Bullying is a fact of life. It has always been so and it always will be, because bullying is part of our human nature. We see it in politics, in professional sport, in the movies and, not surprisingly, we also see it in schools – playgrounds, staff rooms and board meetings included. Aggression and dominance are a part of our make-up; it can be managed, but not eliminated.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we should accept it. What it does mean is that suppression is not an adequate response and is doomed to fail. Of course there has to be “zero tolerance” but the only constructive interpretation of this term is that we can never look away. Responding to bullying with vengeance doesn’t get at the root of the problem and therefore does not resolve it. It may push it away but it doesn’t eliminate it. The “just say no” approach is both naive and irresponsible.
There are much better ways to go. You can set clear expectations for behaviour, you can provide adequate supervision, you can teach students how to respond if they encounter bullying, you can intervene decisively if it happens and you can use restorative justice to heal, for example, but by far the best approach is to build students’ resilience.
Personal resilience is rooted in our own characteristics, of course, but also in the social environment that we construct for ourselves and others. We might refer to this as our personal network, or our community, or the social capital in our society. Schools have an important role to play in developing both students’ internal and external assets, but I want to comment particularly on the external assets – the social capital upon which students can draw.
In “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam defines social capital as “a norm of generalized reciprocity: I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.” Others might talk about Social Responsibility or the Golden Rule. Whatever you call it, what matters is how we go about creating a society in which, when bullying occurs, there is immediate, supportive and constructive response from those who observe it – both for the victim and the perpetrator.
Schools are not solely responsible for building social capital, but they have a very important role to play. In fact, the creation of social capital is one of the main reasons for having a public school system.
So how might schools go about this task? Well, simply bringing the whole community together is a very good, indeed essential, start. But then, of course, schools have to operate in ways that exemplify and inculcate the values they espouse. If they operate on the basis of “might makes right” authority in which adults claim inherent dominion over children – for their own good, of course – they are not doing that. What students learn from such an experience is quite likely the opposite of what we would hope and what they require in order to forge a civil society in the diverse and dynamic realities of the modern world.
Therefore, as part of a pro-active response to the fact of bullying and and for the greater good of society, social capital development should be high on the priority list for twenty-first century transformation. This “hidden curriculum” needs to come out of the closet and take its place beside human capital development in the discourse about school quality. Without this rebalancing of educational goals, all the focus on individual academic achievements and technological prowess may be for nought.