The following originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, a heated debate has developed about gun control. The shock and suffering in the fallout from the tragedy have prompted urgent calls for a corrective to prevent such pain from rupturing another community. More restrictive gun laws are an obvious starting point. Such reform represents a tangible response to a pervasive sense of helplessness.
Wayne LaPierre, president of the NRA, offered a simplistic rebuttal to the outcry for gun control laws stating that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun;” hence, his proposal to put armed guards in all schools. Others who oppose gun control even suggest arming teachers so they can, presumably, engage armed assailants and win gun battles should they break out in their schools. Of course, we all would have wanted Dawn Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook, to win such an imaginary battle so that victory and power would be aligned with the good, defeat and weakness with the bad. Innocence preserved, evil put in its place. In such an imaginary scene, teachers would have mastered firearms in addition to math, literature and science. They would change their roles to become like first responders, whom we have come to revere as paragons of strength and courage. In this imaginary narrative, the problem with LaPierre’s remarks is evident in the expectation that teachers adapt to the prevailing paradigm of gun violence.
Instinctively, they already did. We know from gut-wrenching accounts of that day that teachers heroically inserted themselves between bullets and their students while their colleagues huddled with other students and read to them.
Even under such duress, it may have seemed natural for the teachers to read stories. They needed a way to capture the imaginations of their children to avoid widespread panic. Capturing and fostering the imagination of students is a large part of what teachers do every day. And it is through the imagination that children come to see what is possible and develop the power to understand, interpret and make sense of their expanding worlds. The categories of good and bad, love and hate, right and wrong, beauty and decay are established through narratives that shape the imagination. We trust that the stories heard in elementary school provide students with the moral basis to form a healthy sense of self and a secure place in the world.
There is, however, incongruence between the stories we imagine being read to our school children and the prevailing storylines of our culture. There were 8,583 murders by guns last year, just under 100,000 in the past decade and more than 100 in the week following Sandy Hook. More effective gun laws would help, but we have a much larger task at hand if we are serious about violence in our culture. Wayne LaPierre wasn’t completely wrong. The storytellers of our culture adversely affect the imagination of our people. And if gun violence is to be reversed, we need to alter our cultural consciousness. The cultivation of imagination through stories does not and cannot end in elementary school. Consciousness is shaped throughout our lives by the stories we are exposed to and engage with. The prevailing storyline of our country is and remains a violent one, driven by the limited imaginations of those in power who control the storyline.
Rather than a call to arms, we need a call to voices. Parents, teachers and all adults who have cultivated a countervailing imagination to the status quo need to have a voice in our cultural conversations. Too often, the literate and literary are forced to compromise their place in the public discourse in reaction to catastrophes like Sandy Hook. With all due respect to first responders, it is time to elevate the teachers, the thinkers and the artists to hero status for shaping healthy imaginations. Our models of excellence need to be more than images of one-dimensional power if we are to begin the seismic shift of cultural consciousness our society needs.
These countervailing voices should emanate from the students and thinkers at institutions of higher learning. For democratic society to flourish, a college education must do more than develop skills for the workforce. It needs to shape imaginations with stories of history, literature, science, art and models of excellence committed to the common good. Institutions of higher learning need to understand that the importance of story does not end in elementary school. If we are to address the roots of violence in our culture, we might follow the example of the heroic teachers who survived Sandy Hook as well as those who perished.