The year 2018 has been officially recognized by the United States for having a higher number of school shootings than any other year on record. In total there were 94 incidents of school gun violence which resulted in the deaths of 55 people. This averages out to approximately one school shooting a week (Ahmed & Walker, 2018). Taking a step back from school violence statistics to look at the country as whole paints an even more disturbing picture of the gun violence epidemic raging through the modern world. As of mid-December 2018, there were 328 mass shootings in the United States that killed 365 people, wounded 1,301 and averaged out to approximately one shooting a day (Lopez, 2018). It feels like a nearly impossible task to try and digest the sheer amount of violence taking place across the nation every single day. Looking at these statistics it is clear that gun violence in America is an epidemic that is threatening the lives of everyone including the most innocent members of society, the children.
An epidemic is defined as an outbreak characterized by widespread growth that affects a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time (Merriam-Webster, n.d). With gun violence named as the leading cause of premature death in the U.S., the use of the term “epidemic” is more relevant than ever before (Benjamin, 2015). This point is further corroborated by a recent article published in The Guardian which stated, “To reverse the gun violence epidemic – and it’s important that we use the word “epidemic” – we need to do the same thing we’d do for any infectious disease outbreak. We should track it, find the root causes, use science to find research gaps, create policy solutions and use mass public education campaigns to eradicate the threat” (Benjamin, 2015).
Elliot Aronson, the distinguished social psychologist, author and advocate, articulated these exact needs 18 years ago when he published his book, Nobody Left to Hate, Teaching Compassion after Columbine (Aronson, 2000). Aronson’s book was born out of protest against the pathetic public policy response to rising rates of school gun violence in America. For Aronson, the solution to ending gun violence starts with an understanding of the complex social interactions of human beings. By first understanding the psychology of human behavior at the level of the individual Aronson is then able to analyze the collective behaviors of society as a whole. Understanding the science behind the social interactions of human beings allows Aronson to identify the root causes of violence and propose interventions to remediate and eradicate school massacres. As an early career psychologist who is currently working in schools, I can testify to the need for the type education and intervention programs suggested by Aronson which are based in scientific research and backed up by proven outcome data. In the following paper, I present an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Dr. Aronson’s book including his recommendations for ending the gun violence epidemic in America. I subsequently discuss the implications of this book in psychology, education, politics and the national discourse on school gun violence in the U.S. I conclude with a discussion of how this book influenced my professional life, current and future career, and overall personal development.
In his book, the brilliant social psychologist Elliot Aronson presents a fascinating and powerful analysis of the Columbine High School tragedy and the growing problem of violence in the American Education system. According to Aronson the need to place blame in response to a tragedy is a basic human instinct. As a result, in order to prevent future tragedies, it is necessary for society to understand the two types of blaming that exist. He explains the first type as “blaming that is aimed at finding the cause of the disaster so that we might come up with a workable intervention” (Aronson, 2000, p.6). The second type of blaming called “condemnation” is described as a “knee jerk reaction” which occurs when blame is immediately placed on a culprit in order to vilify them and relieve feelings of hopelessness (Aronson, 2000, p.6). Aronson explains that in the aftermath of a school shooting, the public opinion tends to overlook the root causes of problems in favor of instant solutions motivated by political gains. He asserts that in order prevent future tragedies we must approach the problem scientifically and uncover the origins of school gun violence before we can create solutions (Aronson, 2000). Aronson names “root cause interventions” and “peripheral interventions” as the two types of interventions implemented in response to a tragedy. Peripheral interventions, such as metal detectors and gun control, fail to address the chronic underlying problem and act as nothing more than a short-term solution. In order to rectify the issue of “peripheral interventions” Aronson asserts that the interventions that get implemented must only be the ones based in solid scientific evidence (Aronson, 2000). He states that it is necessary to address school tragedies through a scientific lens in order create policies that are not reactive responses to violence, but proactive solutions backed by research.
Aronson identifies the importance of looking at the social atmosphere that exists in most high schools to analyze the ways in which environmental factors may have contributed to previous incidents of school violence (Aronson, 2000). He argues that previous school shootings cannot be explained only by individual pathology, rather the perpetrators were also reacting to “a general atmosphere of exclusion” within schools (Aronson, 2000, p.13). Ultimately, Aronson concludes that the first step towards preventing school violence is understanding the complicated social atmosphere that exists within the classroom. He believes that by using scientific methods to investigate the social atmosphere of schools, he can identify and eliminate factors that foster hatred and violence using evidenced based interventions to create more humane learning environments for all students (Aronson, 2000). Aronson writes, “We crave action. If there is something dangerously broken in our schools, we want to fix it-fix it fast. We are reluctant to wait for scientific social psychologists to get around to doing the research that will lead the way to better outcomes” (Aronson, 2000, p.16). The idea that as a society we immediately react, especially to tragedy, with a quick fix instead of focusing on preventive strategies is an idea that resonated with me deeply.
Having worked in schools in the past in various roles including teacher, tutor, mentor and mental health counselor, I have always advocated for preventative strategies and fought against reactive policies. This personal stance is the result of watching our education system use interventions that rest on emotion, wishful thinking, bias and political expediency and witnessing the negative consequences they have on a school climate (Aronson, 2000, p.10). Accordingly, one of the key ideas that I took away from the reading was the need for and importance of incorporating social and emotional learning into schools. Aronson emphasizes the need for schools to teach empathy and social intelligence as a way to counter-act social atmospheres classrooms that are mostly “competitive, cliquish, and exclusionary” (Aronson, 2000, p.15). The preventive strategies that he identifies include teaching students’ impulse control and social skills so that they are better able to address interpersonal issues in productive, respectful ways.
Alternatively, Aronson suggests a re-structuring of the traditional classroom to promote cooperation over competition. Emphasizing teamwork over individual success is suggested as a way to create connection and compassion between students, which according to research leads to enhanced academic performance when compared to more competitive classrooms (Aronson, 2000, p.18). Aronson refers to this approach to learning which emphasizes cooperation as “the jigsaw classroom” and believes it will act as a deterrent to school violence. I agree with his assertion that jigsaw classrooms are more effective than several other preventive measures that have been put into place, like zero-tolerance policies, because it gets to the root of the problem and looks at the education system not as a static concept but a fluid experience which shapes and molds young impressionable children and adolescents into productive healthy adults.
Aronson makes a valuable point about the need to evaluate schools in terms of the initiatives they have in place to address the preventative measures for a positive school climate by doing things like surveying both the students and faculty. I concur with the suggestions he presents in the book and I believe that it is critical to survey students about their general feelings about the school climate, asking specific questions about their feelings of safety, positivity and engagement with the classes and relationships with their peers and teachers. I also think it’s critical to then observe students in class to gather observational data about classroom. I think it would also be important to survey and meet with teachers and administrators to discuss the climate and administrator’s knowledge of the preventative interventions available to foster a positive school climate. I think it is critical to find out if school faculty are aware of the research and interventions available to improve the climate as that is one of the biggest barriers to schools implementing these interventions, the lack of accessibility of research to teachers and administrators.
After reading this book and reflecting on my own experience in the United States education system as not only a student but as a student with dyslexia who received academic accommodations, I have witnessed first-hand the problems outlined by Aronson. Furthermore, I believe that schools are failing to proactively intervene with students to prevent another Columbine from happening. Schools have only recently, in the last two years, started to focus on and implement social and emotional curriculum into classrooms, despite the years of research on the need for education to focus on student’s mental health and emotional intelligence. I agree with Aronson that the research of social psychologists needs to become more accessible to people who can make use of it, such as parents’ teachers, policy makers and ordinary citizens. It is only when this knowledge becomes widely accessible that significant change will happen in schools (Aronson, 2000). Furthermore, as a result of my experiences navigating various educational systems, I saw firsthand that learning is an interactive process that happens in relationships and shared experiences. Realizing how much of my own emotional and psychological development resulted from interactions that occurred within the education system, I feel compelled to further investigate the intersection of human psychology and cognition and use that knowledge to serve others.
My aspirations for my early career as a psychologist include working in both community mental health and school-based settings. After graduating, I hope to work within an organization that serves clients of all ages from diverse and underserved communities within the Bay Area. I am interested in working part-time as a school psychologist at a middle school or high school to gain experience working directly students, while also learning how to coordinate their care with their family and teachers. I believe that it is necessary to advocate for the social and emotional development of students in ways outlined by Aronson to not only help students in immediate need but to prevent further school massacres by teaching kindness, compassion and the value of human dignity.
Furthermore, my recent experience of updating my own psycho-educational assessment, in combination with my first semester in a Cognitive Assessment class, has shown me the value of taking an empirically driven approach to psychological interventions that Aronson advocates for in his book. illustrates that relational qualities of psychotherapy actually benefit from data driven approaches to treatment. In an article on Evidence-Based Therapy Relationships by Norcross and Wampold the author’s concluded that Evidence Based Practice is rooted in medicine that “attempts to minimize error in treatment selection and administration by grounding clinical decisions in the best available research evidence” (Sackett & Rosenberg, 1995).
Essentially, using evidence-based practices increases the chances that a client will receive effective treatment leading to positive outcomes while decreasing the client’s exposure to treatment that is ineffective and potentially harmful. (Norcross & Wampold, 2011). I believe one of the most important findings from the article is that evidence-based therapy is built on the belief in gathering research on not only what works in psychotherapy but also what doesn’t work, “We can optimize therapy relationships by simultaneously using what works and studiously avoiding what does not work” (Norcross & Wampold, 2011). This article is further evidence of what Aronson eloquently articulates in his book as the scientific approach to solving the problem of school shootings in America.
In conclusion, I believe that the messages and themes presented in Aronson’s book are applicable across disciplines and settings and remind us that in the end we are human beings deserving of respect, dignity and safety. His voice reminds us that the foundation of a strong society is the care and attention we give to those who cannot defend themselves, and that nurture starts in the classroom. I believe it is ultimately the responsibility of each individual clinician, teacher, researcher, writer, historian, and citizen to engage in a continuous evaluation of best practices in whatever profession they chose and to hold themselves to that ethical rules that therapists, doctors and educators must abide by. I think if our teachers and doctors think first of the patient or student and place their experience in the complex context of their daily lives, we will take a step towards creating a more just and empathetic society.
I believe this evidence-based approach to creating solutions that get to the root of social problems will also result in patient care that is both ethical and effective. Finally, I think the conclusions and recommendations presented by Aronson in his book and further corroborated in the article on evidence-based therapy relationships offer an excellent set of standards that practitioners should be trained in and held to in the future. I agree with Aronson and feel strongly that the quickest way to solving problems is by getting to the root of the problem. In the case of gun violence in America, the root of the problem falls in the toxic environments that exist in a failing education system. As I continue my journey as a lifelong learner, psychological professional, and citizen of the global community, I hope to take these lessons I learned from Aronson to provide a safer world for the future generations by advocating for education that promotes healthy social and emotional development for everyone.
- Aronson, E. (2000). Nobody left to hate: Teaching compassion after Columbine. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.
- Ahmed, S., & Walker, C. (2018, May 25). There has been, on average, 1 school shooting every week this year. Retrieved December 5, 2018, from https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/02/us/school-shootings-2018-list-trnd/index.html
- Lopez. (2018, December 10). 2018 was by far the worst year on record for gun violence in schools. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2018/12/10/18134232/gun-violence-schools-mass-shootings
- Benjamin, G. (2015, December 04). Gun violence is an epidemic that needs a public health response | Georges Benjamin. Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/04/gun-violence-epidemic-shooting-deaths-public-health-policy (Benjamin, 2015)
- Epidemic . (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epidemic (Merriam-Webster, n.d)