Can Education Cure Gang Members?

There seems to be an illogical perception in the U.S. that "bad guys," especially those associated with criminal gangs, are dumb—or at least uneducated. But education is not an elixir to cure the diseases of immorality or an upbringing steeped in situational ethics. It can't teach the gift of empathy for another human being.

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Cover art from the 'Mind of a Leader' DVDs.Cover art from the "Mind of a Leader" DVDs.

Last year, Danish documentary producers Benjamin Holk Henricksen and Fredrik Lassenius released two cutting-edge leadership-training documentaries—"The Mind of a Leader" and "The Mind of a Leader II."

In the first documentary, which runs 12 hours over 26 chapters, 34 world famous top international leaders and experts from business, politics, art, sports, and organized crime give interviews about their various leadership styles. The Mind of a Leader II, which runs four hours, provides 13 chapters of interviews with 24 leaders. Both are available on DVD from Astromax Entertainment.

The interviews are played against the classic leadership philosophies espoused by Sun Tzu ("The Art of War") and Niccolo Machiavelli ("The Prince"). I was honored to be interviewed, but not about Sgt. Richard Valdemar's leadership style. I spoke about my experience dealing with some of the most self-serving, cunning, and ruthless leaders of criminal gangs. Many of these men were intelligent, self-educated students of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli.

There seems to be an illogical perception in the U.S. that "bad guys," especially those associated with criminal gangs, are dumb—or at least uneducated. This myth is continually enforced in motion pictures and television programs in which the protagonist hero outsmarts the villain by the end of each episode. People who should know better—such as psychologists, sociologists, and others in academia—propose that educating offenders will solve the crime problem.

In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Leroy Baca has spent a lot of taxpayer money instituting a program in the jails called Education-Based Incarceration (EBI). "Our goal is to create a life worth living by eliminating fear and fostering a lifelong desire to learn," says Sheriff Baca. The EBI is a program that holds classes in the jail system to help inmates progress in high school equivalency toward completion of a G.E.D.

While I agree that most criminal gang members have done poorly in our school system and everyone should seek to improve their mind, a G.E.D. has little effect on reducing the real presence of fear in a community or reducing an individual's criminal recidivism. Sure there are learning dysfunctions and language difficulties that contribute to poor performance in school. In my experience, it's the individual's antisocial and anti-authority attitudes chosen early in life that more often cause the learning problems. 

I know that those good teachers out there are sincere in their belief that this simple solution works. In my own experience on the mean streets of Compton and East L.A., and in high school, I watched some of those dedicated and committed teachers expend all their effort and resources trying to save some of us. Some of these "good" students were already bound and determined to be outlaws and graduate from state prison rather than college.

Education is not enough. It's not an elixir to cure the diseases of immorality or an upbringing steeped in situational ethics. It can't teach the gift of empathy for another human being.

It was Machiavelli, an educated Italian philosopher and diplomat who died in 1527, who wrote "The ends justify the means." He was a student of the classical philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. In "The Prince," he advises would-be government leaders on a strategy of materialistic and ruthless political cunning. He also wrote, "It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both."

Adolf Hitler was influenced by the learned German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, who died in 1900. Nietzsche wrote about nihilism, the will to power, and Post Modernism. His writings published by his sister Elisabeth were strongly German nationalist in nature and anti-Semitic. Although his father was a Lutheran pastor, he rejected Christianity. He wrote, "In Christianity neither morality nor religion come into contact with reality at any point."

From Asia, we have the military classics of "The Art of War" from 16th Century China, and "The Book of the Five Rings" by Miyamoto Musashi from about 1645 from Japan. These military classics teach philosophies on martial arts, warfare, and tactics.

"All warfare is based on deception," Sun Tzu wrote. "Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near."

While moral and honorable in their own time and culture, one must interpret them in the light of our current times and social norms. In America, it is frowned upon to decapitate rivals with a sword.

"As one man can defeat 10 men, so can 1,000 men defeat 10,000," wrote Musashi. "However, you can become a master of strategy by training alone with a sword, so that you can understand the enemy's stratagems, his strength and resources, and come to appreciate how to apply strategy to beat 10,000 enemies."

I mention these classics because most police officers I know have never read and studied them. Many of the members of revolutionary politically radical groups, as well as members of criminal gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, Black Guerrilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood, and Nuestra Familia have. And to these classic philosophical works, add the Christian Bible.

After a very stimulating and enlightening conversation with one of these well read, self-educated, criminally sophisticated, prison gang members, I noticed that he had a very good working knowledge of the Bible and could quote from it at length. When I questioned how he came about this knowledge he answered, "Yeah, I studied the Bible quite a bit. I just don't believe in it."

This illustrates my point. The lack of knowledge is not the problem; it's the lack of wisdom that's at fault. His mind improved, but his heart remained evil. I know a former Aryan Brotherhood leader who obtained a doctorate while incarcerated in state prison. I know prison gang members fluent in multiple difficult languages and dialects. I know several who could teach college courses on the books I've mentioned. If you do nothing to change a criminal's philosophy and moral code of conduct, getting him a diploma only adds to his criminal sophistication.

This calls to mind Walt Whitman, who wrote, "Wisdom is not finally tested by the schools. Wisdom cannot be pass'd from one having it to another not having it. Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof."


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