Community, and Character
05 April 2004
once tranquil suburban neighborhoods we'd like to associate with hometown
America are just as troubled as our mean urban streets.
It is the end of
the innocence in the suburbs. We all knew it was long gone in the inner city.
But now, come to find out, our once tranquil suburban neighborhoods we'd
like to associate with hometown America are just as troubled as our mean
A recent report from the Manhattan Institute entitled "Sex, Drugs, and Delinquency
in Urban and Suburban Schools," reveals that students in suburban Puyallup,
Washington, where I grew up, are as likely as their counterparts in nearby
Seattle or Tacoma to have sex, smoke, drink, use illegal drugs, and engage
in other forms of delinquency.
Of the high school seniors surveyed confidentially, four in ten in both urban
and suburban schools have used illegal drugs, and 20 percent of suburban
teens have driven while high on drugs, compared to 13 percent of urban teens.
Similar percentages of teens in cities and suburbs have driven while under
the influence of alcohol, and 74 percent of suburban high school seniors
have consumed alcohol on more than two or three occasions, 3 percent higher
than the urban statistic. 63 percent of suburban twelfth graders and 57 percent
of suburban twelfth graders drink alcohol without family members present.
Over 60 percent of suburban high school seniors have smoked cigarettes while
54 percent in urban high schools have puffed a smoke. Youth cigarette addiction
is a bigger problem in suburbs than cities, with a 37 percent to 30 percent
The study found that two thirds of all suburban and urban high school seniors
have had sexual intercourse, and more suburban twelfth graders (43 percent)
than urban twelfth graders (39 percent) reported having had sex with a person
with whom they did not have a romantic relationship. As a result, teen pregnancy
rates remain high -- 14 percent of suburban and 20 percent of urban female
high school seniors have been pregnant.
The report also revealed that it is almost as likely for a suburban student
as an urban student to engage in stealing or violent behavior.
Indeed, the 1990s spate of school shootings didn't occur in major cities
but in suburban areas like Littleton, Colorado outside of Denver; Pearl,
Mississippi near Jackson; Conyers, Georgia near Atlanta; and in obscure towns
like Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon; West Paducah, Kentucky; and
Moses Lake, Washington.
Interestingly, non-profit community agencies -- Planned Parenthood, Drug
Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), Big Brothers Big Sisters -- and volunteerism,
after school activities, and academic programs are doing more than ever before
to attempt a remedy for youth problems of drugs, smoking, teen sex and pregnancy,
But the challenges seem to be exacerbated despite the profusion of activities,
agencies, and programs. Why is innocence dying in the suburbs?
The answer is that the most essential institutions of our communities --
family and church, neighborhood and school -- have become the casualties
of radical individualism. Decency, unity, and identity have been cast aside
in favor of selfishness, political correctness, and change.
Mass-market popular culture has taken the place of meaningful local relationships.
Vulnerable youth are the major consumers of popular culture; communities
tolerate this ignoble invasion. The tragic result of too much tolerance in
our homes and schools and culture in general is that young people feel completely
justified in commencing premarital sex, drug use, or violence. The moral
norms once cultivated in the community are nearly all evaporated into the
mistiness of radical individualism.
Conservatives have often criticized Hillary Clinton's 1995 treatise, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child,
because it espouses collectivism. The raising of children into responsible,
contributing citizens -- far from Clinton's vision of systematic, politically
controlled collectivism, but not too far from her title -- involves the cooperation
of families, churches, neighborhoods, and schools. With parents at the forefront
of the great task of civilizing children, communities become support networks
for young people to learn the important lessons of morality, civility, and
Our entire sense of community totters on the brink of annihilation, with
few exceptions across American culture, and the next generation is paying
the moral price. Urban and suburban alike, too many young people are failing
to acquire the character requisite for being called American citizens. Until
our communities -- individuals and institutions alike -- recommit to absolute
standards and expectations, we can expect to run a continual moral deficit
in young America.
Neither policy nor personalities can ultimately win this culture war. It
is a fundamental matter of the heart, and our churches must take the lead.
A revival of the spirit is what America needs most. And it must begin locally,
in our communities, if there is to be hope for the next generation of Americans.
Hans Zeiger is a Seattle Times
columnist and conservative activist. He is president of the Scout Honor Coalition
and a student at Hillsdale College in Michigan.
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