Monday, April 27, 2009

Using Columbine in your class

I recently finished Dave Cullen's Columbine and highly recommend it. I was teaching psychology ten years ago when the events at Columbine unfolded and I was certainly tuned in as to why it happened then, but honestly haven't followed any news about it since just a few months after the shootings.

That being said, I was stunned at the amount of misinformation that I had internalized and believed to be true about the killings: the killers weren't part of the Trench Coat Mafia, there was no plan to take out jocks because the shooters were being bullied, this wasn't a spontaneous act of anger and what did happen was only a small part of the plan, most of which failed miserably. A number of the myths are described here in more detail.

As usual in chaotic scenes like this one, the study of memory and eyewitness testimony leaps to the forefront. Cullen was on the scene the day of the shootings and saw a marked difference in the interviews of students that day as opposed to what the students were saying later in the week. When students went home that night and watched the news about the shooting they picked up bits of pieces of information and through confabulation created entirely new memories of what the killers were like and what transpired that day. Even the beloved Columbine principal discovered years later that his memory of being initially told about the kilings was completely wrong; Cullen notes that "Mr. D." understands from two witnesses what he is supposed to have done, but holds on to the wrong memory as well because he can see that one in his mind.

Another major contribution to psychology from the book is the analysis of the shooters. Again, from a distance, I didn't pay attention to any differences, but Cullen does a nice job as an armchair psychologist of diagnosing the boys based on numerous journals, writing assignments and video diaries left behind. Dylan comes off as a depressed loner who was bright but suicidal, and just followed the plan laid out for him. Eric, though, is the prototype of antisocial personality disorder: the manipulation, the ease of lying, the lack of conscience, empathy, remorse, etc.

How about you -- did you mention the shootings at Columbine in your classes last week? Were you a teacher or student in '99 and remember experiencing this? Are you surprised at how the myths have been perpetuated? Should Oprah have canceled her program on Columbine last week -- do we indeed give the killers too much attention by focusing on them at all? Have you read Columbine and have your own opinion? Weigh in below in the comments and share your thoughts.


Virginia Welle said...

I was a senior in HS when Columbine took place, and like Steve, I have found that I rather easily accepted the version of events presented immediately by the media (and Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" film). This book has been on my "to-read" list since the review of it appeared in TIME.

I didn't end up discussing the anniversary in class because I was sick that day, but otherwise had intended to. Thanks for the info about incorporating the eye-witness accounts into the Memory unit. Good idea.

Steve said...

I think you'll find the book very interesting. The author does a really nice job of compiling many different sources to create a narrative of what really transpired. In one review Janet Maslin of the NY Times surprisingly calls out Cullen for being too into the heads of the killers, something I saw as a strength. Even odder is that two weeks later the Times followed up with another review of the same book, this one much more evenhanded.

Anonymous said...

You are still being lied to about Columbine. Big time. If you want to find out what really happened at Columbine I suggest you read what the eyewitnesses had to say:

Steve said...

Heh. A group of psychology teachers is probably not your best audience for the "eyewitnesses never lie" spiel. Seriously. I checked out the link and there are so many "subject's mother said" and "subject saw something in the media and it was different from what they remembered" etc. Funny how none of these "many other shooters" (one witness said seven, so it must be true!) show up on the videotapes. I also don't recall seeing any ballistics evidence of bullets that didn't belong to the guns fired by Klebold and Harris. I also didn't see any evidence in any of the journals or descriptions of the videotapes of other collaborators. And 101 witnesses means little when there were 2000+ students there that day, plus 200 or so adults and who knows how many other law enforcement and medical personnel.

I'm sorry, but as a skeptic, you've got to do a lot better to convince me than just give me a laundry list of edited statements from people who have been influenced by what they saw in the media.