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William Raspberry: Key to healthy humans is community

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WASHINGTON — Bill Gates believes that one of the problems with America's high schools is that they are too big to allow for meaningful connections.

Putting his Microsoft-generated money where his mouth is, he announced earlier this month a $51.2 million effort to create 67 small high schools in New York City. These smaller schools, he said on National Public Radio, will improve both learning and graduation rates, because they will be more focused, more responsive, and provide more personal and emotional connections between students and faculty.

The Commission on Children at Risk must be hugely gratified. The commission (a creature of the YMCA of the USA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American Values) had just issued a major report — "Hardwired to Connect" — in which it argued that the loss of connectedness is devastating America's youth.

The symptoms include "major depression, suicide attempts, alcohol abuse and a wide variety of physical ailments, including asthma, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers" — not to mention crime, delinquency and the dropout problem that prompted the effort in New York of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. One in five American youngsters, the report says, is at serious risk of emotional problems.

And what has connectedness got to do with it?

The commissioners, many of them physicians and mental health professionals, say they believe that human beings have an inborn need for connections, first with their parents and families, then with larger communities. It is, they say, the weakening of the connections between children and their extended families and communities that is producing a virtual epidemic of emotional and behavioral problems.

Mental health professionals have been treating individuals — as schools treat the "learning-disabled" and as doctors might once have treated victims of black lung disease — as though the problem resides in the victim and not in the environment. The commission aims to improve the environment.

How? The answer is in the report's subtitle: "The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities." That's authoritative, not authoritarian. As the principal investigator, Kathleen Kovner Kline of Dartmouth, said on ABC's "Good Morning America," children are too often left to their own devices to figure out their place in the world. "What we need," she told Diane Sawyer, "is a particular form of engagement that is both warm and loving and also has expectations and limits. We think it works best when there are a number of generations involved. You know, parents, aunts and uncles, friends, neighbors — what we call an authoritative community — working together to provide that structure of support, nurturing, affection, and moral and spiritual meaning."

The commissioners believe human beings may be hardwired for transcendent connections as well — for an interest in ultimate meaning. And they are certain that our sense of right and wrong rises from our "biologically primed need to connect to others."

To put it another way, good behavior is at least as much the result of relationships as of rules. The relationships are the source of the thing we call conscience, without which rules are only as strong as the ability of rulemakers to enforce them. Relationships are key.

And to repeat the essence of both the Gates approach and the commission's analysis, the relationships are deteriorating. The "village" is in eclipse, while we focus on economics and individualized treatment.

Without question, America has some good, strong, "authoritative" communities. It is true as well that some children seem to do well even with a minimum of connectedness. But in too many cases, weak communities are producing vulnerable children.

The miners who once used canaries, with their fragile respiratory systems, to warn of toxicity in the mines understood that it wasn't enough to distribute gas masks to individuals, but that it was important to do something about the environment in which those individuals labored.

Our focus, unfortunately, has been on providing artificial respiration for gasping canaries.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.