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.

What Prisons and Schools Tell Us About Our Society