June 1, 2022
Sickened by the mass shooting, disgusted by a lack of political leadership, and fearful for my students and for my own young children, I hammered out a written editorial in which I implored the President of the United States to lead meaningful legislative action to interrupt the disgraceful pattern of American gun violence. I shared the letter with my grade-team colleagues during our morning meeting, and among those trusted friends I was reminded that while the news felt overwhelmingly grim, the future, in the hands of students who could rise to the challenges of the times, was at least a bit brighter.
That was ten years ago. Since then, many tens of millions of firearms have been added to the nation’s private arsenal, and scores of mass shootings have bloated the ledger of an American disgrace. And in that time, I have come to see that progress on our nation’s most intractable challenges—gun violence among them—will remain elusive until we collectively find the courage, patience, and curiosity to engage with those with whom we vehemently disagree because at present we are utterly incapacitated by political polarization.
For now, teachers are in the acute phase of managing tragedy, a drill that has become dishearteningly familiar: practice lockdowns; assure children of their immediate safety; watch for signs of emotional distress and consult experts and resources for further guidance. Eventually, when those immediate needs have eased, though, I hope we will take stock of what this tragedy—and the ones that lie ahead—tell us about society’s requirements for our students.
Within hours of the shooting in Texas, progressives had called for gun control measures, while conservatives admonished Democrats to lay off the “political talk” out of respect for the deceased. In turn, Democrats accused Republicans of pandering to the gun lobby. We know where this leads because we have rehearsed it dozens of times: to the next mass shooting. My personal opinion is that the Second Amendment is anachronistic and ripe for modification. Many readers, I’m sure, would agree. But this is a pipe dream. It will not happen. So where does that leave us? What to do with the grief of another tragedy and the frustration of anticipating the next one? The only solution I can envision is to help our students develop the strength to own their convictions—to seek gun reform, perhaps—while simultaneously learning from those who hold apparently contradictory convictions, because progress on these issues requires cross-cutting conversation and across-the-aisle solutions.
In part, that journey will require our students to be more charitable in their assessment of what motivates the “other” than we adults have been. Research shows that we tend to believe love motivates those of our own group, while hatred drives our opponents. That motivational asymmetry is evident in the national discourse this week, with prominent Democrats asserting that the pursuit of money and power explains conservatives’ stance on guns. In turn, conservatives are quick to equate the Democratic push for gun reform in moments of tragedy to an opportunistic push for a broader liberal agenda.
What if people—our students, someday—approached the conversation assuming good intentions? How might that change the tenor of the discussion and its ultimate outcome? What if our students grew into left-leaning citizens who believed that the root of conservatives’ stance on gun rights is grounded in reverence for the Constitution and the rights it affords? What common ground might that open up? What if other students grew into right-leaning citizens who assumed that gun-control efforts spring from a desperate yearning to protect the right to life? Could a productive conversation follow? We know there is common ground on the matter of firearms, with a strong majority of US citizens supporting basic checks on access to guns. Those who have worked in the realm of violence prevention also know that simple turns of phrase can make the difference between opening and closing a door to a conversation on the matter. “Gun control,” for example, triggers an immediate, non-negotiable response among many conservatives who link the term to a broader, intolerable agenda. “Gun safety,” in contrast, leaves open the door to discussion.
How would students develop the linguistic savvy to pursue productive conversations across lines of disagreement? How might they muster curiosity about the ideological and political “other?” How could they come to believe that some of the solutions to our problems require engaging with people who hold contradictory viewpoints? Students will arrive at this point when we, their teachers, lead them to it—when we, ourselves, reach across lines of disagreement among other adults, when we expose kids to people with whom they disagree, and when we show students how to have respectful conversations across lines of the divide.
Many educators feel a great deal of pain and anguish at this moment. For some, the prospect of engaging across lines of such a sharp divide—and of asking our students to do so—will feel counterintuitive or perhaps even distasteful. But we need to face the fact that our country is imperiled by polarization and that, given our inability to collectively make progress on the great problems we face, we need to consider new approaches. For us educators, this suggests that we must help students develop the skills and dispositions to work across lines of divide and disagreement in the pursuit of a safer, more fulfilling, more hopeful future. May the depth of our sadness at this moment evoke the magnitude of our challenges and inspire us to pursue the solutions demanded of our times.