically stated topic they found on the chalkboard. Such writing took only a few minutes, went ungraded, and became the personal property of each individual student writer. The approach was extremely popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s and is still in use today.”[5]

Progressive criticisms of the public schools have been found in the personal journals of other school shooters. For example, Adam Lanza described school as “the brutal indoctrination of pristine minds so as to propagate some delusional system of cultural values.”[6] Alex Hribal stated that “all this was caused by . . . dehumanization of public school.”[7] William Atchison described school as a “nightmare equivalent to prison if you’re even an iota unique or individualistic.”[8] At least twenty personal journals were recovered after Aiden Hale attacked his former Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee in 2023.[9] Hale’s journals remain unpublished.

Professor Simmons warns that the personal writing movement encourages a subjective method. The student is not required to compose his thoughts or use proper grammar, sentence structure and spelling. Ominously, the student is discouraged from focusing outward on his interactions with the world. Instead, he is instructed to turn inward and reveal his emotions.[10] According to Professor Simmons, the modern writer’s goal is to express his inner world outwardly. James Moffett, a noted English educator, wrote that the modern writer seeks “to make the private self public.”[11]

Cho made his private self public to everyone in the Virginia Tech English department. The most infamous occasion was Cho’s angry tirade in poetry class that caused many students to become fearful of him.[12] Remarkably, the modern writer’s goal was clear to Eric Harris in 1998, and primed him for violence. In his personal journal, Harris wrote, “HATE! I’m full of hate and I love it. I HATE PEOPLE and they better fucking fear me if they know what’s good for ’em. Yes I hate and I guess I want others to know it. . . .”[13]

The prominence of disturbing personal writings among the perpetrators suggests that learner-centered education and personal writing assignments came together in a perfect storm for school shootings. These students were provoked to oppose the education system, were encouraged to embrace their emotions, and then stoked their rage against the system.

Eric Harris is the quintessential case in point. Like Dylan Klebold, his accomplice, Harris was literate in the classics, an excellent writer and excelled academically. Harris was on track to pursue any career he desired, but had made no plans for college.[14] Instead, he spent the last year of his life denying the validity of morals and denouncing everything he hated in a personal journal, while planning to bomb Columbine High School. At the end of his 4/21/98 entry, Harris defended the integrity of his inner world against a meaningless, robotic existence that, according to progressives, awaits graduates of America’s public school system.

“You aren’t human. You are a robot. You don’t take advantage of your capabilities given to you at birth. You just drop them and hop onto the boat and head down the stream of life with all the other fuckers of your time. Well god damn it I won’t be part of it! I have thought too much, realized too much, found out too much, and I am too self aware to just stop what I am thinking and go back to society because what I do and think isn’t “right” or “morally accepted.” NO, NO, NO. God fucking damn it NO! I will sooner die than betray my own thoughts.”[15]

Considering the evidence in total, America’s educators face the possibility of an enormous product escape. School shootings are committed by their students, at their place of work, during their professional practice. The attacks emerged in the late 1980s with the implementation of learner-centered education, and have continued for three decades. Two early perpetrators, Luke Woodham and Eric Harris, made learner-centered philosophy their rallying cry. A respected professor of English education has blown the whistle on a writing method that validated their rage and is in English classrooms across America. The journal writings of Woodham and Harris suggest that they became dangerous subjectivists who scorned education, morals and a value-oriented life. Finally, the progressive notions that knowledge is subjective and schools impose false education are echoed by other school shooters, many of whom worship Harris, whose influence is global and endures to this day.

As all producers must do, educators must look in the mirror. There is no free pass in our specialized, division of labor society. Practitioners in all fields of endeavor must examine their practices to ensure that they are delivering value. The established principle is: Those practices most closely associated with a man-made catastrophe are the primary focus of investigation. Not only is this principle disregarded in the case of school shootings, educators have escaped scrutiny with the widespread acceptance that mental illness and gun manufacturers are to blame.

The truth is that due to the government’s monopoly in education, America’s public schools are unaccountable, which allows questionable practices to be implemented and never examined or rescinded. Furthermore, Harris’ writings suggest that educators are comfortable expressing in class their antagonism to traditional instruction, to our modern industrial society and their wish to have no part in either.

Those factory workers, belittled as robots and whose kids are forced to attend the failing public schools, have dealt with product escapes. When they learn that school shootings are the likely result of a product escape and there has been no investigation for over thirty years, they are not likely to be understanding. America’s educators should, therefore, take responsibility now or risk being the fool in the proverb: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise in heart.”[16]

 

Author bio: Neil Erian earned a teaching certificate in math, grades 6-12, taught math for five years in the Connecticut public schools, and is currently an engineer in the aircraft industry.

[1] John Dewey, “The School and the Life of the Child,” The School and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1900), https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/53910/pg53910-images.html#Page_47, 48-52.

[2] Peter Langman, “Luke Woodham’s Writings,” version 1.0 (27 June 2016). School Shooters.info. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/woodham_writings_1.0.pdf, 2.

[3] Dave Cullen, Columbine (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2009), 35.

[4] Peter Langman, “Eric Harris’s Journal Transcribed and Annotated,” version 1.3 (3 October 2014). School Shooters.info. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/harris_journal_1.3.pdf, 2-3.

[5] John Simmons, “Dealing with Troubled Writers: A Literacy Teacher’s Dilemma,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 2007, vol. 51, no. 1, 4-5.

[6] Reed Coleman, “Adam Lanza’s ‘Shocked Beyond Belief’ Posts,” version 2.2 (24 August 2016). School Shooters.info. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/lanza_posts_2.2.pdf, 32.

[7] Peter Langman, “Alex Hribal’s Letter,” School Shooters.info. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/Hribal_Letter.pdf, 3-4.

[8] Peter Langman, “William Atchison Online,” version 1.0 (7 July 2020). School Shooters.info. https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/atchison_online_1.0.pdf, 56.

[9] Travis Loller (July 25, 2023), “Nashville school shooter’s writings reignite debate over releasing material written by mass killers,” https://apnews.com/article/covenant-nashville-shooting-manifesto-efb8c1d737bb24a88d6c91e6809af7d1, Associated Press.

[10] Phyllis Schlafly, “The Phyllis Schlafly Report,” February 1984, vol. 17, no. 7, Section 1.

[11] Simmons, “Dealing with Troubled Writers,” 4.

[12] Lucinda Roy, No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech (New York: Harmony Books, 2009), p. 31.

[13] Peter Langman, “Eric Harris’s Journal Transcribed and Annotated,” 8.

[14] Cullen, Columbine, 16.

[15] Peter Langman, “Eric Harris’s Journal Transcribed and Annotated,” 3.

[16] Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1955), 126.

Neil Erian earned a teaching certificate in math, grades 6-12, taught math for five years in the Connecticut public schools, and is currently an engineer in the aircraft industry.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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