Maintaining Optimism in the Criminal Justice Classroom

My esteemed colleague John Hill suggested in an earlier post that capitalism, as envisioned by Adam Smith, should be restored to its roots. Smith envisioned a system of natural liberty allied with justice where both the ends and the means were important to the overall wealth of a nation. If Adam Smith’s vision of capitalism was realized, the gap between the rich and the poor would not be as severe and socio-economic justice would be achieved. John further suggested that this system may even reduce one of the root causes of terrorism- imperialism.

Whether or not one believes that Adam Smith’s alliance of natural liberty with justice could actually be realized depends upon one’s view of human nature. If one believes that humans are by nature self-interested, as did Thomas Hobbes, natural liberty with justice is a fantasy, a world that will never exist. The problem is three-fold and can be illustrated in the criminal justice system. First, there is a wide range of views about human nature. The adage “the glass is either half empty or half full” applies here. My experience with criminal justice students, as I explain below, suggests they have a “glass is half empty” view of the world. Second, while most of us can agree on some basic goals (for example, we all want to be safe in our homes), this consensus dissolves when we try to develop ways to achieve those goals. Thus, we don’t achieve consensus about the means we employ to protect ourselves. Third, even those goals which most of us would argue are good goals for the criminal justice system, such as effectiveness, efficiency, and equality, are difficult, and sometimes impossible to achieve simultaneously; so many times we are forced to pursue only one goal. Thus, how we prioritize our goals (values) differs and creates conflict.

The first problem will be the primary focus of this post, although this first problem has important implications for the remaining two problems. If we believe, along with Hobbes, that humans are self-interested and willing to trample others in order to achieve their own goals, thus necessitating the development of government to control our behaviors, then this negative world view will affect both the methods we develop to deliver justice and the goals the criminal justice system seeks to achieve. I share John’s optimism for a better country, a better world; a world with socio-economic justice. However, I have wrestled with how we can impart upon our students this same optimism. How can I convince them that there are far more “good” people in this world than there are “bad” people, and that meaningful change is possible?

I have the great fortune of teaching two very different groups of students; young, traditional college students during the day, and older working professionals at night. Both groups follow the same curriculum in pursuit of their criminal justice degrees, so it can be challenging at times to find different ways to present the same material. There are some important differences between these two groups of students. The “traditional” college students lack the context in which to place their newly found knowledge. The older students struggle with how to resolve the conflicts between the knowledge they learn in the classroom with the hands-on experience they get at work. The traditional students tend to be more liberal in their political views. The older students lean more towards conservatism.

Some interesting similarities also exist. Both groups are similar in that they complain that I work them too hard, and both groups struggle with their writing. More importantly, and more discouraging, however, is the level of cynicism both groups express regarding human nature.

In the course, Ethics in Law Enforcement, I am usually faced with a classroom full of students who view human nature in a relatively negative light. This is interesting given that criminal justice students tend to enter the field with a strong sense of justice, and a strong desire to help people. If one can make the assumption that there are persons worthy of helping in this world, it’s not a giant leap to make the assumption that these persons are to some degree “good.” Thus, at a bare minimum, there are at least two groups in society: victims (past, present and future) and criminal justice agents who are comprised of “good” people.

The older students tend to be more cynical about the world. This is not surprising. A plethora of research exists regarding police officers and their work environment which suggests that as a group, they suffer high levels of stress due to the nature of their job. In a nutshell, they deal with the dark side of humanity on a daily basis. This is true for most people who are employed in the criminal justice system. The younger students, however, also tend to be fairly cynical as a group; something I would not expect given that they have not yet worked in the field.

This level of cynicism from both groups of students can make teaching this course very difficult. Sure, I can simply present the theories and research in my lectures and make them regurgitate it back to me on an exam or in a paper, but this is not my idea of teaching. I believe very strongly that getting my students to connect with the material is what teaching and learning is all about. It is what the Humanities are all about. In this class, getting students to connect with the material in a meaningful way is challenging. I want all of my students to leave my classroom with the belief that by and large, most people on this planet are good. Furthermore, they all want the same things for their families: health and safety, happiness and peace. However, when I try to emphasize this very important point, both groups of students look at me as if I am some kind of archaic Pollyanna who doesn’t live in the “real” world. My struggle then, is how to change their world view; to combat those experiences which have taught them that mankind, by and large, is inherently evil. The media is constantly bombarding the younger students with stories about terrorists wanting to kill greedy Americans and of greedy Americans cheating to get ahead. This is compounded in the older students who also experience the real world, dealing with violent criminals and property offenders on a daily basis.

Why, you may ask, do students’ world views matter to the discussion? They matter because the belief that everyone cheats to get ahead, or that people are inherently selfish and uninterested in social and economic justice perpetuates behaviors, and creates a system that cannot deliver true justice. I use an illustration in class that may be useful here. I draw a triangle on the board and tell my students that there are essentially three groups in society: people who need the law to stay honest, people who would be honest regardless of the law because it is a core value they have internalized, and people who will be dishonest regardless of the law (the criminals they process on a daily basis). I ask them to draw in their minds where the two lines would go to approximate the size of each group. In every class, there is consensus among the students about where to put these lines and the groups that end up with the largest portions of the triangle are consistently those who need the law to stay honest and those who are dishonest regardless of the law. The smallest area of the triangle is reserved for the group that does not need the law to stay honest. I believe, although I do not have any empirical proof, that those of us who do not need the law to keep us honest are significantly larger as a group than the other groups combined. I believe that most of us, although we are far from perfect, strive towards both good ends and good means to achieve those ends. If I could get my students to accept this belief, I believe it could make a meaningful difference to the world.

But back to the students; later in the semester when our class is wrestling with various ends-means dilemmas, their responses to hypothetical problems almost always factor in their negative views of human nature. For example, when students suggest it is OK to bend or even break the rules to achieve justice, their rationalizations include statements such as “it’s no big deal, everyone does it,” and “they (the criminals) broke the rules in the first place so they deserve what they get.” Thus, it is OK to break the rules in pursuit of a valued systemic goal and this practice is largely accepted because everyone breaks the rules.

These sentiments mirror, I think, those sentiments that exist in the marketplace that produce the failings of capitalism that Professor Hill references. That is, it is OK to break the rules to get ahead. In Crime and the American Dream, Messner and Rosenfeld argue that capitalism and the pursuit of the “American dream” is a root cause of crime in this country because the institutions which create the infrastructure of our society (economy, politics, education, religion, and family) are imbalanced. “In short, at all social levels, America is organized for crime.” (p. 6) Furthermore, "&the materialistic element of the American Dream emphasizes achievements in one exclusive domain of social life and implicitly devalues achievements and performances in all others. In doing so, the American Dream generates exceptionally strong pressures to succeed in a narrowly defined way and to pursue such success by the technically most efficient means, that is, by any means necessary." (p.9)

Thus, I am convinced that in order to reduce both crime and socio-economic injustice in this country, we need to change the dominant mindset of our students that everyone breaks the rules, people deserve what they get, and that the ends justify the means. That’s the easy part. The bigger challenge is how to go about doing this. I plan to spend more time on this challenging goal in the future. Maybe my students are right; I am an archaic Pollyanna who does not live in the real world. But I don’t think so. I see and hear the same news stories my students do, yet I am not cynical. I work with the same offenders that my students process in the criminal justice system, yet I still believe that people are inherently good at heart. Am I perfect? No; far from it. Am I a good person? Yes, I believe so. Do I believe there are many others that are like me? Yes. I have met them.

Rebecca Paynich, Curry College

Works Cited

Messner, Steven.F. and Richard. Rosenfeld. 2007. Crime and the American Dream, 4th Edition. Thomson Wadsworth.

Author: Rebecca Paynich

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