Our schools are under siege. Last week, there was a rampage shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon; yesterday, it was at Northern Arizona State at Flagstaff. Reports confirm one dead, three wounded from an early morning incident involving members of Delta Chi fraternity. Whether this latest is a “school shooting” or a shooting-that-took-place-at-a-
But from community colleges to public universities, the institution itself is under attack, and students are twice victimized as a result. Without fanfare, teachers at both K-12 and colleges are being stripped of tenure, making schools battlegrounds over worker’s rights but also, more broadly, a fight over the role that education plays in a functioning civil society. In short, these are fights over the future of the last bastion of civilization: the school, both as a socially-proscribed place of learning as well as an existential site where emotions intersect with politics.
Last month, without much fanfare or warning, the State College of Florida made all of its new faculty contingency hires. The school had already eliminated tenure, but had made use of five-year continuous contracts with the option of due process. No longer. Without any explanation by the board, all new hires will be temporary, one-year positions. This issue didn’t make it past the local education beats, because why should a voter in Massachusetts care if some state school in Florida yanks job security from their teachers? It’s Florida, the state where so much weird stuff happens that Carl Hiassen and Tim Dorsey have made careers out of making fun of it. Meanwhile, instead of challenging the dismantling of tenure, the faculty is busily trying to keep from getting shot. Writes one colleague who teaches at a community college in Florida:
“Most of us are very worried about the open carry law being passed. A couple of years ago we had a professor who was complaining about a student she thought was unstable that had been being disruptive in class. The administration kept blowing her off like she was just being some hysterical woman and then later that week the man killed two people at a local club. We had several instances like this, particularly when the economy was really bad…I have had a lot of angry men in my classroom, some with post-traumatic stress disorders from duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. They seemed to resent me and I swear this was compounded by the fact that I'm a woman assessing them and telling them what to do.”
Her plaint retreads all the usual themes of misogyny, the legacy of trauma, and, of course, guns, but these issues distract from the bigger, more complex forces at work. As influentially laid out by sociologist Norbert Elias, this thing called the “civilizing process” has, since the late Middle Ages, been steadily constricting culture into a narrowly-defined sphere of bourgeois values: exiling dirt, transforming physical suffering into a symptom of class, and demanding we perform inside the constraints of politesse (now called tone policing and PC culture) until we are now at a terrible crossroads: facing what Francis Fukuyama predicted as a showdown between powerful, self-absorbed "last men," and violent, angry "first men."
Political scientists raked Fukuyama’s analysis over the coals, but it’s nonetheless useful for distilling down the narrative into comprehensible parts. The angry young men who shoot up their classmates can be understood as Fukuyama’s atavistic “first men,” reviled by civilized society and rightly condemned for violently, and dramatically, refusing to obey these silky abstractions called laws. But who are the “last men,” the final flowerings of a liberal society which is neither a democracy nor a republic but an oligarchy?
One thing is for sure: the “last men” are definitely not teachers, who are being turned into stool pigeons, alternately blasted for not doing their jobs, or blamed for indoctrinating children with their liberal propaganda. Meanwhile, school shootings are on the rise, and we reflexively understand that there is something American about the phenomenon despite the fact that they happen elsewhere, including in (formerly) nice Canada. What does this all mean?
By constantly reacting in outrage to acts of malevolent violence, the press and the public are unable to focus on the larger picture. This is where the star of the YouTube video, “Drunk Kid Wants Mac n’ Cheese” comes in handy. Luke Gatti was a student on campus at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which has since kicked him out for his expletive-filled rant at the university’s food court. But why did a story about a drunk, belligerent teenager make national headlines in the first place? The subtext of this incident is clear: what would have happened if this kid had been drunk, belligerent…and armed? But he wasn’t, so whew! Disaster averted, and hey, what da ouchebag! It’s mockery as cathartic relief.
Meanwhile, behind closed doors, as Luke became an internet celebrity thanks to his inappropriate attachment to comfort food, the Board of Trustees at his university abruptly made a bid to eliminate tenure across the system. What? It’s the Wisconsin situation all over again, except Connecticut is a blue state led by a Democrat governor. It’s no longer possible to frame the political dismantling of universities as something those awful Republicans do. This is Connecticut. It’s practically New York. Already dire, the situation in Connecticut abruptly went from bad to worse.
“In a stark reminder that action speaks louder than words,” writes Jonathan Pelto, who is currently running for Governor as a candidate of the newly created Education and Democracy Party. “Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration has dropped a stunningly anti-union, anti-faculty, anti-Connecticut State University proposal on the table.” The proposed contract, Pelto explains, would let the Board of Regents fire tenured faculty without having to first declare “financial exigency,” as well as eliminate the right to a termination hearing. “Such a change would not only be unfair to existing faculty,” Pelto observes, “but open the state up to extraordinary lawsuits since there would be no mechanism to guard against politically motivated attempts by ‘management’ to unfairly fire particular professors.”
These faceless, powerful “last men” who wield the economy as a weapon and sooth themselves in sleek suits, are helming the arena where the rage of “first men” is being performed daily, it now seems, for the vicious pleasure of the society of the spectacle. That rage can be understood as the inchoate rejection of a capitalist system where the endpoint is nihilism. “The twentieth century,” Fukuyama wrote as the opening line of The End of History, “has made all of us into deep historical pessimists.” Now that it’s the 21stcentury, his stance almost seems quaint. When the school is a literal battleground, the undisputed winner will be cultural amnesia.