The tragedy that has engulfed Littleton, Colorado, is in fact a wakeup call for America -- too many of our schools have become killing fields. The question is whether we have gotten the message, and what our response should be.
Undoubtedly, over the next few days and weeks, a national debate will take place over what the Columbine High School massacre tells us. Some say teachers need more training in early detection to be able to recognize loners and students with extremely low self-esteem who could be walking time bombs. Others point a finger at parents, who should know if their garage is being used to build pipe bombs or if their children are obsessed with the thousands of hate sites on the Internet.
Last August, the federal government distributed a guide on safe schools, recommending smaller facilities and classes. Following the massacre, Attorney General Janet Reno said there was a need for more counselors to be placed in our schools. Other experts insist that the answer lies in beefed-up security and doing something about the huge arsenal of handguns accessible to students.
While most of the above have merit, I do not believe that they speak to the heart of the issue. As The New York Times editorial page commented, "It's not what we keep from a child that will save him, it's what you put into him in the first place. "
The question we have to ask ourselves is: what kind of an education do we seek for our children? Webster's dictionary defines "educate" as "to develop mentally or morally by instruction." America's schools certainly develop our children mentally. But do they develop them morally as well?
In the late 19th century, Herbert Spencer wrote, "Education has for its object the formation of character." Spencer was right. An education should be more than just a grade and a school should be more than just a place that dispenses it.
In January 1942, 14 men attended the Wannsee Conference at a mansion outside of Berlin. The purpose of the meeting was to figure out the best method of murdering the world's Jewish population. Eight of the men present at that meeting that plotted Hitler's "Final Solution" against the Jews held doctorates, graduates of Germany's finest universities. They had the education, but were void of any trace of human character.
What happened in Littleton was not spontaneous. The bullets and bombs that went off last Tuesday were really set off years before. Hatred is a process, a malignancy that grows. Unchecked, it can eventually take over a young person's mind.
Following the Littleton massacre, I wrote to President Clinton asking him to take the lead in calling for the establishment of a tolerance and sensitivity curriculum to be put into place in America's schools. The time has come to pay some attention to character by making sure it is as important as math and science in the development of a young person's learning experience.
Schools should not have to shoulder the responsibility of parents but neither should they be exclusive clubs that engage the mind while ignoring the heart.
Education must be about the formation of character.
It is more than just exposure to brilliant ideas and the ability to analyze data and reconcile contradictions. It must also be about life experiences that have a lasting impact on the soul of the students.
When I was a student in high school, a revered sage, the Ponevicher Rav, Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman whose students and family were wiped out in the Holocaust, addressed us one day. He leaned forward, his voice barely audible. He spoke less than 30 minutes, but I never forgot his message. "I stand here before you," he began, "for probably the last time in my life. I am sure that I will not be back here again. So please be so kind as to pay attention to these final remarks that I have for you." He went on to cite references from the Talmud regarding our responsibility to the world and to each other. This was not Einstein's theory of relativity and it wasn't a Shakespeare sonnet, but it was sincere and honest and touched every student in the beis medrash and had a lasting impact on my life.
Schools have a responsibility to expose their students to cognitive as well as emotional enrichment. The impact from such a dual exposure can be gleaned from the unforgettable story of Littleton coach David Sanders, the father of four who herded his students off to safety and took two bullets to the chest. As he lay mortally wounded, his students took out his wallet so that he could gaze at the faces of his family he would never see again.
That coach was a master teacher. His lessons will never be forgotten. Not even by thousands of young people who never knew him or sat in his class.
It is exposure to that kind of well-rounded education, "to develop mentally and morally," that might prevent future Littletons.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.