Next Monday, I will be starting the final unit of the semester with my General Ethics students. The unit is on gun violence. As if on cue, the latest school shooting happened yesterday in Santa Carita, California.
Part of the reading assignment for Monday is a short essay by Simone Gubler, who teaches at the University of Texas. She begins the essay by noting that in Texas, licensed gun owners are permitted to carry concealed weapons into the classroom. Another part of the reading assignment for next Monday is the following essay that I posted on this blog in February of 2018, two weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I wish that it wasn’t as timely as it clearly is.
As a proposed step in our continuing struggle to address gun violence in schools, President Trump has called for “highly trained” schoolteachers to carry guns in their classrooms. If they were armed, they could fire back immediately at school shooters like the young man with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle who took 17 lives in Parkland, Florida. Beyond that, the President tweeted, the knowledge that teachers have guns of their own would deter “the sicko” from heading to a school in the first place. “ATTACKS WOULD END!”
I am a teacher, so was not surprised to read almost immediately from various news sources comments like the following from fellow educators:
- It’s hard to begin to count the number of ways in which this is a bad idea.
- The day they ask me to carry a gun in the classroom is the last day I teach. Period. End of story.
- I’m trained how to teach students how to read, how to treat each other with kindness, and how to learn—not to attack somebody with a gun.
- And your solution is to arm teachers??? Are you fucking insane?? I’m a teacher, I teach children. I’ve been in the army, I’ve made the choice to no longer be a soldier, but a teacher!
Amen to that. On my Facebook page I simply posted the following:
I am a teacher. I know and am friends with dozens of teachers. Trust me, you do not want teachers with guns.
This brief post gathered more likes and comments—mostly from fellow teachers—than any Facebook message I have posted in several months. The unanimous consensus, not surprisingly, was that the very thought of arming teachers is ludicrous and a non-starter. The same sentiment was shared by the dozen or so colleagues whom I joined for a Friday afternoon beer at our on campus watering hole a couple of days ago. One colleagues reported that one of his students said that the possibility of his professor being armed would make him think twice about skipping class; we quickly lost count of all the reasons that arming teachers a bad idea.
Most of the push back in the media and elsewhere, understandably, has involved pointing out the dozens of practical problems that such a proposal would raise if anyone actually tried to put it into action. Who pays? Who trains? Where are the guns stored? What is the pay differential? Wouldn’t this money be better spent on badly needed supplies and resources that would actually help teachers? And so on. As befits a philosopher, I suppose, I’ll leave the practical problems for others to discuss. My own resistance has to do with the very nature of learning environments. The proposal to arm teachers, if enacted, would clearly reveal our society’s values and what we consider to be of primary importance. And the picture revealed is a very sad and ugly one.
The text for this upcoming week in one of my courses is Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road. In a post-apocalyptic world, an unnamed father and son wander through a close-to-dead landscape covered in ash, several years after an unnamed cataclysm (Nuclear holocaust? Meteor strike?) ended human civilization. The father and his son are hungry, close to starving, scrounging to find whatever sustenance they can as they wander south through the ash-covered former American southeast. The majority of human beings remaining have reverted to cannibalism in order to stay alive, something that the young boy, who has never known a world other than the nightmarish one he was born into, regularly talks about with his father.
We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No, of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we weren’t.
I said we weren’t dying. I didn’t say we weren’t starving.
But we wouldn’t. .
No. We wouldn’t.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire.
One of the many moral themes of the novel is “What are you willing to do to stay alive?” From deep within, the young boy recognizes that if there is any value to human life, it lies in a categorical rejection of fear-based behavior. There are some things that must not be done, even if one’s own survival is at stake.
Although the circumstances are obviously different, the national “conversation” about gun violence has reached a point that is comparable to the situation faced by the boy and his father in The Road. Throughout the novel, the boy regularly confirms with his father that they are some of the “good guys” who are “carrying the fire,” the “fire” essentially being the ember of decency and humanity left in a world that contains little of either. I can’t help but be reminded of one of the NRA’s favorite claims, a “truism” shared regularly by gun advocates on social media: “To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.” But what if, in order to preserve the very idea of “good guy,” we must identify what things “good guys” will not do, even out of fear, even when they believe their very survival is threatened?
I am a teacher, and I understand that my thoughts on guns in the classroom are anything but objective, but I believe that classrooms, the places in which human beings teach and learn, are sacred spaces—“sacred” not in the religious sense that many believe to be the only meaning of the word, but “sacred” because the classroom is where, if anywhere, we “carry the fire” and pass it from person to person, from generation to generation. It is one of the places where everyone, for a time, gets to be “the good guys” in a world in which the number of places where goodness can happen seems to be decreasing on a daily basis.
To argue that the challenges of gun violence are best met by introducing more guns into the equation, this time into the very environments in which we seek to fan the fire of knowledge and humanity into a brighter flame, to propose that the best solution to gun violence in schools is to arm teachers, is to say “we give up.” Or at least to say “we would rather sacrifice the sanctity of our most precious environments of goodness than seriously consider limiting our supposed freedom to do whatever the hell we want to do.”
Is there anything we will not do in order to create the appearance of greater safety? Is there no line beyond which we will not go, a line that marks “this far, but no further” in our attempts to define what “good guys” will and will not do? It may be that you, the reader, are willing to try anything in the pursuit of safety and security—except, of course, sensible and enforceable limitations on gun ownership. I am not. I recall Socrates’ response to his friend Crito as he explains why he will not escape from prison even though he can. “There is a difference, Crito, between living and living well.” There are, in other words, some lives that are not worth living. Similarly, there are some societies that I would rather not live in. A society with armed teachers is one of them.