There really are societal root causes for rising violence and criminality

As the nation goes through its periodic soul-searching as to the causes of recent mass shootings, I fail to see one major factor discussed.

This factor is the gradual weakening of consequences for bad behavior to the point of threatening the very fabric of society.  The latest manifestations of this can be seen in the refusal to prosecute not only minor, but major infractions of the law in a significant number of cities.  But what are the origins of these relaxed attitudes?

I was an elementary school teacher for 40 years.  Starting in the mid-1970s, the various school districts I worked for took a "different" approach to discipline.  In a matter of a few years, it became almost impossible to apply any meaningful punishment to any child, no matter how disruptive or, in many cases, violent the child was.

A generation of children grew up in a culture in which there was little or no penalty for bad behavior, and they learned this lesson well.  And why should these disrupters even consider changing their behavior?  They were daily rewarded with extra attention and the ability to manipulate and control the learning environment.  They were in their element.

One of the purposes of the public educational system is teaching knowledge, but it is not the only one.  The other major goal is to civilize and socialize our youths so they may become productive and functioning members of society.  For learning to occur, there must be a structured learning environment.  The Japanese know this very well, focusing the first few years of school on proper behavior and discipline, with less emphasis on curriculum.

What caused this marked change in school discipline?  There was a tsunami of major societal convulsions that came together at the same time.  The first was the psychological theory that people are the product of their environment, not of their own attitudes.

Image: Breakdown in classroom discipline (staged), 1907.  Library of Congress.

The second trend was to focus on group statistics rather than individual responsibility.  For example, if a school tried to implement disciplinary action based on equal justice under the rules and identifiable groups had statistically greater representation among those disciplined, the system was blamed, not the actions of the individuals.

Thirdly, school principals were judged by district superintendents based on political goals, not on how well the students behaved or learned.  This change in focus was transmitted to the teachers, who soon realized they would get no support from their administration (a situation similar to that affecting many of our police when trying to maintain law and order).

Fourthly, society as a whole was experiencing major changes, including the weakening of marriage, the absence of men in many homes, and new progressive theories on childrearing and discipline.

Lastly, there was a major rejection of both traditional and religious values by the so-called "counterculture."

In any group, a small number of individuals will be disruptive for any number of reasons.  As that small number of disruptive students experienced this new lax attitude toward breaking rules, they quickly learned there were no meaningful consequences for doing so.  The remaining students saw this happening, and they too became cynical about the system.

After these children have spent 12 years in this environment, it is no wonder that large numbers of them lack respect for the rule of law and civilized behavior — or that, when they leave school, that attitude continues into society as a whole.  And this disdain for lawful, civilized behavior is now being reinforced by prosecutors who refuse to act against genuine misdemeanor and felonious behavior.  It is no wonder that some individuals think that outright theft is acceptable and that assault and even murder are justifiable behaviors.

If you experience technical problems, please write to