At the end of the 19th century people were puzzled over a welcome but unexpected falloff in drug use. At the end of this century experts are trying to decipher the cause of the sharp decline in crime.
Or make that causes, plural.
We note that several academic specialists on crime, meeting last week in Chicago, support the idea of multiple causes for this decade's plunge in major crimes. Logically, both external and internal influences affect the waxing or waning of crimes.
External factors include: movie-TV-recordings "permission" to do what "cool" heroes do; prevalence of alcohol and drugs; availability of cheap weapons; gang goading; joblessness and other economic strains.
Internal factors center on the breakdown of family life. They include lack of parental guidance on moral basics; lack of interest in maintaining good schools, with boredom leading to high dropout and drug rates; and resulting weakening of the moral compass in many youths becoming adults.
Any painstaking survey of America today shows many of these trends reversing. Falling big-city crime statistics may be read as numerical confirmation of less quantifiable changes in individual and family attitudes.
It's no accident that "family values" has become a central theme for political leaders of both parties. It's no accident that public concern over schooling, and over alcohol and drug availability, has risen. Pressure to improve children's TV, first spearheaded by one indignant mother, is bearing fruit in better, less violent programs.
Are there problems, still? Yes. Many. There are the usual dangers of lip service and complacency. As we have just seen, too many children still absorb messages of violence and have access to weapons. Too many fail to see danger in the siren call of drugs and alcohol. Too few families hold regular conversations about life goals.
The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote much about how to "improve our progeny, diminish crime, and give higher aims to ambition." Her succinct statement, "A mother is the strongest educator, either for or against crime," remains a central truth today.