My turn: Raising tomorrow's leaders

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2007

There is a real connection between the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case and the world view that led us into the Iraq war. They both spring from the mindset that says that authority must never admit error.

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What the Juneau School District really fought for and won in the Frederick case was the right to overreact to minor offenses without ever apologizing for or retracting the overreaction.

From the moment Mr. Frederick's absurd banner appeared on the Olympic torch route, it was obvious that it wouldn't make students take drugs or interfere with any anti-drug campaigns at the school. It was obviously just a harmless, meaningless joke, and that tolerating it wouldn't weaken Ms. Morse's authority as principal.

I believe that Ms. Morse knows she went too far with that day and in the days that followed. But Ms. Morse and the school district believed they could never admit they'd been wrong, because that would make them look weak.

The Supreme Court ruling means that school districts across the country will almost never have to admit that they've punished a student unjustly, so long as the injustice was committed in the name of "the school's anti-drug message."

This ruling will teach a disturbing and possibly deadly message to our students, especially those who plan to become teachers, administrators of elected officials: To get and hold power, be arrogant and inflexible.

They will learn to think and act, in short, as the leaders of our nation act today.

They will carry on with the rigidity that led our heads of state to soak the world in blood, in Vietnam, Central America or the Middle East, and to risk the survival of the planet in a pointless and completely unnecessary nuclear arms race.

They will carry on with the inflexibility that leads our nation's business community to always choose short-term gain over long-term stable growth, to choose mass layoffs over better marketing and product design, the infliction of suffering on their employees and customers over temporary sacrifices for themselves (say, not building another mansion or foregoing huge executive bonuses rather than ordering mass layoffs on Christmas Eve, or of stopping the production of electric cars rather than improving them through research.)

And, in carrying on these traditions, they will fail to enhance production and profits, defeat or drug use, or any other problem this country and this world face.

The way to fight terrorism is by dealing with the grievances that drive people to it, and by creating a world where people no longer feel they have no choice but to plant improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, by the roadsides of their own occupied country.

The way to fight drug abuse is with reasoned and honest discussion of the consequences, with effective drug treatment programs, through legalization of drugs (so that the problem becomes a health issue rather than a "law and order" issue) - and by creating a society that doesn't leave people feeling so agonized that substance abuse is the only way they can cope with daily life.

And the way to prepare our students to be better citizens and human beings is to celebrate and honor them for expressing their opinions, encourage them to live in accord with their conscience, rather than through narrow short-term self-interest, and to accept that sometimes a harmless joke is really just a harmless joke.

In all these cases, the best choice, the strongest choice, is hope, not coercion and punishment.

Arrogance, humorlessness and rigidity are not true strength.

True strength is the ability to admit mistakes, learn from them and not repeat them.

True strength is having the confidence to listen and be changed by opposing views and analyses, to choose compromise over stubbornness, openness over secrecy, hope over fear.

A truly strong principal would say "I was wrong. You're a smart-aleck but you were just having a laugh. Your suspension is erased."

A truly strong CEO would say "I won't downsize. I'll listen to what the employees can suggest on how to run this company better. I don't need another Rolls Royce this year."

A truly strong president would say "I'm ending this unwinnable war today."

It's time for the leaders of our country and our school systems to learn true strength.

• Ken Burch is Juneau resident.



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