Ask ten people what the opposite of "love" is and chances are at least nine will say "hate." I don't agree. I think its indifference. When asked what "love" means, most will speak at length about many facets of what makes them feel good, but I think it's simpler - it's unequivocal acceptance. In most (ideally all) cases, this is how your mother feels about you. This acceptance is what we all seek.
There is power in knowing that you are accepted just as you are, just as you behave, just as you act, dress, think, play, whatever. When you are in this place of acceptance, you are empowered to be you; in fact, you're just plain empowered to be.
Most of us recognize the sense of comfort we feel when we arrive at a place where we are loved, a sense of ...de-burdening - the load lightens, the stress fades away, words flow smoothly, smiles are more frequent, expressiveness is more unfettered... There's more - we also feel safer, more cocooned, perhaps even impervious to harm. It's a sense of home isn't it?
I was talking with a good friend a couple of weeks ago about the differences in our two upbringings, how we were educated, and the role that people around us played. We looked at schools that are successful (measured by student success after graduation) and also have happy, energetic, and engaged students, and we saw that we had traveled similar paths. While we both successfully emerged from our respective public schools systems, many students don't. 25% of American students don't graduate from high school, of those that do, more than a third require remediation before entering tertiary schools (but it's really worse - more than 60% of those that were accepted into university required remediation). In our two cases, we saw also that others helped make sure we stayed on the straight and narrow, that we were given the impetus and support to stay in school, do well in school, and aspire.
I was talking yesterday with another close friend about binge drinking in the UK - more than half of all teenagers in Britain have been binge drinking in the last month. Scandinavians and Americans are also prone; and the drinkers are getting younger, developing other issues (poor academic performance, health issues, delinquency, etc.), and costing the system increasingly more money -£2.7 billion annually in injuries and illness in the UK alone.
Whether education or binge drinking, governments have attempted to isolate micro points of failure (poor teachers, drinking hours), and tried to fix these issues in the hopes that they will lead to widespread change. But things haven't improved; instead it's increased the tension with teachers, teacher unions and pub owners.
There is no research on macro common denominators that indicate increased learning performance or reduced drinking, so there's no data or foundation for what follows, it's my conjecture.
When you look at successes in education or when you look at places where binge drinking isn't as much of an issue, there is one (at least) common denominator - community. When I think of community, I think of a place where acceptance reigns - the group accepts and cares for the individual, and every adult is a parent to every child, every one a sibling to each other. Look at almost every successful school and you will find a community of people (parents, teachers, administrators and students) that share in the goal of raising great children; you can judge the strength of that community by whether students and their families stay connected to the school after graduation. Schools like this have a sustained record of success, and are led by people who care and people who are committed to the best for their community.
The indifference towards the individual, the absence of real community from birth onwards could be a predictor of poor academic performance, drinking, other addictions, the tendency towards criminal behavior, etc. Most people go out drinking because it's the only time they have a connection (albeit ephemeral) with others - a chance to belong for those moments to a group. Children join gangs because of the pride of belonging. When there is no alternative to real connection, real acceptance and real community, an easy way out is to drink your way into that feeling for at least those few hours where your behavior is accepted, your words are listened to (and enjoyed), your seat is held for you.
But if you can find a real and safe place to call home, a place where you belong, are accepted, and can just be, things change. Look at the Harlem Children's Zone and similar places where people invest in the community, and in turn the community invests in the individual, and you will find better students, less crime, less drinking, and a chance for redemption. Some centers are able to do this in a small way, but they will always struggle because they can't care for the whole child - that requires a broader effort.
Investing to build communities that live, that care, and that last are where I would put energy if I were running the show - I would center it on the youngest children and work upwards. It will take time, it will not yield immediate politically compelling results, but if we keep at it, it will work - acceptance will happen.