21.4.07

THE WORK THAT REMAINS. In last week's tribute to Kurt Vonnegut (which might have been somewhat off point: Scott McLemee's "The Eternal Sophomore" might better capture the essence of his popularity) I noted,
In 1961, the idea of treating any possible source of difference in performance as an unfair advantage might have sounded positively dystopian: the propensity of some people to refer to "impairments" that must be "accommodated" lest the "temporarily abled" act "oppressively" renders the story somewhat more prophetic.
That propensity requires additional introspection and reconsideration in light of this week's events.

The problem with Virginia Tech's policing - and with most other college's approach to security - runs deeper than training or resources or dedication, says S. Daniel Carter of Security on Campus Inc., a nonprofit watchdog group. The problem is mindset, he says.

On a campus, everyone is a big family - the administrators, the students, the faculty and the university's security officers.

As a result, "the tendency is to overlook or downplay potential problems," Carter says. "They don't want to think that their campus community members - their students - could be that dangerous."

Carter believes that mind-set was almost certainly a factor in how Virginia Tech officers handled - or mishandled - previous complaints about Cho. And it was clearly a factor in many of the things that went wrong early on a flurry-filled morning last Monday when a campus just stirring from its weekend slumber was shaken by gunfire, he says.

But even a family has to have standards, and sometimes a parent must take a child's privileges away. That's not necessarily a police matter, as the article also notes.

Schools have to "balance the rights of students with the rights of the communities and with what parents want, and its not an easy thing to do," says Dr. Joanna Locke of the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent suicide and promote mental health among college students.

What about the mental health providers beyond campus who dealt directly with Cho? Couldn't they have done something?

Not unless Cho shared his morbid fantasies, and people like Cho almost never do, says Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychologist who has profiled mass murderers.

And here the mindset matters. Does the framing of a person's condition as involving "impairments" that require "accommodation" contribute? Oakland University's Barbara Oakley (via Margaret Soltan) doesn't quite say so, but she suggests something is not right.
In other words, most of the broad social “lessons” we are being told we must learn from the Virginia Tech shootings have little to do with what allowed the horrors to occur. This is about evil, and about how our universities are able to deal with it as a literary subject but not as a fact of life. Can administrators and deans really continue to leave professors and other college personnel to deal with deeply disturbed students on their own, with only pencils in their defense?
Sometimes, alas, one has to temper principle with practicality, as Timothy Burke observes at 11-D in this comment.
It's all about trade-offs. You can resource psychological support even more heavily, but it's not going to change anything until or unless you want to grant institutions and legal systems more extensive forms of authority to coercively detain and treat people who are suspected of the capacity for violence. And doing that is not an obvious fix that comes without a social and philosophical price tag.
As a first step, let's have a conversation about the loss function. What are the consequences of excluding more mildly disturbed or eccentric people from higher education? Will the effect be to exclude more Seung-Hoi Chos or more John Nashes? On the other hand, what are the consequences of doing more to turn non-conformists into conformists?

No comments: