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The scientific study of human social life must concern itself with two different kinds of phenomena. On one hand, there are the thoughts and feelings that humans experience within their minds; on the other, there are the activities that constitute the human behavior stream. The relationship between mental and physical behavior events is significant. If beliefs are mental representations that predispose towards action, then the mental activities and context have some relationship to the physical outcomes. This process monitors and attempts to make sense of relationship of the semantics [understanding] of the individual in the interactivity, and the pragmatics [context] of the interactivity,

Dubin [1973] suggests that culture is best seen as a set of control mechanisms – plans, recipes, rules, instructions, which are the principal bases for the specificity of behavior and an essential condition for governing it. The ability to devise a system that provides for plans, recipes, rules, and instructions for prosocial skill performance shows promise of provoking a cultural evolution from present behaviors and their management to a new level of self control.

The mental construction of beliefs, the degree of intensity in which they are held, and the conviction with which they are conveyed are all a part of how they impact others. Each part of this trilogy is important and each can be enhanced. To the degree to which human beings use others to shape their own beliefs, they develop a culture [which can be defined as a group reality]. The “common sense” or “common knowledge” of which we refer is a common mental process in which a group of people have influenced each other to believe in certain ways of looking at the world and have defined from that perspective appropriate ways of behaving. This process shapes the “reality” in which that group and the individuals in it live. To create a new reality demands a new and persuasive idea that can be conveyed to many people in a manner which can be believed. Whether it is true or not is relevant only to those who are persistent in a personal, systematic search for incongruence.

From at least one cultural anthropological perspective [cultural materialism – Harris, 1994], the structure of sociocultural systems rests on five basic requirements: 1) the problems of production, 2) the mode of reproduction, 3) domestic or intragroup behaviors, 4) political or intergroup behaviors, and finally, given the prominence of human speech acts and the importance of symbolic processes the occurrence of aesthetic products, recreation, sport, ideology, religions, and the like. For our purposes and with apologies to Harris and other cultural anthropologists, these behavioral categories are used in a most liazzie-faire manner as points for discussion.

If one considers a society as a maximal social group consisting of both sexes and all ages and exhibiting a wide range of interactive behavior, one can speak of the American [meaning people from the United States] society or identify specific populations within that society that meet these criteria in more specific ways. While all Americans have, because of their governmental imperatives, a wide range of interactive behavior, this even more true of Pennsylvanians, or Philadelphians. Thus, it is somewhat arbitrary how we choose to define the society that has sufficient interactive behavior to influence the actions of individuals.

One can almost describe a “nesting” of sociocultural entities, one within the other like Slavic dolls, all containing some aspects of the largest specimen. Thus, we speak of the school and its inhabitants as a sociocultural entity that contains some basic concern with the five behavioral categories. Culture, represents the learned repertory of thoughts and actions exhibited by the members of social groups. Such cultural repertories contribute to the continuation of the population’s social life. While students are certainly influenced to a greater or lesser degree by other cultural influences, it is suggested that the culture as it has evolved within a school has a major and potent influence upon its population.

The question that needs to be addressed by human service planners is how a change in a sociocultural system might impact overall, and whether we can identify the best possible ways to implement change. The goal is to create a social ethos that negates antisocial and violent behavior and supports the individuals within it. To engender “social disapproval” and bring informal sanctions on the individual behaving in certain ways. A capacity to recognize certain habits as unacceptable should be perceptible by all within the sociocultural unit and each person should have the skills to indicate such derision.

In the preface to his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson wrote:

It is the fate of those who dwell at the lower employments of life to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise, to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward’ [as reported by Pinker – 1994].

Johnson could have been describing the sociocultural environment of many of our schools. Our society is much too quick to respond to the negative and much too reluctant to offer reward. Our fear of “spoiling” is perhaps a misplaced concern which has lead us to place emphasis upon defect instead of upon competence.

According to Harris the most likely outcome of any innovation is system-maintaining negative feedback. Thus the attempts at direct intervention tend to create a “backlash” which dampens the expected change resulting either in the extinction of the innovation or in only slight compensatory changes in the other sectors. These are the kind of modifications that preserve the fundamental characteristics of the whole system . However, some innovations, certain kinds of infrastructural [having to do with production and/or reproduction] changes (for example, those which increase the energy flow and/or reduce wastage) are more likely to be propagated and amplified, resulting in positive feedback throughout the system.

As an example, the change from medical/therapeutic models to cognitive/behavioral skill building models in the sociocultural subsystem of mental health services has been met with very strong system-maintaining negative feedback which has distorted and subsumed these new technologies almost to the point of extinction despite the efficiency and effectiveness of the interventions. One might, therefore question, why should we expect amplification of these technologies within the school? We would suggest that the two systems identify the innovation from differing perspectives. From the mental health socioculture, the innovation is an ideology which does not increase energy flow or reduce wastage, but interferes with the method of production by reducing the market. Thus the negative feedback process occurs. Slight modifications [social skill building and medication will make everything all right] have occurred within the system, but only to the extent of protecting the major components of the system.

For the educator on the other hand, cognitive/behavioral skill training is directly related to the technologies used in production and has a major and immediate impact on the energy, effectiveness and productivity of the teacher. There is a greater coherency in the change to cognitive/behavioral skill building for the teachers because of its congruence with mimetic teaching methods and therefore the change can become a continuation or enhancement of known truth. For the medical model expert, cognitive/behavioral skill building is “incoherent” and without sufficient evidence to produce a dichotomy crisis. The continued identification and dissemination of research evidence may bring about sufficient disruption to cause the belief system to change, but until that time, it will be resisted. This is one more reason why it is so important that each individual intervention be treated like a research experiment in which measurement and documentation of outcome is a prerequisite. A focus away from the higher representation of a theory or ideology and toward the molecular.

Ideas, like viruses, grow and evolve; infect, mutate or are purged by the ideological environment that they meet. In our opinion, the American society has been struggling with a virus of despondency and self depreciation or debasement which has infected our ability to grow and develop. In abandoning the belief that a force [supreme being] outside ourselves which looks out for us, we have failed to develop a sufficiently powerful idea, that we are capable of looking out for ourselves. Without religious belief in the inherent goodness and salvation to immunize us against such viral attack as moralization and personalization, we spiral down into a world perspective of pathology and defect which becomes its own self fulfilling prophecy; since the identification [label] of failure become the reason for failure.

Individual schools have also provided coherence to a culture of failure through the idea that the teacher is responsible for the decisions made by the child and the indiscretions of the family. Such a perspective has lead to a coercive [police state] environment in which the teachers and students are thrust into a pitched battle in which no one can win. Even students who have the critical school survival skills are thrown into a difficult performance crisis as they find themselves either sided with the students or the teachers. Without appropriate alternative responses that are culturally accepted, students are open to ridicule or potential violence if they attempt to chastise their peers for unacceptable behaviors.

Part of the issue of our concern is to teach children to be responsible citizens. Gustafson & Laney [1968] indicate that structures of mutual responsibility appear to be built into human experience and that these structures provide a framework within which orderly interaction between persons and groups of persons take place. In some instances the order of responsibility is stipulated in explicit form; in laws or rules.

In other instances we anticipate that others will be where they are supposed to be, do what they are supposed to do, say what they are supposed to say without the formulation of these obligations in clear and explicit ways. The question that must be asked is, “how do children learn these expectations?” Is the expectation that other will behave in certain ways instinctual or is the acquisition of such knowledge acquired through an acculturation process; and if so, why is that process seemingly failing? It should be clear that a process of habituation takes place in the experience of growing up, relating to family and peers. These mutual expectations are part of the fabric of interrelations and interactions between persons and are not defined by signed agreements – there is no external authority that has power of sanction.

The reason for the breakdown of expectations is more complex, but might also be identified as being part of this society’s sociocultural shift that has changed the expectations of the sexes as well as authority – subordination and other formerly standardized operations. The world has become a place of greater individual freedom and fewer restrictions upon individual daily decision making. Information of all kinds is immediately and easily available which contradicts much of the “common knowledge” view of the world so easily held by children growing up isolated in small rural environments.

More than ever, it is not self-evident under all circumstances what we should or ought to do. Moral reflection about different responsibilities is a process of decision-making which involves the recognition of those to whom we are responsible and the sorting out of the things for which we are responsible. The loss of traditional expectations has increased the requisite of moral reasoning, while at the same time reducing the probability that children will developmentally learn it.

What may be even more concerning is the increase in negative expectations. It is not unusual today to expect the worst from our children and adults are often rewarded by having their expectations met. The student’s social environment greatly influences the level and intensity of his or her aggressive and violent behaviors in the school and classroom. Social learning may be the most important determinant [emphasis added] of both aggressive and prosocial behavior. According to Bandura [1973] aggression is learned through the observation of aggression and its consequences and through experiencing the direct consequences of aggressive and nonaggressive behaviors. [Rutherford & Nelson, 1995]

We are concerned not only with the way responsibility itself may be understood as a primary aspect of moral life, but how it may express itself [Gustafson & Laney – 1968]. Behavioral repertories vary in conformity with each individual’s learning history. The behavioral performance of specific social groups necessarily include learned responses. These learned responses play an important role in the evolution of social life. Harris [1979] in refuting the sociobiological construct of gene superiority in behavioral domination indicates that socially assisted learning is a process by which learned responses that have been found useful by one organism can be preserved and propagated within a social group.

The social response repertories acquired by means of socially assisted learning constitute a group’s tradition or culture. In this case, students learn from students and teachers from teachers and each group learns from the other. When there are absentee parents, social group learning constitutes a major part of the child’s development. Evidence has shown that children reared apart from their parents invariably acquire the cultural [cognitive and behavioral] repertory of the people among whom they are reared. The child’s social learning will come in such a case, either from the peer group or the school. This is particularly disturbing since the peer group seems to be unable to provide sufficient prosocial cultural impact of their own to have salient impact upon those children who do not have these skills. The ethos of the peer group that is supported by the responses of the adults [through guards in the halls, bars on the windows, enclosed stairwells, etc.] makes it ut in pluribus [perceptible by all] that school is a dangerous place and the societal disapproval is upon those who cannot cope with a dangerous ethos. The response is to heighten the macho qualities of each individual, students and adults alike, to respond appropriately with the “muscle” to be acceptable.

Responsibility is not a thing, it is a relationship between the person and others or a relationship to certain situations. There is an implicit assumption in this discussion to accept responsibility as a good thing, that responsibility is more than a given experience it is an ought which persons need to be aware of. One acts in response to others and to situations; one responds to the actions of others. Action involves the exertion of energy, the innovation of purposes into events of which one is a part, the taking of risks – since one cannot fully control the consequences of his or her responses.

Responsibility is not mere compliance with rigid sets of patterns in life on every occasion; in many situations one can and ought to respond creatively, altering the course of events, reforming the institutional patterns within which one lives, elevating a relationship to a different plane, transforming the modes and qualities of life which one is a part [Gustafson & Laney – 1968]. Yet parents and teachers seem to demand that children obey laws and rules as the only requirement of responsibility. This flies in the face of the sociocultural openness of expectations that requires creative responses. To choose to be responsible for one thing often excludes the possibility of being responsible for another: to whom do I owe duty?

The failure of the family and school to teach the child responsibility and the skills necessary to be responsible which include information collecting, comparative evidence, problem solving, and moral reasoning, leaves the child abandoned to a world of changing standards of expected behavior. To be responsible is to accept obligations that one has by virtue of his or her commitment, role, power and authority. Every child must learn to obey laws not because they exist, but as a freely and consciously chosen responsibility to society.

Jerome R. Gardner – December 1997