The massive oil spill. An Iceland volcano that keeps shutting down air travel. Mining accidents. Cars that supposedly accelerate on their own. Earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Bank workers who die during violent protests over Greek economics.
The American response is quite distinct from the response to disasters elsewhere in the world. Regardless of the cause, we tend to sue. From the 9/11 attack to the airlines grounded from volcanic ash—whether the disaster is man-made or an act of nature—Americans expect compensation for our loss.
More Americans seem to think that we “deserve” to live happily ever after. Any event that interferes with that is an opportunity to bring a lawsuit. The rest of the world sees us as: 1) speaking only one language, 2) having very expensive medical care, and 3) being lawsuit-happy.
Harm due to unprofessional action is malpractice. Standing by and doing nothing when harm could be prevented is nonfeasance. We seem to weigh every action against the possible liability of lawsuit if anything goes wrong. When I travel overseas I see plans and projects underway that languish in the United States because we are lawsuit-conscious.
What is it about our children’s experiences inside and out of the classroom, that are making them cautious in action and eager to blame? That is a difficult question.
After World War II, over one-third of the population still lived on the farm. In rural Kansas, farmers were a solid majority. Farm kids learn a lot about reality in the field. Weather is unpredictable. Floods and tornadoes happen. The best-maintained equipment still breaks down or wears out. Today, less than two percent of the population nationwide is rural. Farm families are a little higher percentage in Kansas.
But most of our youngsters are now raised without the advantage of experiencing the natural risks of life. Today’s kids, who average nearly 10 hours a day immersed in electronics, have no experience with real consequences. The rural kid on a hike is relatively safe amidst the uncontrollable vagaries of nature. The suburban kid who navigates a man-made world sees any harm as man-made as well.
Schools do not help this matter. Elementary schools replace the glass panels in doors with plastic and are slowly converting classrooms into padded cells in the name of safety. Field trips have disappeared due to: 1) NCLB testing, 2) cost constraints, and 3) liability. Labs are replaced by costly computer simulations, not because they are better—they are not—but because they are supposedly “safer.”
But you and I know that sharp blades are dangerous because we got a little cut in childhood. Big fires must be respected because we got burned a little bit. And be careful around the electric outlets because sometime in childhood we felt a little “buzz.” We do not intentionally give students little cuts and burns, but they are important lessons of a real childhood. A child without any such balancing experience will really be in danger in adulthood. Yet, if our intent is to eliminate all real experience from a child’s life in order to cover our temporary liability, we fail the next generation. Schools can never be safer than the general society at large.
The lesson students need is about “maloccurrence.” Despite all we can do, bad things will happen in life. Houses will burn down with the best of fire departments. Not all crimes will be solved under the best of police. And in natural disasters, our response should be to help others rather than ask for what we “deserve” and who to blame.
Stay free from risk? Columbus never would have sailed to America. Nor would we have sent the Apollo missions to the moon. Everyday, we take a far greater risk when we ride or drive into traffic.
The future belongs to a society willing and able to take reasonable risks for the greater good.