The School As an Ethical Community
by James Hunter, 1998.11.30
This article argues that if we wish to meet the needs of our children in a holistic manner, we will have to focus more on the school as a social system than on hypothetical brain diseases.
Abstract: The current reliance on the medical model for understanding and dealing with problems children typically present in the classroom is critiqued, and found to be inadequate. The use of central nervous system stimulants for the treatment of “hyperactivity” is found to be especially problematic. The concept of the school as an ethical community is offered as an alternative model for conceptualizing and intervening into school related problems. The dimensions of care, justice and critique, upon which the ethical school model is based, are explained. Finally, illustrations are given showing how this model might be used.
Testing on eleven year old Michael indicates that he should be one of the better students in the class, yet he is failing half of his subjects. He is oppositional with the teacher, and volatile and aggressive with his peers. He refuses to do his homework. It is known that his parents are undergoing a difficult divorce. He has been having difficulty from the first grade, but things are now going from poor to terrible. A Pupil Evaluation Team is called. His teacher says she can’t manage with him in the classroom and do justice to the other students as well. The psychologist who did the evaluation for the school thinks Michael has Attention Deficit Disorder and should be tried on a central nervous system stimulant. The boy’s individual counselor says that medication would only suppress symptoms that are clearly related to situation factors, and that Michael should receive counseling. As his parents have too much money to get Medicaid, and not enough to pay for counseling or adequate health insurance, the counselor insists that the school should pay for the services. The mother’s minister is suspicious of any kind of mental health services, and suggest the boy should be placed in a Christian school with very strict discipline and individual study booths. The boy’s father would like for his son to be in a resource room and receive tutoring. He thinks his son would “shapeup” if he were permitted to live with him, which is what Michael says he wants to do. Yet there have been rumors of unspecified abuse from the father, and most members of the PET are vaguely hostile to him. The Special Education Director has been instructed by the school board to try to contain special education expenses — especially the disproportionate amount of money a few troublesome students are “swallowing up. “The school board is trying to uphold the common sense principle that schools should “stick to education.” Everybody is talking about lawyers, and fearful of litigation.
There is little room for argument about the simple fact that when a child is preoccupied with overwhelming emotional, behavioral, social or family problems, learning can be adversely impacted. Given the complexity and difficulty of these problems, and the frustrations involved in trying to address them, it is easy to sympathize with educators who complain that they cannot be all things to all people and solve all of society’s problems. Nevertheless, when problems interfere with learning, educators cannot simply ignore them.
Currently the medical model is the dominant paradigm that guides society’s understanding of, and intervention into, problems in living. Therefore, in scenarios like the one given above, the probability is that the school psychologist will prevail. Michael will be diagnosed as having ADHD, and placed on Ritalin. The other issues in his life will remain largely un-addressed.
In this paper I will offer some observations that bring into question the adequacy of the medical model for intervening into most school problems, and I will suggest a more productive alternative.
I. The Inadequacy of the medical model:
Every day we see articles in newspapers implying that this or that state of consciousness or pattern of behavior is fully determined biologically. If we are happy it is because we are “wired to be happy.” If we are anxious it is in our genes to be anxious. If we are depressed it is because of our brain chemistry. When this perspective is brought to the classroom, we see diseases where formally we saw personal problems and interpersonal conflicts.
A number of factors support the supremacy of the medical model. The thinking in most educated circles in our society is generally reductionistic in nature. Spirit is understood in terms of sociology and psychology, sociology and psychology in terms of biology, and biology in terms of chemistry and physics. Medicine is based on the physical sciences, and has shown itself able to produce remarkable results in the area of physical diseases. These factors give it great prestige.
The very fact that the full array of affective, cognitive behavioral, and interpersonal problems in living that plague humanity have been labeled “mental health” problems has paved the way for the dominance of the medical perspective.
If we list the problems that most seriously impact the ability of children to learn in public schools, we repeatedly find such factors as poverty, unwanted pregnancies, low self esteem, oppositional and rebellious behavior, violence, racism, class differences, family problems, depression, mistrust of authority, and lack of hope for the future. These issues have much more to do with how we think about ourselves and others, and how we organize our lives together than with genes and microbes. They require interventions that are psychological, social and spiritual in nature. As I have argued elsewhere, (Hunter, 1981, 1991) if we are to cope adequately with our problems as persons, we must begin with a model that views us as persons — that is to say as goal-seeking, world defining, and decision making entities, who seek meaning and fulfillment in relationships with others.
Schools systems are looking for solutions that are quick, effective and inexpensive. Generally they would prefer to avoid scrutinizing their own procedures and structures. Medicine promises to meet all these requirements in the form of a pill. All that is necessary is to say “no” the bad drugs and “yes” to the good ones. Before endorsing this solution, however, several questions need to be addressed. Is there evidence that most of the problems that children are exhibiting in schools in fact have their origin in biological disorders? Does the pill improve learning? Are there significant adverse side effects that should lead us to show caution in using this intervention?
Peter Breggin (1991) in his seminal work Toxic Psychiatry points out that, despite the plethora of book, articles and news stories about the “broken brains” and “chemical imbalances” that are purportedly responsible for the suffering of those labeled with mental illness, there is in fact still no solid biological evidence that any of the major psychiatric disorders is biologically determined. Furthermore, he points out that even if “a subtle defect is found in the brains of some mental patients, it will not change the damaging impact of the current treatments in use” (p. 60). Breggin carefully substantiates his contention that “the only biochemical imbalances that we can identify with certainly in the brains of psychiatric patients are the ones produced by psychiatric treatment itself” (p. 12).
By far the most commonly used medications in the schools are central nervous system stimulants such as Ritalin and Cylert. In “Talking Back to Ritalin,” Breggin cites a report by the International Narcotics Control Board in which it is estimated that 10% to 12% of all boys between the ages of 6 and 14 in the United States were taking Ritalin as of 1995 (Breggin, 1998, Pg. 2). He goes on to document the fact that Ritalin does not, in fact, improve learning at all. A report prepared for NIMH (Richters, et al., 1995) concluded that the “long-term efficacy of stimulant medication has not been demonstrated for any domain of the child functioning.” (Breggin, 1998, p. 103). In an extensive review Deborah Jacoboviz and her team (Jacobovitz, Srouf, Stewart and Leffert, 1990) concluded that “to date, there is no evidence that stimulants enhance academic performance” (Breggin, pg. 104). Swanson and his colleagues (Swanson et. al., 1992) concluded that “there is very little objective evidence to support the notion that stimulant medication improves learning in ADHD children” (Breggin, 1998, pp 103, 104.) In a more recent review Whalen and Henker (1997) found that they could discern no “long term advantage” to taking Ritalin. (Breggin, 1998, pg. 103).
It is known that depression, tics, dulled affect, and perseveration are among the common psychological and behavioral side effects of taking Ritalin. Use of Ritalin is also associated with a number of physical problems, the most conspicuous one being the retardation of growth. But the most alarming effects of Ritalin are on the brain. Breggin summarizes: “Stimulants such as Ritalin and amphetamine also have grossly harmful impacts on the brain — reducing overall blood flow, disturbing glucose metabolism, and possibly causing permanent shrinkage or atrophy of the brain. They produce a loss of receptors for various neurotransmitters and, in some cases, this is know to become permanent.” (pg 55)
It does appear that the use of stimulant medications makes some children more manageable in the classroom. One of the ways it does this is by reducing their need for “novel stimuli.” In “Research on the Educational Implication of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,” Sydney Zentall points out that “most students would not be considered deficient in attention in response to games. These children will seek out stimulation when their tasks are overly familiar or repetitive” (Zental, 1993, pg. 150). Here we seem to be talking about a boring situation in a classroom — not a chemical imbalance in the brain. What normal human being does not crave fresh stimuli when chained to tedious and repetitive tasks? Zentall goes on to point out that “an attentional bias to novelty appears to contribute to greater creativity in the stories told by students with ADHD than documented for their classmates (Pg. 150). This would suggest that what we are trying to medicate out of existence is the child’s natural desire for interesting activities and for creative expression.
The most cogent educational reason for rejecting the widespread imposition of central nervous system stimulants on school children is simply that these drugs fail to improve learning. In view of the many negative side effects, the current reliance of school systems on this form of behavioral control would seem to be ill-advised if not unethical.
II. The Concept of the Ethical School:
Adelman and Taylor (1996) suggest that for pedagogical purposes most “mental health problems” can best be conceptualized as “obstacles to learning.” Unlike the term “mental health problem,” the meaning of the term “obstacle to leaning” is fairly clear. An obstacle to learning is simply anything that inhibits the development of a child’s scholastic potential. It might be a condition that effects the child’s health, or it might be a relationship issue between the child and his or her peers or teacher. The obstacle might be in a poor fit between the child and the educational practices of the school, or in the negative impact of any number of social factors that impinge on the child and the classroom.
A child’s scholastic potential is probably determined largely by genetics. Generally speaking there is very little that can be done with regard to surgery or medicine to alter this potential. There are, however, a multitude of factors that have an enormous effect on which of the child’s potentials are realized, and to what degree. For the most part these factors that either facilitate or inhibit the unfolding of scholastic potential are social in nature. Therefore we need a social frame of reference for discerning and intervening into those conditions that are pedagogically relevant to child.
The concept of the “ethical school,” outlined by Wm. Starratt in Building Ethical Schools, (1994) provides us with a model that is well suited for clarifying those social factors that need to be addressed if we are to remove obstacles to learning in our classrooms. Starratt suggests we must operate out of a multidimensional framework of analysis. The three dimensions he specifies are care, justice, and critique. The principle of care focuses us on the question, “what do our relationships ask of us?” The question of justice is “how shall we govern ourselves?” In critique we ask “who controls, who legitimizes, and who defines.” He argues, plausibility I think, that we must give adequate consideration to all three dimensions if we are to develop truly ethical schools. Nel Noddings’ (1992) work on the idea of the place of care in the school merits special attention. Noddings builds on the work of Carol Gilligan (1982) who drew attention to some limitations in Kohlberg’s idea of “justice” as the central focus of ethical development. Gilligan suggests that the justice idea with its emphasis on individuality, the concept of “rights,” and the notion of a hierarchy of principles is a distinctively masculine one. This frame of reference does not give due weight to an alternative approach that grounds itself in care rather than in justice. The care frame of reference emphasizes relatedness, responding to the needs of those one cares about, and making decision within a network of social relationships. This, Gilligan feels, tends to be more characteristic of the way that women approach ethical dilemmas. From a justice perspective one would ask, “what principles should guide my action in this situation?” From a care perspective one would tend to ask “how can I respond in a balanced way to various needs of the people I feel responsible for in this situation, including myself?” As Gilligan makes clear, “the contrasting images of hierarchy and network in children’s thinking about moral conflict and choice illuminate two views of morality which are complementary rather than sequential or opposed” (p. 33). This is consistent with Starrett’s (1994) inclusion of both care and justice in his definition of the ethical community.
The idea of caring as an important aspect of schooling is currently receiving wide attention. In addition to Noddings seminal work, the May 1995 issue of Phi Delta Kappa, which was dedicated to the issue of care, (Chaskin, 1995) is especially noteworthy. The idea of schools as caring communities begins with an emphasis on caring for the student above all other priorities. It further suggest that the student should be taught to care. Noddings describes expanding circles of care, beginning with the self, then focusing on others in varying degrees of intimacy with ones self, and then to all organic life on the earth, humanly developed technology, and ultimately ideas. It is a useful model.
The concept of the school as a caring community has ramifications for every aspect of school life. One must care about the whole child — what skills he or she has for making friends or for resolving conflicts as well as what skills are in evidence in academic areas. With regard to curriculum, the idea of schools as places of care suggests that the theme of care should itself be part of the curriculum in various ways. It also suggests that curriculum should be related to the things a child naturally cares about. Finally, the concept of the expanding circles of care is offered as a guide for thinking about a variety of specific topics.
While my biases lead me to emphasize the importance of care in the schools, and while I am partial to the way in which Noddings articulates this concern, I would agree with Starratt’s position that a full definition of an ethical school requires the inclusion of the dimensions of justice and critique as well.
The idea of justice includes all those notions of fairness, evenhandedness, and equal access to opportunity that, in principle at least, almost everyone would support. It would also emphasize the rights of individuals and minorities. Equally it would affirm the rights of the majority in certain situations. Is it fair, for example, that the needs of one student should sometimes dominate an entire classroom?
Perhaps somewhat more controversially, many would feel that the concept of justice would affirm the right of all individuals to have a say in defining the fundamental mission and norms that guide all the organizations of which they are a part. In other words, the principle of justice would support the notion of implementing democratic practices in the decision making patterns of all our bureaucracies. It is odd that in the United States this would seem like a radical notion. Yet we are accustomed to bureaucracies that exercise control from the top down, and it is notoriously difficult to shift our mind set.
Probably most people would agree that social groups should embody the principles of care, justice and democracy. Conspicuously however, much of our individual and collective behavior does not flow logically from these principles. It is at the point of discrepancy between what we profess and what we do that critique has its task.
Human beings have a capacity to deceive themselves and others as to the real intent of their actions, and collectively we are often dishonest regarding the true purposes and consequences of the social forms that we create. This capacity for deviousness is a recurring theme in modern literature, psychology, sociology and philosophy. Although the prophet, or the person who provides the needed critique, is one of society’s most valuable citizens, he or she is seldom valued. The health of a community and the depth of its commitment to justice and democracy can probably best be measured by the degree to which it tolerates its gadflies. Even 5th century Athens, which was far advanced for its day, had difficulty in this matter, as their condemnation of Socrates made clear. We hardly do better today. Thinking about the nature of the ethical community from a slightly different angle, we might conceptualize it in terms of the individual/group reciprocities that it facilitates in the dimensions of care, justice and democracy. In the care dimension, reciprocity would be defined in terms of the balance between knowing oneself as a person who is cared for by the community, and caring for the community and its members. In the justice dimension we would be speaking about the reciprocity of being treated fairly and the growing capacity to treat others fairly, and to recognize their rights. In the dimension of democracy the right to participate in the decisions of the total group would be balanced by the need to respect the authority of the group. From the perspective of the group, the implementation of democracy would be concerned with the right of the group to protect the integrity of the social fabric balanced with the responsibility of the group to respect the rights of individuals and minorities. Critique would then be focused on assessing the degree to which these reciprocal relationships were maintained in a balanced manner.
III. Overview of Obstacles To Learning
It might be useful to organize some of the barriers to learning which are frequently cited in the literature in terms of the hierarchy of loci where strengths and weakness might be found. The list below is intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. Also, some issues such as drug or alcohol abuse, might appear on various levels. Furthermore, the impact of some factors, such as social privilege, are so ubiquitous as to pervade the entire hierarchy from top to bottom. In spite of these complexities, we need some way of organizing our thinking about the various barriers to learning. Categorizing them in terms of the loci where they are most apparent probably has some practical advantages because it suggests where we might most productively target our interventions.
I would suggest that we use a model that focuses on seven loci of strengths and vulnerabilities. These are the individual, the home, the class room, the school, the community, the society, and the culture. A list of possible vulnerabilities on each level might include some of the following:
Emotional distress, drug and alcohol addiction, low self-esteem, attachment problems, suspicion or hatred of authority, “difficult” temperament, high activity level, neurological or other physical health problems, poor peer-skills, dangerous patterns of sexual activity, boredom, and sense of isolation or alienation form others.
Poverty, poor parenting skills, families headed by overwhelmed single parents, drug addiction, abuse and neglect, absent father, children triangulated into parents conflicts, parental immaturity.
Low tolerance for deviance, pressure to cram in information in preparation for achievement tests, curriculum unrelated to what a child cares about, no child input into the curriculum, an uncaring atmosphere, moral indignation re: children’s problems, pressure on one teacher to handle both curriculum and behavior problems at the same time, peer conflicts.
School Autocratic administrative procedures, low morale, little or no teacher/child/parent input into the decisions of the school, inadequate peer support, poor linkage to the home and community.
Violence, crime, ethnic conflict, poverty, lack of commitment to education, lack of common vision as to the mission of education, lack of services needed for special problems, poor coordination of services.
Racism, class structure and privilege, homophobia, prejudice against minorities of all kinds (other nationalities, etc.), unwillingness to adequately fund schools.
Society’s loss of its spiritual center, difficulty in accepting the reality of cultural pluralism, lack of a cultural consensus as to the purpose of education, glorification of violence.
IV. The Impact of Ethical Schools on Mental Health Problems
By addressing barriers to learning in the context of schools as ethical communities the pedagogical and administrative practices of schools can become relevant to the full range of conditions that inhibit learning. To show this an exhaustive way would be beyond both my ability and the scope of a single paper. A few illustrations, however, may show how ethical schools would be relevant to some identified issues.
Caring for the individual student:
If one had to select a single most reliable indicator of the emotional and mental well-being of an individual child, probably self-esteem would be the logical choice. Children, even more than adults, are dependent upon positive mirroring from others to sustain their self esteem. For most children the teacher is probably second in importance only to the parents as a source of feedback. Simply to convey to a child the message, “I like you, and I am glad you are here,” with a smile, a touch, a compliment, or a word of encouragement is an act of tremendous power.
Focusing the curriculum on things the student cares about:
When I went to school they did not have theories about attention deficit disorders. I’m sure that if they had, I would have been diagnosed as having one. I daydreamed incessantly, and paid attention to my surroundings only during lunch, recess and gym. Clearly there was an attention problem. The school system and I were, in fact, engaged in a terrible struggle to determine who would control my attention. I was not lacking in interests. There were many things I loved to do, and to learn about. But I found none of them in school. I distinctly remember an oasis in the midst of this futility. In the seventh grade a teacher — perhaps he had been reading Dewey — began our science class but engaging us in a discussion about what we would like to learn about. All at once the classroom was an exciting place, and I participated with enthusiasm. I also remember a biology class in high school when I was given the opportunity to see what was inside of animals. I was soon elbow deep in formaldehyde convinced that at any moment I would discover the secret of life. Later I recall my shock at reading Worthsworth’s Tintern Abbey poem as a senior in an English class. Here I found words that related to important feelings I had had. I didn’t expect to find anything at school that had that kind of relevance. It was an eye opener. Perhaps elsewhere in the literature of humanity, maybe even in people like Shakespeare, issues were explored that were of vital interest to me.
To be forced to learn by rote masses of facts that are not intrinsically interesting and which seem to have no connection with things a student cares about tends to create boredom, resentment, dissociation, and behavior problems. The easiest solution is simply to include the student in the selection of the curriculum.
Confronting Social Stereotypes:
The negative stereotypes of the larger society are invariably brought into the schools and they must be addressed. In a truly just system the principle of rule by the majority must be balanced by a firm commitment to the rights of the minorities. In my own work with children of a junior high school age I have been particularly impressed by the intense hatred and viciousness I have witnessed with regard to gays. Perhaps an illustration from my own experience will be instructive at this point. I was asked by staff at a junior high school to work with a 13 year old boy — call him David— who was behaving in an uncontrollable manner in school and was engaged in drug abuse with a group of rebellious teen-agers in the community. A specific event precipitated his most recent escalation of difficult behaviors. Another boy had usurped his place in the attentions and affections of his best friend. I was unable to make much progress with the boy individually, and with the assistance and blessings of the school counselor, I started a group of all the most unruly boys in school. With a couple of exceptions, the boys in the group were part of a natural peer group that included both David’s best friend and the boy who usurped his position.
The dynamics of social exclusion and inclusion seemed central in this situation on a number of levels, so I constructed a little experiment to explore this issue. I came with a list of all the attributes I could think of that might be perceived a reasons for excluding a boy from full membership in a peer group. I began with physical conditions that might be stigmatizing, such as blindness, having CP, simply being very unattractive, being from another racial group, etc. Then I listed all the standard psychological and social attributes that might be negatively perceived such as having been in a mental hospital, coming from a poor family, being a foster child, etc. Finally I listed sexual deviations. I created three circles on the table that we sat around, and as I brought each card out I asked the group to place it in one of the circles. Placement in circle one indicated that children who manifested the attribute would not be excluded from their peer group for that reason. Placement in group two indicated that they would exclude such a child from their peer group, still would still treat him decently unless he bothered them. Placement in group three indicated that the attribute was so distressing to group members that they would not only exclude any child manifesting that attribute from their group, but that they would actively persecute him as well. Only one attribute led to a boy being placed in group three. That was being gay. The boys told me that if they discovered someone was gay they would, if possible, force him out of the school, and out of the community as well. They mentioned a situation in the community (a small rural one) in which a family with a gay boy did have to leave the community because the persecution of the boy became intolerable. Whether the situation they told me about was accurately perceived by these boys, I have no idea. But the absolute horror at the idea of someone being gay was certainly unmistakable. The irony was, of course, that the homosexual dynamics between the boys in the group were unmistakable. The sense of horror the boys felt in relation to this attribute was a two edged sword that threatened to cut them as well. I would not claim that my group solved this problem in any very basic manner. But it did make it clear to me that both compassion and pedagogical concerns argued for addressing this issue in some positive manner in the schools.
Minorities tend to take the same attitudes toward themselves that they find in the larger culture. When these attitudes are overwhelmingly negative this leads to socially induced “mental health problems” which can interfere with learning. I recall a 9 year old black girl I was working with. During one session she took a red skirt out of some dress-up clothes I had in the play room and put it on her head to represent long red hair. She was playing the part of Ms. Universe. “I’m the most beautiful woman in the world,” she said as she strutted around the room.
I asked whether the most beautiful woman in the world couldn’t have her kind of hair. “I think your afro is beautiful,” I said. She told me how much she hated her hair. Long straight hair, preferably red or blond, was beautiful — not hair like she had.
Exploration of the Ultimate Issues:
When people have no sense of commitment to a life purpose larger than the immediate satisfaction of their own impulses they tend to suffer from a sense of emptiness. Victor Frankl (1992) termed this particular type of psychological difficulty “noogentic neurosis.” It is a plausible hypothesis that this sense of emptiness is the main culprit behind much of the aimlessness in living, the self-destructiveness (at times even suicide), and the excessive drug use that we see in students in our schools today. People can deal with a great deal of pain and hardship if they have hope and a sense of purpose. Without a strong sense of purpose even trifling concerns can be overwhelming. Nel Noddings (1992) suggests that a caring school must allow, even encourage, the ultimate or “spiritual” questions of life to be addressed. Who are we? What is our purpose? Is there any larger or higher consciousness, purpose or force behind (or within) creation? What is right and what is wrong? What is worth doing? Is death the end? Are all values transient? I agree with her. These are questions every thinking human being must address at some point in his or her life. In Being and Time Heidegger (1996) defines the essence of being human as “Care.” If we cannot discuss the things we most care about, then we are lonely indeed. While I think it goes without saying that public schools cannot advocate for any particular religious or non religious answer to these questions, our children are receiving a very partial education if all matters relating to the “spirit,” as defined in the broadest possible manner, are excluded from the curriculum and from discussion. Every spiritual orientation is to be respected whether it is Christianity, Buddhism, Humanism, or the Ethical commitments of an atheist. Through open discussion and exploration each student must be allowed to find his or her way to personally satisfying answers, perhaps in discussion with parents or other respected individuals. But without somewhere to think these things through, the dynamics of emptiness will continue to take its toll among our youth.
Schools must care for the whole child. Yet it is also true that schools cannot be all things to all people. While many of the problems that are commonly termed “mental health” concerns will be resolved, or at least mitigated, simply by the quality of human interactions that take place in an ethical school, there will always be a residue of problems that cannot appropriately be met at school. A commitment to care requires that something be done with regard to this residue. This requirement can be met in two ways. First, additional services must made easily available to students so that they can seek out resources which they will find personally helpful. Second, students and/or their parents can be referred to services that they may not know about or for any other reason that they might fail to seek out on their own.
The linkage of children and families with services that would have a positive impact on their mental and emotional well-being can best be met in the context of a full-services school model. As described by Bill Davis (1995), “the essential feature of full-service schools is to provide a system which effectively connects the multiple needs of consumers (students and their families) with appropriate service providers in the education, health, mental health, social services, and recreational fields” (p. 9). The full-service school concept emphasizes the broad, social systems perspective that I have been highlighting in this paper. Again to quote Bill Davis, the full service school concept “emphasizes a holistic, preventive approach for dealing with the “problems” frequently presented by children and youth — “problems” which almost always are connected of those of their families and their communities” (p. 9).
Overwhelming evidence exists in both the social and the psychological sciences that we are able to exist and develop as persons only in the context of a network of bonded relationships. It follows from this that “mental illness” is best understood as the symptomatology of individuals who have lost the capacity to experience themselves as valued members of a community. The etiology of the difficulties that are termed “mental health problems,” may be quite varied. One may find the primary cause in a biological condition that makes it difficult for the child to respond to social relationships that are offered to him or her, in a harsh and exploitive environment (family or community), in a difficult “fit” between the child and parenting figures, in early disruptions of bonded relationships, or in any number of avoidable or unavoidable traumas. Probably more than one factor is generally involved. But it is always the social dislocation that is central. Given the radically social nature of personal well-being, the concept of the ethical community speaks to the very heart of the matter. To offer real belonging in a caring social group, and to help overcome the obstacles to successful membership is to treat “mental health problems.” Such an approach attacks barriers to learning at their roots. This is what ethical communities are all about.
Raymond Calabrese (1990) makes the point that “the school organization cannot teach the rhetoric of ethics and democracy without demonstrating actions consistent with words” (p. 15). I concur. Children learn to care through being cared for. They learn democracy by participating in democratic processes. They learn self-reflection and the capacity to constructively criticize their communities through participating in a group that encourages and teaches positive critique. To belong to an ethical community, and to participate in its processes, is the best possible training one can have for future citizenship in a democratic, free, self-reflective, and hopefully caring community. By providing such an environment to children we prepare them for the task of transforming society on a local, national and global level so that those problems in living that are currently termed “mental health” concerns are fewer, and when they do exist, they are responded to in a more effective and humane manner.
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