In yesterday's Washington Post, there appeared a UPI dispatch from Rome that was brief enough to reprint in full. The story said:
"Hundreds of high school students demanding passing marks for every-one rampaged through the streets of Rome yesterday, setting fire to vehicles and firebombing offices.
"One policeman and one student were treated for minor injuries and police arrested 30 persons.
"Police said the rioters set fire to three buses, a number of cars and piles of old tires, fire bombed two offices of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement and one of the ruling Christian Democrats, sacked a food store, beat up an aged woman and disarmed a policeman at gunpoint."
Americans who read those few words will probably find many questions tumbling through their minds --not the least of them: "Does this have any significance for me, or is it just some weird aberration peculiar to the Italians? How ominous is one student riot in a foreign country?"
I don't know the answers to these questions. In fact, I suspect there may not be answers that can be "proved," or demonstrated to be correct.
However, one hopes that competent people will study the background of this bizarre outbreak and then publish additional reports that will help us understand whether it is really representative of student attitudes or just a freakish event triggered by causes peculiar to a given time and place.
We Americans have long been arguing about what is wrong with our own schools and teaching methods. We are spending more money than ever before on a "universal" educational system that gives students the benefit of the most modern of teaching techniques. Yet we, too, produce graduates (or dropouts) who engage in violence and felonious conduct.
Then parents angrily ask, "Is that what they teach our children in school these days -- rioting?" And educators respond, "We teach them reading, writing and arithmetic, not morality. We cannot serve as substitute mothers and fathers. Some things must be learned in the home."
The layman who recognizes the importance and intricacy of the educational process hesitates to broadcast his opinions, for he realizes they may be flawed. However, I would like to offer a few thoughts that may serve as a starting point for discussion among District Liners.
It appears obvious that we have for many years been shifting an increasing amount of the educational burden from the home to the school. The farm child of 1778 depended heavily on his parents for instruction. But by 1878, most farm children lived within commuting distance of a little red schoolhouse -- a crude physical plant by today's standards, yet a major supplement to the instruction available in the home. By 1978, with the ratio of working mothers edging up toward the 50 percent level, we are obviously continuing our centuries-long drift toward minimizing the educational influence of the home. With the mother and father both working and both spending more of their free time on outside attractions and distractions, there is precious little teaching or guidance available in the modern home.
I think that, whether we like it or not, this is an accurate summary of what has been going on. Personally, I do not like it. I am sorry that economic conditions force so many mothers to become breadwinners and so many fathers to work two jobs. I'd rather see them free to devote their talents to their children and their homes. However, if fathers and mothers cannot or will not cooperate in the educational process, it seems to me that the only practical alternative is to assign a larger role to the schools.
Entwined among the reading and writing and arithmetic classes, there will have to run a common theme: what is learned in school is not an abstract collection of isolated facts and dates and formulas; it is the story of civilization, and therefore the basis for civilized life. Schools must relate the things they teach to the moral and ethical concepts that permit people to live together in peace and harmony.
Thereafter, any manifestation of violence among students should be cause for serious alarm, both within the school system and in the community at large. The leadership in both groups must be concerned enough to investigate immediately, try to ascertain what went wrong, and devise quick and effective remedies.
If they fail to do this they will begin to produce generations of irresponsible graduates who will soon leave their mark on the quality of American life.