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From Draft NOtices, September-October 2002

Socialization Messages in Schools and the Culture of Militarism

- Glen Motil

Our illegitimate vice president, Dick Cheney, is lying to us again. He is lying in order to frighten us into supporting a U.S. military invasion and occupation of yet another nation. The socialization message that Cheney is sending to our children as they get ready to begin another year of school is that violence is an acceptable means of solving our "problems" in the world and that it is okay to be dishonest to achieve that goal. Cheney is arguing that killing thousands of people (a majority of whom are civilians) and destroying the infrastructure (including homes and personal property) of a nearly defenseless state is not only a legitimate way of handling our foreign affairs, but that it is a moral way of living in and being a part of the international community. This is a fine example of Mr. Cheney's character.

Curiously enough, Dick Cheney's wife, Lynn, has been a tireless advocate for the "reintroduction of character training in the classroom." The premise of Cheney and her cultural conservative colleagues is that socialization messages incorporated into lesson plans, and the everyday interactions between teacher and student, do not already influence character. They begin their approach with the assertion that our schools are failing our students because they no longer teach core traditional moral virtues "like honesty, fairness, reliability, and responsibility" and "that they now emphasize the values of cultural diversity, self-esteem, and self-expression." However, a recent study entitled "Socialization Messages in Primary Schools: An Organizational Analysis" by sociologists Steven Brint, Mary F. Contreras, and Michael F. Matthews of the University of California, Riverside, published in the July 2001 edition of the scholarly journal Sociology of Education, presents quite a different story while emphasizing just how central socialization messages are in our schools.

Among other things, the article demonstrates that socialization messages are an integral part of classroom teacher-student interaction and that the most frequent messages have to do with "work effort" issues such as "orderliness" and "industriousness." "Orderliness," according to this research, makes up a total of 71% of all messages conveyed. Messages of "self-regulation" and relations among peers such as "respect," "autonomy" and "cooperation" follow in frequency at a mere 3%. The "traditional moral virtues" of "fairness," "justice," "responsibility," "courage," and "honesty" that seem to concern Cheney and her colleagues are indeed among the least frequent messages conveyed. The messages that are least common, however, are those messages the study labels as "modern values" of "individual uniqueness," "choice, variety," "respect for group differences," and "respect for own group culture." These are the values that the cultural conservatives believe are taking precedent over the more traditional.

Along with direct teacher-student interactions, the study also looked closely at the categories of "subject-matter curriculum," "routine classroom practices," "schoolwide programs," and "uses of public space." Their findings concerning curriculum indicated that traditional and modern values "come most explicitly into play" in this area. The variety of classroom practices such as "token economies" (rewarding individual behavior or success with food, prestigious recognition or fun), "group projects" (emphasizing collaboration), or "activity centers" (emphasizing student choice) all contribute to different socialization messages, such as utilitarianism, cooperation, and adaptability to change, respectively. The programs and use of space socialization messages range from "verbal rituals" that "tended to encourage deference to authority" to social sanctions for disobeying established rules.

In the conclusion, the authors of the study reject both Cheney's diagnosis and proposed solution as well as the more radical criticism at the other end of the spectrum that labels schools as "disciplinary regimes" and factories specializing in the reproduction of social and economic inequalities. The authors assert that both critiques are "one-sided" and have a "limited focus." Instead, their "analysis suggests two ways in which societal values may enter the school: through social movement activism institutionalized by the state or through the changing expectations of students and their parents based on changes in the organization of adult middle-class lives."

For those of us opposed to the growing culture of militarism that has been dominating nearly every facet of our lives - especially since the judicial coup of our executive branch in December 2000 and the U.S. government's violent and repressive response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001 - this study should offer a startling reminder of just how the values of our population's youth are effected on many different levels - not just within the curriculum and our students' daily interaction with role models, but also in the very structure of daily routines and organizational regiments. With the passage of the recent so-called "no child left behind" legislation, which denies funding to schools that do not freely share student information with military recruiters, the U.S. government has made it very clear that they intend to remove every local obstacle to the military's presence and influence in our public schools. The "organization of adult middle-class lives" is constantly influenced by the pro-military propaganda of the corporate media, the fear-mongering of our war-profiteering leaders, and reactionary, chauvinistic, nationalist, and militarist "social movement activism institutionalized by the state." Because of this, it is a safe bet that the societal values being taught in our schools will be the same values that form the twisted logic of preemptive nuclear strikes or the bankrupt morality based upon mutual slaughter of innocents.

As the anti-war and global justice movements continue to grow on the streets and in our activist networking, we must also begin to consider how we can best promote the values of these movements within our public schools.

Glen Motil is a Marine Corps veteran.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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