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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


What Prisons and Schools Tell Us About Our Society

I want you to think with me for a moment. In fact, I encourage you to pass along this article to colleagues with whom you could discuss the ideas below.

Fyoder Dostoevsky, a 19th century Russian novelist, once said, “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering their prisons.”

What he meant was that you can judge how a society thinks by the kind of people they put behind bars and by the crimes being committed. (During Dostoevsky’s day, many who were suffering from mental health problems were automatically assumed to be mad and deserving of a prison sentence.)

Jeffrey J. Williams makes a similar case for schools. In an article discussing college loan debts, Williams states, “You can also judge the state of a civilization from its schools—or, more generally, from how it treats its young as they enter the full franchise of adult life.” And he’s right: We learn a lot about a culture by looking at the educational systems they’ve erected and how well they prepare their students for life. Not only that, we can catch a glimpse of what’s going on in the home. In other words, the state of our families is often revealed by the conduct of those kids at school.

Scary notion, don’t you think?

If you were to visit an average public school classroom today, what would you assume was discussed at the dinner table conversations of those students at home? What ideas or values are being conveyed? What worldview is being communicated? Would you wonder if there are any dinner conversations going on?

In August, I was traveling on MARTA, the city train system for commuters in Atlanta. I noticed a sign posted on the wall of each car. It simply said:

“In accordance with Federal Law (49CFR Part 38), These Seats Are Priority Seating for Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities.”


At first glance, you might not think anything of this sign. We see them all the time. What struck me, however, is that decades ago (when I was growing up), not only did we not see such a sign, I’m not sure we even needed such a sign. Common courtesy was much more… uh, common. We now require laws to do what former parents and teachers once instilled in youth. Adults modeled it and taught it.

What we lack in examples, we make up for in laws.

This is the drift I see nearly everywhere. We’ve begun to depend upon legislation to enforce behavior that used to be modeled and taught in our homes and classrooms. After all…

  • It’s easier to pass a law than to set an example.
  • It’s easier to pass a law than to teach a lesson.
  • It’s easier to pass a law than to explain civil behavior.

Since we adults are too busy to do that anymore, we make a policy. This means we slowly begin to delegate our leadership to law enforcement. Sadly, since law enforcement spends most of its time correcting bad behavior (instead of affirming good behavior), we push kids to look for loopholes rather than mature into adulthood. Don’t believe me? Recently, I learned that 16 of our U.S. states have more people in prisons than in college dorm rooms. Life is not supposed to be this way.

Fundamentals of Life We’ve Delegated to Legislation

You don’t have to look far to see how we’ve gotten lazy in our leadership:

  1. Respect for Authority

Because our culture doesn’t teach respect for elders, we need more litigation. (Hence the sign I mentioned above.) Federal, state and local laws are now today’s “parents.”

  1. Trust and Relationships

Because people don’t trust each other the way we once did, attorneys play larger roles in society than ever. If we have trouble with a neighbor, many would sooner call the police or sue than go next door to talk it over directly with that neighbor.

  1. Morals and Values

Because parents fail to model morals and values, too often schools must create rules and policies to maintain order and etiquette. I’ve lost count of the teachers who’ve told me that parents have delegated the teaching of ethics to their kids.

  1. Fear and Risk

Because our society is so afraid of lawsuits, schools eliminate what used to be normal risk-taking ventures. This has led to schools eliminating soccer balls or other playground equipment at recess. Administrators fear lawsuits over potential accidents.

  1. Responsibility and Generosity

While I recognize the need for state and federal taxes, so many government-funded programs exist today to care for needs that charities, non-profits and churches should have been meeting all along. We’ve delegated personal responsibility.

So What Can We Do?

Let me suggest some simple steps we can take to correct our dependence on rules:

  1. On your campus, don’t rely on rules and policies to get things done. Develop your most influential students to be carriers of the culture you want.
  1. On your campus, tell stories of incredible leaders (past and present) to cast vision for what your students could become.
  1. On your campus, find a language and start customs that communicate the kind of people you want to build. All cultures begin this way.
  1. On your campus, consistently model the high road behaviors you desire in your students (and challenge your student leaders to embody them, too).

Here’s a challenge. Let’s see how many laws we can make irrelevant because we’ve developed such an incredible population of young leaders.


  1. Stephen Gerrells on September 22, 2015 at 7:08 am

    Its unfortunate but I don’t think we will see any improvement in society until parents are held accountable for being parents.

  2. littlemas2 on September 22, 2015 at 11:36 am


    These are good suggestions, but this types of discussions and ideas are empty unless they are grounded in something more substantial than what you have suggested.

    When you drill down, the bad behavior that we see is the result of people living out a meaningless worldview. You can talk about ethics and morality all you want, but if at the bottom of it there is simply a godless materialistic universe, then ethics, good behavior, and morality are simply relativistic constructions of the current society. Whether or not people rationally think through the implications of that worldview, most people intuitively understand that it basically comes down to some person’s opinion of good behavior versus someone else’s. Why should I not live for myself and ignore the needs of others if they ultimately have no more significance than a ape, dog, rat, or a rock? Our society is seeing the consequences of a materialistic universe that cannot provide adequate reasons for a culture to stay together.

    Even if not everyone who founded our culture was a practicing Christian, the vast majority of the early leaders agreed upon a Judeo-Christian morality based upon the understanding that there is a larger and ultimate purpose to the world and to life itself.

    Now not every culture agrees upon the Judeo-Christian ethic, but those societies that thrive at least have some agreement about the ultimate questions of life that helps to center the larger society.

    I think behavior and ethics can be a starting point for discussion, but if we don’t drive the conversation to the more meaningful questions of what creates cultural unity then we will be continue to try to put bandaids on an injury when what we need is a heart transplant.

  3. Carlos on September 30, 2015 at 11:48 am

    he meant was that you can judge how a society thinks by the kind of
    people they put behind bars and by the crimes being committed. – See
    more at:

  4. Carlos on September 30, 2015 at 11:56 am

    You could have made excellent points discussing the implications of your references–that you can judge a society by looking at the kind of people it puts behind bars as well as how it treats its young as they “enter the full franchise of adult life” via education and college but you failed to do so. What kind of people does America by and large put behind bars? Poor people. Poor people of color especially. Usually for minor drug offenses or less while it lets those wealthy individuals who commit massive financial or environmental crimes go free. And what about how we treat those who go to school? We saddle the poor and working class kids who go to college with a lifetime of debt and studies show they will mostly never make enough or be as well off as their richer classmates who go paid for by their parents–even if those rich kids drop out or encounter scandal they by and large do better than their poor classmates who work 2 jobs and excel in college only to graduate to debt.
    Instead of worrying about manners and superficial behavior that you feel is indicative of bad parenting what about focusing on the travesty of justice that is how we treat those who have less and want to do more.
    Should we train our young to stand up and move back to give their seat to the elderly and the disabled? Of course. But speaking of a time when “that didn’t need to be taught” ignores that such a time also included laws that made people of color move to the back of the bus. Wistful nostalgia for a golden age of manners and civility ignores the fact that such a time as that was only good for a certain class, color and kind of person whereas everyone else suffered even more. They’re getting the sleight once again as your sources point to.

    • Tim Elmore on September 30, 2015 at 5:25 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I totally agree. In fact, we continue to work with minorities and at-risk students in under-funded schools across the U.S. and around the world. This wasn’t my time to blog about that. I agree with your point—I was merely making a different one that applies to millions of middle-class Americans. In fact, while both subjects need to be addressed (and we will attempt to do so in the future), this was a piece about how many parents are failing, even in affluent America. The comment about prisons was an analogy. I am hopeful you can see that in this subject matter. Thanks again for your thoughts.

      • Carlos on October 1, 2015 at 10:29 am


        Thank you for a personal response. I appreciate it.

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What Prisons and Schools Tell Us About Our Society