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Sunday, December 16, 2012

What educators can do...not give up.

As Rutgers English professor Richard Miller points out in his probing book Writing at the End of the World (2005), whenever there is a heartbreaking atrocity like what happened in Newtown, educators ask ourselves whether schooling could have prevented it. Quite likely there is nothing, Miller considers, in our education curriculum--no reading assignments, quizzes, or essays--that could penetrate the heart of a deranged man and stop him from killing children.

"The dark night of the soul for literacy workers," Miller apprises, "comes with the realization that training students to read, write, and talk in more critical and self-reflective ways cannot protect them from the violent changes our culture is undergoing." In a methodological tribute to Cartesian skepticism, Miller proceeds to ask whether reading and writing matter at all in the 21st century.

I teach Miller in a writing class at Quinnipiac University, which is not far from Newtown, CT. We just finished writing about his question last week. And while Miller's skepticism ultimately gives way to a limited optimism, my students often can't stop wondering about the stories he tells of people who were led astray by words. The evanescent Chris McCandless, subject of the book and film Into the Wild, who followed the words of his nature guidebooks faithfully until ingesting poisonous seeds, is the image that lingers in their minds.

While books may have limited reach today, one historical document that stands as a counterexample to the waning power of textuality is of course the Bill of Rights. The "right to keep and bear Arms" is apparently so ingratiated into the American consciousness that even a President who championed health care reform and gays serving in the military punted on assault weapons ban legislation during debate season. As law professor Kenji Yoshino has recently pointed out, though, no constitutional right is absolute. You can't harass someone or lie about them publicly and hide behind the First Amendment.

And just as the digital world has posed new challenges for interpreting the freedom of speech, so too do new technologies beg for a new understanding of the Second Amendment. If I walk into a school armed with a radiological weapon, nobody would argue that my action was constitutionally protected. It's absurd. Nor could I "arm" myself with sarin gas. Again: bizarre to even imagine.

And yet, a killer breaks into a school with an automatic firearm, and we time and again collectively shake our heads and wonder what can be done. Why? I'm not a public policy expert. But one proposal, echoing Miller's angst, has to do with poor reading practices. We are the propagators of an oral tradition that lionizes the Constitution (note the ubiquitous capital "C" there) and its supposed "rights" without examining the linguistic context of the document, without understanding or caring just how drastically the word "arm," for instance, has changed over time. We can easily trace the evolution of other words referring to pre- and post-automation objects: "wagon" used to mean a horse-drawn carriage, now it means a kind of car, and so on. Similarly, "arm" used to mean a musket, a dubiously reliable weapon capable of firing a mere couple of rounds a minute. But since today's guns sort of look like the old guns, and since we still call them "arms," we do not generally acknowledge how terribly different, how drastically more lethal, these weapons are than those that were protected by the framers. They may look more like muskets but they act more like grenades...or worse.

To a schoolyard, an automatic firearm is a weapon of mass destruction. Yet we Americans have ingested a toxin in the guise of an uncritical, religious belief in archaic words on a parchment page--a belief so fervent it has lead us not into the Alaskan wilderness, but to the chasm of madness. Please, let's realize the lies we've told ourselves, let's push for tighter, more innovative firearm regulations, which many studies say work. Let's do so for the sake of my kindergartener, your kindergartener, for the sake of everything precious in this world.

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