A Society with Armed School Teachers and “Hardened Schools”: What Can Trump Be Thinking?

At the end of last week President Donald Trump prescribed a solution for tragic school shootings like the one in Florida on Valentines Day.  Arm school teachers.

NPR broadcast what he said: “We have to harden our schools, not soften them. A gun-free zone to a killer or somebody who wants to be a killer, that’s like going in for the ice cream. That’s like ‘here I am, take me.’  We have to get smart on gun-free zones.  When they see ‘this is a gun-free zone,’ that means that nobody has a gun except them, nobody’s going to be shooting bullets in the other direction. And they see that, it’s such a beautiful target. They live for gun free zones.  Now what I’d recommend doing is the people that do carry, we give them a bonus, we give them a little bit of a bonus, because frankly they’d feel more comfortable having the gun anyway, you give them a little bit of a bonus, so practically for free you’ve now made the school into a hardened target… You want a hardened school, and I want a hardened school, too.”

In the Washington Post, James Hohmann juxtaposed the President’s and Wayne LaPierre’s words to demonstrate that a lot of Trump’s ideas came directly from a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, (CPAC) earlier in the day by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association:

“‘Our banks [are] more protected than our children at school,’ said LaPierre. ‘I want my schools protected just like I want my banks protected,’ said Trump.

La Pierre said ‘gun-free zones’ are ‘wide-open targets for any crazy madman bent on evil.’ Trump said ‘a gun-free zone to a killer or somebody who wants to be a killer [is] like going in for the ice cream’ because, ‘when they see this is a gun-free zone,’ that means that nobody has a gun except them, nobody’s going to be shooting bullets in the other direction.

The NRA chief spoke of  ‘hardening’ schools.  ‘God help us if we do not harden our schools,’ LaPierre said.  ‘Schools must be the most hardened targets in this country.’ ‘We have to harden our schools, not soften them,’ Trump said a little later. ‘You want a hardened school, and I want a hardened school too.'”

Few people besides Trump and LaPierre seem to think arming teachers is a good idea.  Lots of teachers have explained why they believe teachers carrying guns would make public schools more dangerous and they and others have described all sorts of concerns that arming teachers poses for possible violations of students’ civil rights.  Disagreement with Trump’s crazy idea is so widespread that for the first time I’ve ever heard, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and his former arch-enemy in the NY City Council and now New York’s charter school czar, Eva Moskowitz emphatically agreed.  Mayor de Blasio declared: “I suspect the president doesn’t know anything about public schools.  There’s nothing more terrifying than the notion of putting more guns in our children’s schools. The last thing I want to see is more guns in our schools.” Here is Eva Moskowitz: “Having teachers running around schools with loaded guns in close proximity to students may be the dumbest idea I’ve heard in my entire career in education.”

I have been trying to analyze the depth of my own distress about Trump’s suggestion, because while I’m sort of getting used to bizarre tweets and weird statements coming out of the White House these days, this one seemed like a new low.  And yet, the people at CPAC cheered these ideas.

Paul Krugman’s NY Times column helped me put Trump’s response to the Florida tragedy in a broader context—clarifying that this is also about something beyond guns and the NRA: “Trump’s horrible idea, taken straight from the N.R.A. playbook, was deeply revealing—and the revelation goes beyond issues of gun control.  What’s going on in America right now isn’t just a culture war.  It is, on the part of much of today’s right, a war on the very concept of community, of a society that uses the institution we call government to offer certain basic protections to all its members… No other advanced nation experiences frequent massacres the way we do. Why? Because they impose background checks for prospective gun owners, limit the prevalence of guns in general and ban assault weapons that allow a killer to shoot dozens of people before he (it’s always a he) can be taken down.  And yes, these regulations work.” (Emphasis mine.)

Krugman echoes the analysis of political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in a recent book written to define the appropriate role of government: “It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion.  Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community.  To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends…. Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

In last week’s column, Krugman correctly links President Trump’s crazy idea about arming school teachers with other trends in the United States, including the failure of many states to set safe speed limits and the privatization of programs that can be universally and most effectively provided as the public responsibility of government: “What I’d argue is that our lethal inaction on guns, but also on cars, reflects the same spirit that’s causing us to neglect infrastructure and privatize prisons, the spirit that wants to dismantle public education and turn Medicare into a voucher system rather than a guarantee of essential care. For whatever reason, there’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.”

In The Good Society, Robert Bellah and colleagues trace the idea of individualism back primarily to the seventeenth century political philosopher John Locke, whose thinking looked away from rule by an absolutist monarch and idealized individuals who agree to buy into a social contract.  Bellah writes: “The founders of our republic imagined that the civilizing tasks of creating a democratic society and opening up unheard-of economic opportunities could go hand in hand.”  But Locke’s theories, which strongly influenced the founders writing the Declaration of Independence, can be be read to affirm the social contract’s protection of our freedom or to emphasize personal liberty itself: “It is possible to interpret the fundamental commitments contained in the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal, they are endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—in either way.” (The Good Society, pp. 86-87)  Today there is a strong pull against emphasis on the social contract in American society and toward “liberty” defined as the rights of the individual—with this mantra: “Don’t tread on me.”

Krugman instead traces Trump’s newest idea that we ought to arm school teachers back to that other seventeenth century social thinker—the more pessimistic Thomas Hobbes.  Here is Krugman: “In short, you might want to think of our madness over guns as just one aspect of the drive to turn us into what Thomas Hobbes described long ago: a society ‘wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them.’ And Hobbes famously told us what life in such a society is like: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'”

I am not sure Trump’s idea about arming teachers really harks back to any debates by political philosophers, however.  Trump’s idea probably derives from a far more recent source: the myth portrayed day after day in the cowboy movies he watched after school on TV in his youth or at the Saturday movie. Isn’t his armed teacher “solution” really just a fantasy about a Lone Ranger with a six shooter standing up to the madman with a semi-automatic rifle?

How pitiful is this as a serious proposal for what is becoming a recurrent tragedy in today’s increasingly unregulated, individualistic America? And what does it mean that the President seems compelled to pander to the N.R.A. when all the polls show that the vast majority of us want responsible gun control?

“Lift from the Bottom”—not “Race to the Top”— Is the Moral Imperative

Four years ago I listened as the Rev. Jesse Jackson defined what is wrong with today’s policies that shape the public schools.  His formulation was so pithy and so perfectly pointed at the real problem that I will never forget it.  Here is what he said: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Our deepest problem in public education is not really about some kind of technical solution to a teaching problem. Neither is it primarily a governance problem relating to elected or mayoral-appointed school boards. Neither is it about the advisability or use or administration of standards and tests, though that (very real and problematic) subject is dominating the press right now.  Our great dilemma these days is one of public morality—how we think about ourselves in community—the degree to which we care for one another—whether we address that concern in the public institutions that  serve the whole community not just individuals one at a time.  “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Blogger and Pennsylvania school teacher Peter Greene captures this reality in a recent and very prophetic blog post: “Charter fans brag about their successes.  They tell the starfish story.  They will occasionally own that their successes are, in fact, about selecting out the strivers, the winners… and allowing them to rise.  And it is no small thing that many students have had an opportunity to rise in a charter setting… Those students are able to rise because the school, like the pilot of a hot air balloon, has shed the ballast, the extra weight that is holding them down. It’s left behind, abandoned.  There’s no plan to go back for it, rescue it somehow.  Just cut it loose.  Let it go.  Out of sight, out of mind.  We dump those students in a public school, but we take the supplies, the resources, the money, and send it on with the students we’ve decided are Worth Saving… This is a societal model based on discarding people.  This is a school model based on discarding students… I repeat: It is no small thing that some students are carried aloft, lifted high among the clouds in that basket of high achievement. But I keep thinking of the ballast.”

The notion of “lifting from the bottom” has historically been at the heart of America’s understanding of public education.  In 1899, philosopher John Dewey declared, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” (The School and Society, p. 1)  Public education has been central to our definition of public responsibility.  We have believed that we are all responsible for the children who are the future citizens and leaders of our democracy—everybody.

That the idea of “race to the top” seems to have replaced the ideal of “lift from the bottom” says something about our culture’s current love affair with individualism and competition. We admire the individuals who win the race, but we don’t worry so much about everybody else. In a piece last week, the Rev. John Thomas, the former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, describes The Shrinking Public: “One of our great national stories is the flowering of public institutions—public libraries, public parks, public schools, public services, public highways, public office, public transportation, public universities, public health agencies…. Yet today that public is shrinking… Privately operated charter schools replacing closed public schools.  Tax credits for private donations to private schools, financed by public dollars.  Reduced staffing and hours at public libraries.  Rentals of public parks for the exclusive galas of private individuals.  Decaying public infrastructure, especially for public transportation.  Toll roads sold to private enterprises.  Slashed funding for public universities and, in places like Wisconsin, attempts to transform the intellectual underpinnings of higher education with the pinched goal of merely serving the employment needs of private business… Today’s wars are being fought not by a public army but by private contractors like the infamous Blackwater Corporation.  And as is obscenely apparent across the political spectrum, political campaigns for public office are being financed by an elite group of extremely wealthy private donors who will expect winners to serve their narrow private interests.”

Edwardo Porter, writing for the NY Times, describes the consequences of the substitution of an ethos of “racing to the top” for an ethic of “lifting up the bottom”: “Three or four decades ago, the United States was the most prosperous country on earth.  It had the mightiest military and the most advanced technologies known to humanity.  Today, it’s still the richest, strongest and most inventive.  But when it comes to the health, well-being and shared prosperity of its people, the United States has fallen far behind… (B)laming globalization and technological progress for the stagnation of the middle class and the precipitous decline in our collective health is too easy.  Jobs were lost and wages got stuck in many developed countries.  What set the United States apart—what made the damage inflicted upon American society so intense—was the nature of its response.  Government support for Americans in the bottom half turned out to be too meager to hold society together… Call it a failure of solidarity.  The conservative narrative of America’s social downfall, articulated by the likes of Charles Murray… posits that a large welfare state, built from the time of the New Deal in the 1030s through the era of the Great Society in the 1960s, sapped Americans’ industriousness and undermined their moral fiber.  A more compelling explanation is that when globalization struck at the jobs on which 20th-century America had built its middle class, the United States discovered that it did not, in fact, have much of a welfare state to speak of…  Call it a failure of solidarity.”

Porter cites statistics that demonstrate where our ethos of “racing to the top” has taken us.  Life expectancy has fallen for newborn girls to the degree that the U.S. now ranks 29th of 34 industrialized nations.  U.S. infant mortality continues to rise.  And in the area of public education, Porter presents the research of Stanford sociologist, Sean Reardon that, “the achievement gap between rich and poor children seems to have been steadily expanding for the last 50 years.”