Teaching a Better Way

IN recent years, schools in the United States increasingly have become focal points for addressing national problems, among them youthful violence. The reason for this is clear: Schools are where you can reach people early, before habits and patterns are ingrained.

While the intentions behind programs and curricula aimed at preventing violence are good, their ramifications can be unsettling. Do such programs get in the way of a school's academic purpose, the strengthening of which is itself a national issue? Do they bring into the classroom values that may be at odds with the beliefs of many families?

Hundreds of communities have programs aimed at teaching schoolchildren mediation methods and other ways of dealing with conflict. Often this instruction takes the form of a formal class; often it's an extracurricular activity; and often it takes place outside school, in a community center or youth club.

Those in the field point out that the study of conflict resolution sometimes fits nicely with regular course work - in literature, history, or current affairs. It wouldn't be too difficult, for instance, to relate developments in South Africa to efforts at resolving differences closer to home.

An emphasis on conflict resolution can enrich education, not dilute it. And many of the nonprofit organizations that distribute curricula and study plans do so without charge - though schools themselves still have to assign personnel and make time for training, both of which have budgetary implications. It has to boil down to the importance a local school or district gives this instruction.

And the values question? Some programs delve too deeply into psychological methods for many parents to be comfortable with them. Some programs are specifically antigun, which could arouse the ire of still other parents. Most parents, however, should be able to unite behind the idea that violence is not the best way resolve disputes.

Perhaps the most positive thing violence-prevention programs can do is start people - students, teachers, and parents - thinking about the possibility that destructive behavior is not foreordained. What is discussed along these lines in the schools should spur further, more far-reaching thinking in homes, churches, and within individuals. And vice versa.

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