The Least They Can Do

I really, really wish I was spending my February break reading about history and teaching. Instead my Twitter feed and the front page of the NY Times are filled with stories about the ridiculous “idea” of arming teachers. Ironically, about two weeks ago I moved a lot of the political writers I follow to a “list” so I could check it when I want and not be bombarded with Trump news every time I opened Tweetdeck or Tweetbot. Now, both the historians and educators I follow are commenting on Trump’s lack of understanding of education, schools, and gun control.

A lot of people smarter than me have addressed gun violence and school shootings. I am thankful for the coverage from some of the non-political writers I follow – particularly John Gruber and the indafatigable Jason Kottke. I highly recommend reading them daily – they reward you with plenty of non-political writing and some of the most insightful commentary on the issues you should be paying attention to (but maybe not every day).

Now for me on this.

A few years ago I did a Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar. It was the most rewarding history professional development I’ve ever done. After a week-long class with an incredibly talented and respected professor (“Professor”), our last session involved him opening up the table to “anything we wanted to ask”. (I’m leaving Professor’s name out, because I’m paraphrasing years later and to my knowledge he has not written on this topic.)

One teacher asked a general question about his assessment of public education in America. Professor took a moment, gathered his thoughts, and explained (much clearer than I will here) that in his view all successful nation-states/empires/kingdoms had two qualities: a strong military and a strong bureaucracy. In the United States, we have done the strong military very well, but never had a very strong bureaucracy. Instead, our bureaucracy was established pretty late and has always been subjected to that uniquely American strategy of “outsourcing”.

According to Professor, the one strong, well-run bureaucracy we do have are the schools & teachers – they’re organized, they’re mobile, they’re large, and they can get stuff done. (Ignore the reformers waving their examples of lazy teachers & failing schools for a moment.) As a result, whenever the U.S. wants to address a domestic issue they have to rely on one of the two really strong institutions: the military or the schools. As a result, we continue to push responsibility for more and more issues onto teachers and schools beyond, you know, teaching. Meals. Social services. Counseling. Basic public health.

Once you see this you cannot unsee it. And it’s impossible not to see it in the NRA and Trump “proposal” to arm teachers.

The tone of this McSweeny’s piece from Kimberley Harrington is off this week (imagine that, McSweeny’s getting the tone wrong!), but the penultimate paragraph captures the situation well:

Just to wrap up, our country has chosen to shift all of the weight regarding your safety away from our lawmakers and gun manufacturers and instead put it squarely on the shoulders of your principal and teachers. These people who kneel down on the first day of school so they’re just as tall as you. These people who shake your hand and say, “Good morning!” and help you rehearse for the spring concert and take you on field trips to see different rock formations — they are now in charge of keeping you from getting murdered. Which really is the least they can do for all that money they make.

That is all. I’m going to go grab a big, heavy history book and try to avoid the headlines.


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