New Visions for Public Schools

Guest blogger: Making Sense of a Senseless Killing

Safety in a free, democratic society can never be premised on the presence of armed security agents alone. If that's what it took to be safe our lives would be in greater peril than they are now.

Instead, our safety is based on what John Locke referred to as the social contract - the implicit understanding that in exchange for living with order and safety we give up some degree of freedom, the "freedom" to act on impulses that might cause harm to others.

For the most part it works. Most of us are able to go about our normal lives without worrying if we will be attacked while walking the streets, shopping at a store, watching a movie or going to school.

The shooting in Newtown, CT serves as clear indication that our social contract is breaking down. That is because despite how horrific last week's shooting was, it was not an isolated incident.  As recently as December 10th there were shootings by yet another armed assailant at a shopping mall in Portland.  Before that, there were the shootings over the summer at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, before that the shootings at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin.  The list goes on and on.

We can no longer see these acts of mayhem as aberrations, nor can we simply explain them away as acts perpetrated by deranged men who had easy access to weapons.  Of course, part of that is true. In each case, deranged gunmen with easy access to assault rifles decided to take innocent lives.

But those who think that we can solve this problem through additional security and even more restrictive gun control alone are fooling themselves.

We absolutely need gun control, background checks and serious restrictions on the sale of military assault weapons.  Such measures should have been in place long ago.  But even such measures are enacted we must confront the fact that we live in a violent society. 

What is most disconcerting about these mass shootings is that they are a clear sign that the bonds that should prevent individuals from harming one another have deteriorated.  The guns used in the Newtown killings were purchased legally by the killer's mother, and undoubtedly someone who is determined to harm others will find a way to obtain the weapons.  If all we do to seek solutions to the threat of violence is adopt increased security and gun control measures we may actually lull ourselves into thinking we have actually done something to address the problem while being no closer than we were before to resuscitating what is most essential to our collective safety.

We have become more atomized and fragmented as a society.  Alienation is growing and the social bonds that give our lives meaning (family, community, religion, etc.) are weakening and waning.  As this occurs we find ourselves at greater risk of violence.

Each of the assailants in these mass shootings was described as a loner.  Why is that important?  Because we are social beings.  We need contact with others to sustain ourselves and to remind us of what it means to be human.

Schools are in some ways the most important social institutions in our society for teaching children what it means to be a member of society.  Unlike families, social clubs and churches, which also play important roles in socializing us, public schools accept all children, regardless of background or need.  Our schools teach our children how to work with others, how to respect the rules and how to get along.  While some of what is learned may be problematic, schools nonetheless play a vital role in a society as diverse and complex as ours.

That is why when our schools are attacked and when the safety of children cannot be taken for granted, it is devastating to the social trust that is essential for holding our society together.  Schools should be sanctuaries for learning, places where safety is assured.

We must find ways to strengthen our bonds, to increase our connections to each other, to embrace the alienated and to care for the mentally ill.

Our schools must lead the way in carrying out this work, just as they did over a century ago when we struggled to integrate millions of new immigrants from Europe who came to this country with different cultures and speaking foreign languages.  We turned to our schools when our society finally came to the realization that legalized Apartheid was morally reprehensible and had to cease. We must turn to our schools once again as we seek to find a way to restore and revitalize the bonds that should hold us together.

There is safety in numbers, in community, in solidarity and in affirming our mutual dependence.

The President and Congress must act now to restrict access to guns, especially assault weapons, but each of us must also exercise leadership where we live and work to increase the strength of our communities and the bonds that hold us together.

Schools remain a vital resource in this effort but they cannot do it alone.

Pedro Noguera, a sociologist, is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Humam Development. He is also executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education.

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