We have rare live moments when we know we are collectively, as a nation, listening to the ravings of a mad man. I felt that way as I listened to Wayne LaPierre’s “conversation” with America regarding guns. While they waited exactly seven days and 90 minutes since the horrific events of Sandy Hook as a matter of respect, it was clear that any NRA soul-searching had resulted in a position that is so anathema to me as a professor, as a parent and as a human being that I was reduced to sputtering on Twitter and anguishing on Facebook.
As soon as the speech was over, I went looking for the transcript, which can be found here, but in the first few moments after the news conference, the html line read “Armed police officers in every single school in this nation. This is insanity talking.” Apparently, I wasn’t alone in the world thinking that Wayne LaPierre was having a moment of psychosis and sociopathy in front of a national audience. And I felt an immediate kinship with the Washington Post news poster.
By now, many will have spilled their outrage about LaPierre and his willingness to blame everyone but himself. But as someone who would be directly affected should any of his proposals actually go through (thank you, Jesus, for the Nov. 6 election result), I wanted to talk about what it would be like to try to be a teacher in an armed classroom.
I suppose I am included in that group. While I don’t make videos or video games, I do assign books to my students that look at the hard truths of life in America right now. We read books about fantasizing about mass murder (“The Basketball Diaries”) or books that document how a school shooting went down (“Columbine”). We read about mendacity (“Lying”), sexual “perversion” (“The Commitment: Love, Sex, and My Family” or “Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict”) or the downside of religion (“Jesus Land: A Memoir”). I could go on, but I think you get the picture: I am a purveyor of the shadow industry — books and sometimes films that portray the United States in all its glory and ugliness, often through the eyes of those who have experienced first-hand what they write.
Why do I do this? I teach creative nonfiction. More importantly, I teach critical thinking skills, which, if Wayne LaPierre is any example, are in short supply in this country. I insist that students read books about difficult topics precisely because I want students to understand how to pick apart a difficult argument and how to see through the eyes of someone else, or because I simply want to see if my students’ vision of life squares up with those that they read. Sometimes, they are able to see themselves depicted in those pages, and sometimes they are able to examine their own prejudices (be they class, gender, race or education level) by being forced to look at the world through the eyes of the other.
So, in Wayne LaPierre’s world, that makes me suspect. But LaPierre might learn something from me in my classroom and come to understand the difference between “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive” representations of modern life. Again, that’s a critical thinking skill. Sorry, Wayne.
The second way that LaPierre would have an impact on me is his argument on what he perceives as the only way to protect school children:
You know, five years ago, after the Virginia Tech tragedy, when I said we should put armed security in every school, the media called me crazy. But what if — what if — when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he’d been confronted by qualified armed security? Will you at least admit it’s possible that 26 little kids, that 26 innocent lives, might have been spared that day? Is it so important to you (inaudible) would rather continue to risk the alternative? Is the press and the political class here in Washington D.C. so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and American gun owners that you’re willing to accept the world where real resistance to evil monsters is a lone, unarmed school principal left to surrender her life — her life — to shield those children in her care.
As someone who teaches at a public college that only recently armed its own police force (something about having the ability to shoot rabid raccoons, I kid you not), I’m one of those people who did not think that the answer after Virginia Tech was to put an armed guard in every college classroom or to allow students to carry guns to class.
To be honest, if a student were to bring a gun to class, I would ask him or her to leave — not because I would be punishing that student, but rather because a loaded gun in the hands of a student during an intense discussion of values and prejudices is not a good idea. The university is a marketplace of ideas. As such, it’s a provocative, explosive world where one minute students may be discussing a difficult passage with cool dispassion, and the next minute they could be losing their shit because they are being challenged to think in a way that isn’t entirely comfortable. Do you want to add guns to that mix? In my classroom, our only rule is that no one may use ad hominem attacks (sorry Wayne, that means no calling anyone names) to argue their point, but that doesn’t mean students don’t become passionate in their defense or critique of a piece of writing. That’s what my classroom is: a safe place to discuss the ideas that animate us. And a gun? Well, a gun would silence all discussion, all debate, for fear of triggering a student with a gun to make his or her point with a firearm.
As a mother, the idea of turning my children’s schools into armed camps is anathema to me. Even though there have been bomb threats and suicides and, yes, even a boy with a hit-list who was thwarted, the answer is not more guns. My daughter’s high school has been turned into a camp where doors are locked and no one is allowed in the halls except for passage time. Lockers are off-limits for most of the day. Is that making my daughter safer? No, but it’s teaching kids that danger lurks around every corner.
The answer is more dialogue. What does it mean to live in a civil society and to engage in civil discourse, to ask critical questions of ourselves, of others, of our culture and of our world?
Yes. We need a whole-scale reform of our mental health system. But we also need a national dialogue on what matters to us as a culture. What we don’t need is this:
Before Congress reconvenes, before we engage in any lengthy debate over legislation, regulation, or anything else, as soon as our kids return to school after the holiday break, we need to have every single school in America immediately deploy a protection program proven to work, and by that I mean armed security.
No. What we need right now is a critical discussion about why there are more guns in this country than there are people. Why the NRA, which claims to protect the rights of sensible gun owners, would suggest that the answer to violence is more violence?
Many of my students are studying to be school teachers. I know that when they come back from the break, they are going to be scared and wanting to talk. Some of them will have been home with relatives who are scared that these new teachers may find themselves in situations similar to Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine or any of the other mass shootings that have happened in recent memory. The answer is not more guns. My students don’t want to carry guns. They want to teach.
I think the sensible place to start is with a ban on assault weapons, multiround clips and gun show exemptions for background checks. I believe that the only reason you would own an assault weapon is so that you can put as many bullets in another human being as you want. (It’s certainly not for hunting deer; who could eat meat blown apart by multiple rounds?) I am willing to engage with anyone in a civil discourse about this matter, about how we fix our mental health system and about how we make peace with the fact that as parents, we never can keep our children totally safe unless we keep them under our 24-hour protection and never let them out of our sights. But that’s not growing up. That’s being taken prisoner.
But mostly, what I want to propose is that we refocus the work of our schools on teaching people to think critically so that when these tragedies happen, we don’t, as Wayne LaPierre has done, retreat to a position of denial, to pornographizing the gun and to making it a weapon of worship that will keep us safe from the bad guys.
What will keep us safe from the bad guys is critical dialogue, a skill that we should be teaching in our schools. I support reinvesting money in our schools for teaching critical thinking rather than taking that money to put an armed guard in every classroom or making it OK for my students to carry guns on any given day. But then again, for Mr. LaPierre, I’m part of the “shadow industry” that has warped young people’s minds.
I’ve taught students to think. And that may be the most powerful weapon of all.