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Chapter 4: Moral Panics

What Are Moral Panics?

According to Stanley Cohen (1987), moral panics describe any sociological phenomena in which large groups of people suddenly become concerned that the values and principles that society upholds are in jeopardy. Usually some condition, person, or group of people is identified as being responsible for the lamentable state of affairs and is subsequently cast as deviant or in Cohen's terms, as a "folk devil." Although most moral panics are short-lived and are often inflamed by intense media coverage, there are occasions when the consequences and repercussions are so long-lasting and so much in the public eye that they can affect laws, regulations, and policies and even the way society perceives itself.

Moral panics about youth seem to recur with regularity, notably when a new technology is introduced (Lynn, 2010; Mazzarella, 2003). Over the years, everything from television, video games, computers, and more recently cell phones have been vilified as the latest threat to the why the moral fabric of society is in decay or why our kids can't read and write. For example, the Internet has been blamed for unleashing violence, bullying, and apathy in our schools. At times, even methods of teaching such as "whole language," inquiry-learning, and integrating the arts (Gannon & Sawyer, 2007) have been characterized as "folk devils" responsible for students performing poorly on international tests.

However, some of the concerns that preoccupy education are inflated and become overly pressing in spite of weak data and gaps in logic. The regularity of moral panics requires policymakers and educators to have some grounding in the history, philosophy, and sociology of education so that they can learn to reserve judgement when faced with moral panics and not be unnecessarily influenced by the passion and tenacity of what are sometimes poorly informed and irrational citizens. In this way, prospective teachers can learn how to counter overblown assertions and exaggerated claims and get on with the business of teaching.

Related Resources and Articles

Videos, PowerPoints, and Podcasts
Newspapers, Magazines
Journals, Book Excerpts, Monographs

List of Cases

  1. A Place to Belong?
  2. A Stitch in Time
  3. Brave New World?
  4. On-Line or Off-Base?
  5. Bang! Bang! You're Dead!
  6. A Lapse of Judgment
  7. A Cougar in the Schoolhouse
  8. No Beeping Song!
  9. Gangster Fashion
  10. Character Counts