BOSTON — As the initial shock of the Littleton, Colo., tragedy begins to wear off, questions are being raised about the ethical, moral, and spiritual climate in which a string of school shootings has taken place across America.
These are profound, transcending specific issues like gun control, violent video games, and offensive music. Among them:
*Are kids being taught right from wrong in schools and at home these days?
*Are educators worshipping at the altar of kids' "self-esteem," encouraging narcissism and not traditional learning?
*Has the era of "Beavis and Butthead" accelerated a lack of respect - the ridiculing of others as an art - that can lead to bullying followed by extreme revenge?
Concern extends to churches, where declining youth attendance may play a part in adolescent behavior. Some theologians ask whether religious teaching itself is complicit in a culture of violence. Others question whether the line separating church and state has been drawn too sharply, precluding values education in schools.
Such questions - none of them easily answered - also are resulting in renewed emphasis on "character education" and other school and community programs that are beginning to meet with some success nationwide. But some religious figures say there is still farther to go.
"One of the things I see as a minister of the Gospel is there needs to be a spiritual awakening in America today," says Billy Epperhart, pastor of the Trinity Christian Center in Littleton, who conducted funerals for four students killed at Columbine High School.
In addition, Mr. Epperhart told CNN last weekend on a "community conversation" featuring parents, students, and local officials, "We've got to exercise tough love, know what they're involved in, know where they're disconnected, know where they need to have boundaries set, and understand that, so we know what's happening with our kids."
Other religious experts are using the shootings at Columbine High School as an opportunity to explore the relationship between church teaching and the history of American culture and attitudes regarding sanctioned violence such as war and capital punishment.
"We don't do justice to youth by only addressing the killers and their violence," says Jon Pahl, associate professor of theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana, and a youth minister in the Disciples of Christ Church there. "What we need to do is address the systemic causes."
For example, he says, "On a theological level, the church has often favored a triumphal theology that's linked to American destiny. The very metaphors we use to describe God are masculine, are largely political, and are often quite violent. So there are layers and layers here that young people perceive."
But it's not just religious scholars and members of the clergy who are raising such deep issues. Secular experts on child development and family life are weighing in here as well.
"Freedom of speech and the First Amendment, I think is sacred and fundamental to American democracy," said Alvin Poussaint, faculty associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School, during an Internet discussion recently. "But I feel the need for there to be more moral education of children in families and also in the schools."
The rules have changed
Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tenn., who has worked with thousands of troubled youths, says, "We used to have informal social rules about how one behaved, and these have been taken away slowly."
"There aren't the consequences we used to have and there aren't the pressures," says Dr. Smith. "A lot of these kids are narcissistic. They can't stand anyone threatening their high self-esteem."
James Garbarino, director of Cornell University's Family Life Development Center, speaks of a "spiritual emptiness" among many young people today.
Part of this is the result of what Dr. Garbarino calls a "shallow, materialistic culture" as well as the perception that there are no strict limits on everyday behavior. Here, he refers to "aggressive and obscene language, reflective of the idea that nothing is sacred anymore."
At the same time, Garbarino says it is important for children to receive a strong spiritual foundation. "Kids who are spiritually cared for from the start, which involves both the quality of their relationships but also the content of what is offered to them on matters like reverence for life, a feeling of connection,... have something at the core [that] buffers them from a lot of social pathologies."
He has noted this in Littleton recently, where there have been many expressions of prayer and religious faith, spontaneous as well as organized.
"You can see it in the kids in Littleton, that faced with this disaster they have something that they can fall back on and stand there and do their healing from there," says Garbarino.
William Damon, director of the Center on Adolescence and professor of education at Stanford University, observes that "fewer kids are being exposed to systematic moral instruction.
"If you pick up one of the old McGuffey Readers, it was filled with moral and even religious stuff," says Dr. Damon. "We don't do that anymore.
"But there's something else that's even more profound," says Damon, "which is that kids are doing less service-type activities in the family - in other words, they're not doing chores anymore, and that's a way of developing social responsibility and values too."
At the same time, Damon sees two trends he finds hopeful. First, nearly half the pupils in public schools in the US now are required to perform some kind of community service. "This is a '90s phenomenon, probably in reaction to people being worried about this vacuum," he says.
In addition, many schools have begun incorporating "character education" into their curriculum. In most places, this amounts to an hour or so a week in a classroom, but in other areas it has involved whole communities drafting "youth charters."
"It can be mundane things like you don't drink at parties and drive, or it can be big spiritual things like you should have a meaning in life and find a career that contributes to the world, a calling," says Damon. "Hundreds of little and big things."
In Canandaigua, N.Y., says James Garbarino, character education has meant communitywide agreement on a set of "core values," including things such as honesty, caring for others, and respect.
Finding a constitutional answer
At the same time, there continues to be the search - by secular experts as well as members of the clergy - for ways to instill generic religious values into public education without violating the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
"It doesn't have to be prayer in schools, but it can be a sense of reverence for life and beginning the day with meditative silence," says Garbarino. "I don't think there's any constitutional problems with any of that, and it would promote this different attitude, this different atmosphere as a way of rolling back the profane nature of so much of adolescent culture day-to-day."
"Kids need high expectations," says Damon. "They need greater expectations than we're giving them, expectations for service, for responsibility, for being able to understand the moral values that we hold dear in our culture, and they need guidance."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society