To All Those Who Want Safer Schools in Newtown

I get it. Really, I do.

We’re repulsed by the utter horror of the tragedy in Newtown. Our hearts ache at the thought of such insane bloodshed. I’ve already shared my own experiences with such issues and my prayer for them as a former principal who still knows and loves so many similar teachers and kids.

And I have few little guys of my own. So I get our urge to make schools safer. I understand why we want to do all we can to make sure no one ever hurts like that again. But there is a subtle yet pernicious danger that can come from our efforts to create safer schools in Newtown and elsewhere.

If we’re not careful, we’ll create a bunker mentality that fears risk above all and defeats the very reason we have schools in the first place.

The Truth about Learning

I think we’d all agree that schools should be places where learning takes place. But learning always requires risk, because it involves moving from where we are to where we could go. And by risk, I don’t mean stupid-death-defying risk, but the risk of failure in general that must naturally occur in any thriving learning environment. It’s about ensuring kids truly live, not just survive.

 The greatest risk we face these days is that of an unlived life. ~ Seth Barnes

I’m not saying we always like it, but failure, and the willingness to take risk, make mistakes, and learn from them, is the only path to success. If we’re not careful, we’ll inadvertently stifle the very culture of growth necessary to keep learning. Consequently, our “safer” schools  quickly become museums where alarms sound when we touch the exhibits and the creative human spirit ages and fades before our very eyes. We end up with schools that may be physically safe but intellectually dormant.

Monotony is the awful reward of the careful. ~ A.G. Buckham

The Hazards of a Risk-Free Culture

We are rapidly becoming a nation of people averse to taking risks.  When something — anything — fails, we demand an inquiry as to why. When our child fails to receive a Little League award, we insist an injustice has been done. When an accident occurs, we now assume a lawsuit will follow. When an evil, insane fellow commits heinous murders, we rush to pass more restrictive laws, ban more stuff, and tighten school security.

When we create a bunker mentality in schools through sincere efforts to make them safer, we also make them less productive places to learn. You don’t go into bunkers to move forward. Bunkers are designed for surviving, not for winning. There is a place for both, provided we’re careful.

We can think of the balance between safety and risk as a line, a continuum with total safety on one extreme and utter disregard for consequences on the other. We always find ourselves somewhere along that line in every area of life. The more we move toward safety, the more we move, by definition, away from risk. But the more we move away from risk, the less we are able to learn and grow.

That’s the paradigm in which we must function, for better or worse. That’s not to say we should rush to the end of extreme risk. We don’t need to take a field trip across a crowded highway to learn about physics. We can find a safer way. Yet the general paradigm of this universal trade-off remains. And we did not become the leaders of the free world by playing it safe. We’re the ones who stormed the beaches, put man on the moon, and insisted on ending the moral disaster of slavery no matter the cost.

“Almost every advance in art, cooking, medicine, agriculture, engineering, marketing, politics, education, and design has occurred when someone challenged the rules and tried another approach.” (Roger von Oech) In other words, they chose to take a risk instead of the safer route. I often wonder how an Einstein would function in our safe and secure learning environments, or even a Thomas Edison who famously said, “There ain’t no rules around here! We’re trying to accomplish something!”

You can’t reach for a dream and remain motionless at the same time. The two are incompatible. ~ John Maxwell

But motion means taking risks. Risk might well mean failure. Are we still OK with that?

A Symptom of a Risk-Averse Culture

In short, I fear our education system is already becoming so insulted by sincere efforts to ensure safety of all sorts that it’s a wonder any learning can take place at all. Over the last few decades, our schools have gotten safer, or at least more averse to risk in many ways (more on that later). Maybe that’s why our academic scores have remained stuck in neutral for the last three decades while other countries, more willing to take risks, pass us by.

I’ll go a step further to suggest that as a nation, we may have already passed a tipping point of sorts in this regard. We vote for the candidate who promises the most security, not the one who offers the greatest freedom to take risks and reap the rewards. When corporate and union leaders at GM make mistakes, we expect a bailout — even at a loss to those who took the most risk.

One critical role of government is to facilitate safety as we each take risks every day as individuals, families, or businesses. It plays a necessary role in ensuring minimal safety and security standards are met. But at some point, subtly passed and difficult to delineate, that safety system instead becomes the reason for our existence. At one point, it existed to keep us safe as we grew and took risks. Now we seem to exist to fund its own ever-expanding appetite for more safety regulations, bureaucratic paperwork, and blame-shifting commissions.

Meanwhile, every day, a little bit more of our cultural creative spirit fades until we forget why we existed in the first place.

I know it’s a bit of stretch, but I’ve been thinking a little beyond just the natural wish we all have that such a tragedy never happen again. I pray you  won’t think me callous because of it. Just trying to think ahead. At some point, maybe a point already passed, we protect ourselves to death in a futile attempt to ensure we dispose of all hurt and failure.

But without some level of risk, we simply can’t learn. And isn’t that why we want safer schools in the first place?


"Also, the donuts aren't as tasty as they use to be but that is because ..."

Why I’ve Stopped Singing in Your ..."
"It was the fact Cain didn't trust God (faith in God) enough to give him ..."

Why I’ve Stopped Singing in Your ..."
"Funny, because to me your scripture applied more towards your thinking tbh."

Why I’ve Stopped Singing in Your ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jay Saldana

    Wow, you are an expert at propaganda Bill, really. I had to reread this three time to separate all the topics you conflated into one target. Which, I assume, was your ultimate goal about how bad the Liberals are. Now I use “liberals” to be defined as anyone who disagrees with your point of view. Which given how far right you are is about 73% of the population. You start out with something everyone can agree with and then slowly move to something they are unsure about and finally to your real point that the President and anyone who agrees with him is of the devil. Nicely done! Not very Christian! And certainly not a “search for the truth”, but a wonderful political diatribe! So, Lets restart at he beginning.
    Yep, schools are for learning. Yes, we have issues with risk aversion. Ops, the part about restrictive gun laws.! Naughty, naughty, Bill! By an order or magnitude of 10 that is a different topic. There is significant differences between avoiding “risk” and avoiding the possibility of death and/or serious injury. I am assuming, since you have never mentioned it that you have not served in the military or saw any military action. I have. I have killed people with a AR 15 and with my bare hands in combat. This is not a pretty picture in my memory and is not filled with any kind of glory or feeling of manliness or conquering or success. But I say it as someone who has used these weapons and others with skill and training to accomplish something for the stated goals of my county. There is no reason for these kind of weapons to be in the hands of civilian. Allow me to say it again. THERE IS NO REASON FOR THESE WEAPONS TO BE IN THE HANDS OF CIVILIAN! They have only one purpose and that is to attack human beings on a large scale. Large magazines and drums fall into the same category, they are human being killers and that is why they exist. If you need them to hunt with you need to rework your hunting skills becasue they are severely lacking. So I am clear, there is no value or reason to have them as a hobby as well. I don’t think it is “fun” or a good “hobby” to practice killing people (yes, that goes for computer games as well). So tell me why you a supposedly good Christian man would be encouraging other human beings to kill one another and for providing them with the ability to do whole scale carnage, real or imagined, to one another? Semi-automatic weapons are not a constitutional issue large scale magazines are not a constitutional issue. The only reason to argue otherwise is to be “in fear” or “risk adverse” to the government. So I have two issues here then. Being anti government is not biblical on its face (I don’t need to quote Paul here do I?), and to operate as if you are is to run counter to the argument you are currently making. So, no I don’t get your point here.

    You argue so often about how bad the government is and often imply that the “black helicopters are about to swoop down” that you arguing about bunker mentality is almost laughable. Unfortunately, your argument is still valid about our society developing an attitude that borders on that. My argument though is that is a function of bad news foxily presented so that people don’t know they are getting propaganda, and that conservative commentators have been paranoid so long they no longer know how to present an argument for their point of view in any other manner. The result is a group of people with bunker mentality. In other words, on this topic, you are your own worst enemy.
    After all, as a nation, “we have passed the tipping point” to quote a blogger of some repute. Yes, we should “bunker down”. The evil “other” is going to get us!!! Run, Hide! Vote Romney! Yes, vote for my guy, the “other ” will make you safe, my guy will make you rich and let you have weapons of mass human destruction.
    This is strange logic for an ordinary person and even stranger for a Christian claiming Christian values.

    And finally you end up by gathering our agreement that government is there to protect us and then as we nod our heads agreeing with you, you set the hook by telling us it has gone too far. We have been suckered! Sucked in by a government that is out to hurt us by taking care of us TO WELL. Yes, we will be happy and better off if we do away with the oppression of government. You know like rules for business, and medicine, and traffic and guns and advertising and insurance. Really, Bill?
    Yes to your premise is that we need to expand our willingness to be less risk adverse. A good way would be for our commentators and bloggers to stand for a balanced and factual reporting of the risks we deal with instead of confusing the issues with their own agenda. I loved your honest and valid prayer for the schools after last Friday’s horror. It was from your heart and incredibly well done. This last comment was a political mess that came out of a poorly thought through world view.
    I pray you have a God filled Celebration of Jesus’s birth,

    • I am honored to have made it through three rounds of reading on your part — and to be declared an expert in anything by you was certainly on my bucket list. My many former military friends would adamantly disagee with you, of course, about the need for something other than single-shot weapons for civilians.

      I am curious, though. Sincerely so. Since you mock those who fear a governemtn out fo control, what, in your opinion is the counter-balance or check, if you will, on the government authority if it knows it will meet no resistance from citizens should some be tempted to abuse the power? Not than any leaders in governments have ever have done so, of course.

      Have you read Os Guinness’s work A Free People’s Suicide? I’d like to hear your take on it. He presents a pretty neutral critique of right and left that has me thinking.

  • Jennifer

    I happen to agree with you that an increasing fear of risk can be detrimental to learning and growth. I question some of your corrolations, though. You seem to be saying that the increase in government involvement is responsible for poor academic standings and initiative (if I misunderstood, please correct me). If we’re to use your model than we would have to predict that Canada would rate very poorly academically instead of ranking near the top. I agree that Americans are risk averse. Look at the situation in Benghazi where so many reporters expressed shock that four Americans in a politically unstable region could be possibly be killed. “How could this have happened?” , “how did our security fail?”, “Let’s make sure this never happens again”. The difference between the Benghazi tragedy and the Newtown tragedy is that most people (though not, it would seem, many Americans) would expect life in war torn areas to be dangerous and imperfect. Most people in North America expect their children to be safe at school.

    I agree with Jay that a huge reason for the fear and bunker mentality felt by Americans is a result of media coverage. Americans seem constantly to be under attack by evil forces. How much of this is based in reality and experienced more than other countries face I don’t know. And while I can’t understand WHY a regular citizen would want/need to own an assault rifle, I don’t think the knee jerk reactions of a) banning guns or b) arming teachers (deciding on which safety camp you belong to) are going to solve the main problem. Or, as the NRA has proposed, registering the 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from a mental health disorder. I think the solution would lie more in people en masse becoming more personally involved in family and community, though I’m well aware that nothing short of everyone living in a bubble could prevent all tragedy. And who wants to live like that?

    I’m a Mom, an Early Childhood Educator and a human being. Like many people after the Newtown shootings I wanted to snatch my child close to me and keep him safe from all harm. But…. I sent him right back to school that afternoon even knowing that something/one could harm him. He could be shot or, more likely, stabbed. He could be offered dangerous drugs (he has been, frequently), he could get hit by a car crossing the busy street like one of his schoolmates was a few months back. He could interfere in a bullying incident and be beaten up. he could get beaten up, “just because”. A teacher could snap (my husband works with some “interesting” teachers!). On a less lethal front he could be bullied, ridiculed in front of his classmates, or fail a test. It is impossible for me or, I believe, for any amount of “rules” to protect him. And I think this is a good thing. He needs to learn how to make judgment calls. He needs to learn that some things are worth a price and some things aren’t. He needs to learn what it feels like to be hurt and to know from experience that he will survive pain – both physical and emotional. He needs to learn how to work things out without his Mommy because I won’t always be there. He needs to “toughen up” (see, I’m callous, too). He needs to fail a test and take the consequences. It is in all these ways that he will grow into a man who has personal resources born of experience in this World. Ultimately, not only do I see this as the “safer” course, but one that will help him to become all that he can be.

    • We agree on the last part, that the safest path is the one that embraces risk — though not irresponsibly so, of course. In the long run, kids and our culture will benefit more from fewer helicopter parents and educators. But freedom from the threat of harm is only one side of the equation. We ned to get clear on what the freedopm is for, as well. MAybe Canada ahs abetter grasp on that. We fill a lot of our school time with irrelavant fluff for fear of being intolerant.

      I think we agree on your second point also — and with Jay [GASP!] that the media plays a complicit role in futhering the divide rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue. I paint with a broad brush there, not meaning to include every individual. Such is the nature of media today that it’s all about ratings and short attention spans. Not exactly a recipe for cogent thinking. (Incredibly I seldom, if ever, watch any television. I find it to be an inefficient way to communicate, but that’s just me.) So we’re left with “debating” something as critical as our national debt, gun control, or constituional questions, for example, in trendy sound bytes. In that scenario, whoever can simplify their message best to achieve their goal wins.

      You’re free to question my coorelations. I do too. I’m simply pointing out trends that seem to be leading in the wrong direction. Wait until I share my thoughts on guns in schools. Jay will explode :).

      • Jennifer

        I agree that governments can “cross the line” of too much involvement at the cost of personal freedom, personal determination and ingenuity. There is definitely the risk of homogenizing society when the rules and regulations are set on a national scale without regard for differences in community. And when power is distanced from the people as it is when national government takes over from more local governments and communities, people are likely to feel more powerless to affect change. I worry that this feeling of powerlessness can not only cause fear – as most of us like to feel in control – but also learned helplessness and anger.

        Guns in schools!! This should be interesting 🙂

        On a different note….
        I will likely be turning my computers and other electronic devices off for a few days over Christmas. I want to wish everyone who celebrates it a very Merry Christmas. Everyone else has my wishes for good health, happiness and joyful things in the spirit of the Christmas season.

  • Jay Saldana

    I was rummaging today and ran across your reply… sooo….
    Bill, I did not say singles shot weapons I said semi automatic weapons that even an amateur can make automatic do not need to be in civilian hands. Just not necessary. They are human hunting/killing weapons and that is all they are good for. The same goes for ammo that is armour piercing and magazines which hold more than 10 bullets. Great in the hands of highly trained professionals for the use of taking down those who deserve it. Military style weapons belong in the militant professions not with civilians.
    I can’t respond to every military person out there but I can tell you that I have relatives who currently serve as special operators and my informal survey has found no one who agrees with your point of view and most are not liberal in any measurable way. I can certainly speak to my own experience and the few of us “ol’timers” still around and there is not a lot of support for military style weapons in the hands of civilians. I also have relatives and friends on a major city police force and they do not support your idea either. In fact, in this particular case, they are left of me.
    As for Os Guinness’s work “A Free People’s Suicide”, yes, I went and bought it a while back after I saw you (or maybe it was Pathos not sure now ) referenced it . Well done, like most of his works, excellent logic and perceptive point of view. Like your mentor Hugh Hewitt, he is a brilliant and capable proponent of his point of view. I have read many works of both men. I am not opposed to conservative thought and I have been inspired and enlightened on many occasions. I think the principal grounds for disagreement is that in many cases they start from a false premise. As you well know in that case, no matter how sweet the logic that follows it is still an erroneous conclusion.
    Now if you want to go point by point I sa’pose we could do that…LOL….
    As for guns in schools. As a country we already own most of the world’s weapons. It has done nothing but bring us more death by gun violence than any other country in history. More weapons in schools will not stop mass murder. It will only make the holder of those weapons a first target. There is no way a person/guard can be alert at the ready all the time which means the perpetrator will always have the advantage. Trained police did not stop the Virginia Tech murderer, although, in all honesty, we have better procedures now and that alone would limit the damage. The answer lies in a more holistic response to the problem. Banning certain types of weapons is useful but more than that is needed to make a difference. This is a long topic, maybe you should convene a dialogue going through all the topics to arrive at a comprehensive solution.
    I wish you a God filled year filled with an abundance of God’s grace to deal with your “fans”…