Education, Uncategorized

Columbine, Brutal Paradox, & Frank DeAngelis: in search of a new humanism

Spending two days with Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School, puts it all in perspective. Education is a sphere encompassing both the best of and worst of our times. The victims: Cassie, Steven, Corey, Kelly, Matt, Daniel, Danny, Dave, Rachel, Isaiah, John, Lauren, and Kyle are rightfully mourned, like so many others snuffed out too soon. Survivors of the tragedy offer hope where the killers demonstrated arrogance and cowardice, but more importantly Frank shares how to turn tragedy into triumph. This aspect of leadership is the antithesis of George Steiner’s “Brutal Paradox” where Nazi Germany turned triumph into tragedy and demonstrates the nonduality of a world constantly in flux.

Steiner’s works often attempted to address the question as to why and how high culture failed to humanize the barbarian (animal nature) inside each of us, or at least temper it (Karier, 1990). The killers at Columbine too were highly intelligent, entitled, motivated, and believed themselves superior based on the premise of the other as less than. In the quest for universal and life-sustaining truths Steiner advises teachers of the humanities that “Humanism must be partisan… ‘an ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us’” ( Karier, 1990 p. 51). The forces of good and evil do exist and neutrality only serves to enhance those evil forces yearning to freeze our hearts with fear and pain ambivalent to the sufferings of others as a kind of self-defense or justification of evil acts. Frank chose to melt the ice with love rather than chip it away, and the two methods are not mutually exclusive.

According to Karier (1990), Steiner asserts social injustice is the price one must pay for high culture, what post-modernity would describe as a zero-sum game where you can’t build one without taking from the other. However, one principal of leadership Frank shared was that in being a heart led leader, giving energy gets energy, and allowing opportunities for each person to grow into their best self makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This infinite potential, in particular the capacity of our hearts to grow, provides a counter argument for Steiner’s assertion. Classical humanism is rooted, argues Karier, in civilization and all the accompanying stratification and differentiation. Our coursework here has exposed many ways this definition has impacted those on the margins characterized as inferior often degraded, institutionalized, and/or exploited. Therefore, a new humanism is warranted.

Love, while an amazing human emotion, quickly justifies repression and coercion of factions or ideas seen as threatening to those people and ideas most cherished, thus quickly giving way to hate. So while I agree with Frank that the heart led leader is important I do not believe it can be rooted simply in love.

Whether the arts or academic learning, when it is not directed toward the experiences of common people it becomes elitist. This tendency produces arrogance, egotism, and self-centeredness all qualities of the killers from Columbine, tendencies that also help explain Steiner’s “Brutal Paradox”. This tendency is reflected in much of the American Experience, in terms of economics we expect tax cuts on the wealthy to trickle down to a once deserving poor. Today education is increasingly consumption based and rooted in meritocratic achievement. Increasingly personal gains in wealth and power become the aims of education in spite of the democratic and collective potentials Dewey and Whitman envisioned and pine for (Karier, 1990). Our foreign policy also reflects this tendency as we see our president mourn the loss of children in Chicago on one hand while demanding that ISIS be eradicated without acknowledging the lives of children and women who will be destroyed alongside these perpetrators of “terrorism”.

These paradoxes serve to indoctrinate a significant portion of the population into oversimplified binaries, while critical reflection serves to turn many young people against the structures inherited from their elders. The counter culture movements of the 60’s, periodic emergence of populism and popular education, current backlash against education “reform,” and support for non-establishment candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are evidence that cracks and ruptures are beginning to be made visible. The nonduality of phenomena means these breaches are also the sutures where a new humanism can be articulated.

Karier’s most poignant argument, “it was not the masses that led Germany into that darkness, but rather the privileged few who had the benefit of high culture” is an example of the dangers of a humanism devoid of compassion, just as the Columbine killers demonstrated and as evidenced by repeated acts of violent terrorism (1990 p 61). The threshold of the 21st century is open and this search for a new humanism will not come from above but it will occur through leadership much like the example Frank DeAngelis provides.

1. Be Visible (be out among the people from within not without)
2. Be Honest (allow the ego, our frozen hearts to be broken and thawed through admitting past and therefore ameliorating future mistakes instead of denying they ever happened)
3. Be Empathetic (recognize the interconnectedness of the planet we share knowing one person’s happiness cannot be built on another’s unhappiness no matter how they are characterized)
4. Be Flexible (growth requires discomfort and fluidity and where the only constant we experience is change flexibility allows us to bend and sway through the process rather than display rigid resistance that ultimately ends in something snapping, which is even more painful)
5. Be a Good Listener (dialogical rather than didactic conversations where both parties true sentiments are heard and respected)
6. Be Generous Assigning Credit (we have belly buttons as constant reminders of how we are all dependents, nothing of import is ever achieved in a vacuum or alone)
7. Be Careful Making Generalizations (language is a human trait that should be used in pursuit of being known to others without purporting to know, experience is always situated and individualized depending on where you are standing)
8. Be a Heart Led Leader (The heart is most important)
9. Be Inclusive (diversity benefits ecosystems, monocultures are easily destroyed by outside influences)
10. Love, Love, Love (Compassion, Compassion, Compassion: it’s the only human trait big enough to fulfill our own egotistical yearnings in a way that creates value for all without justifying hate)


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