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Violins (not violence) in schools

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment  June 3, 2012 01:00 PM

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The positive impact of the “Play Ball” initiative on the scholastic performance of youngsters in Boston’s middle schools (see Globe story) is stunning, but hardly surprising. For too many years, we have over-emphasized standardized test scores -- treating them as the gold standard, if not the only standard, for assessing quality in education -- at the expense of other areas of physical, emotional and intellectual development.

While no one will deny the supreme importance of the basic subjects -- English, math and science. But a focus on test scores over all else places academically marginal students at-risk to skip school and ultimately leave school altogether. And the effects on truancy and drop-out on delinquency are obvious.

The results of “Play Ball” clearly demonstrate the many lessons that athletic participation can offer concerning cooperation and responsibility to a group. Youngsters who are constantly challenged and frustrated by traditional academics can derive both enjoyment and a sense of self-worth on the athletic field, giving them a reason to get up and out to school in the morning.

But let’s not forget the other extra-curricular areas -- for example, art, drama, and music. We need violins in schools (as opposed to violence). These pursuits can also be of great value for youngsters who struggle athletically and are seeking an alternative niche, purpose and direction. The “back to basics” movement has assigned these subjects second-tier status; when trimming budgets they are often viewed as expendable frills.

Years ago I served on the U.S. Department of Education Expert Panel on Safe, Disciplined and Drug Free Schools. It was our responsibility to identify exemplary and promising programs that were worthy of federal support. But along came a Los Angeles Times expose about how these drug and violence prevention funds were being misallocated, spent on initiatives that had nothing to do with violence or drugs.

One example singled out by the Times was a small grant ($1,000) awarded to a teacher in Utah who had purchased fishing gear -- rods, reels and tackle -- in order to take selected group of 33 students on a fishing trip. The teacher, who was donating his time, felt that this could provide a tremendous bonding experience for kids in need of mentoring. He was right and the Times missed the boat.

So “Play Ball” is great, but so is “Go Fish” and other enriching experiences where youngsters can learn positive lessons from dedicated adults that go beyond the ABCs, the multiplication table, and E=MC2.

Author's note: You can follow me on twitter at @jamesalanfox or Facebook at Professor James Alan Fox for notifications of new blog postings. Also, you can find me on the Web at or contact me by e-mail at

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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