There is something uniquely awful about children getting gunned down. But in terms of school security, the good news is that we are still free enough to use existing laws and institutions to experiment in states and local communities, in government and private schools, to see what works…

One principle that should unite all serious conservatives is that the institutional life of republican societies is too important to leave to the tinkering of ideologues. Churches, families, neighborhoods and villages, and most voluntary associations are best left to the hand of God, or at least to the often messy workings of his natural order. The school in self-governing polities is an extension of the family, often administered by the church or the neighborhood, more recently becoming the ward of the state—and therein lies the crisis we face today, or at least the debate about that crisis.

Schools in the United States were once a means for the cult to make sure that its common memory, certain basic skills for the exercise of citizenship, and a tribal appreciation for its principles of social life were passed on to the next generation. Thus, the culture was preserved, more or less, and very gradually the schools themselves (including the buildings) became symbols and containers of that culture. Just as county courthouses had by the 1830s come to represent Temples of the Republic, the Constitution and the Rule of Law having been adopted fully into the civil religion, by the end of World War II the government schools were established as the Academy of Democracy. The words carved in stone over the two main entrances to the “high” school in Hillsdale, Michigan (built in the 1920s and still used as the “middle” school) are “Enter to Learn,” and “Go Forth to Serve.”

By 1945 or so, as the imperial responsibilities of the republic were thrust upon a victorious nation, the opportunities created by the greatest prosperity known by any people in all of human history made it possible for Americans to imagine fulfilling the progressive dreams of democracy and equality, guided largely by science and technology—and the schools. It has been a great privilege (and curse) of this writer’s life to have entered the school system in 1945 and the teaching profession in 1962; to have spent much of the revolutionary 1960s in graduate school; and to have taught 12,500 students in public, private, and religious institutions of “higher learning” for the rest of the century and beyond. He has witnessed the following remarkable changes, presented here as historical realities and not on the basis of their merits or lack thereof.

  • The transfer of initiative in American education from the culture to politics.
  • The gradual transfer of educational authority from local and state to national; and from private (families, churches, voluntary associations) to public.
  • The vast expansion of the educational enterprise to reach all citizens (and in many cases, non-citizens) and to embrace social engineering projects based on progressive ideals of equality and democracy.
  • The complete reorganization of educational infrastructure to accomplish the new and expanded educational goals, including but not limited to the creation of a teaching profession and educational bureaucracy, the adoption of corporate and other collective (such as unions) models of organization, and the emergence of an educational architecture that is both symbol of and obstacle to the new infrastructure.

This last point might serve as a transition from history lesson to policy issue. Educational institutions have moved from cloister to campus. Literally, the spaces set aside for educational purposes have morphed from small, intimate, and often quaint places like monasteries and simple one-room buildings to campus-fields, large enclosures like industrial parks, or mysterious monsters such as the Apple “campus,” disconnected in many ways from the families, churches, villages and voluntary associations that created them. What we started calling “multiversities” in the 1960s are now often vast cities with traffic problems, police forces, sports palaces, residential neighborhoods, hospitals, military research functions, and buildings dedicated to training up candidates for every conceivable human activity. How does one distinguish a building designed for philosophical contemplation from one to produce supply-chain managers? Princeton once built dormitories that emphasized conversation spaces and discreet, quiet study; it is now not unusual for students of several (defined) genders to be housed in many-storied monstrosities named after distinctly non-educational activities and arranged to be sectioned off in case of student rebellions rather than student learning. This author spent much of his professorial career in a building named after a cereal producer, so arranged that the vast majority of students and staff were required several times daily to walk back and forth in a hallway about ten feet across, on one side of which there were “pods” of mostly windowless offices (five to a bay) and the other, sterile square classrooms that were climate-controlled to be either saunas or ice houses because of faulty engineering. It violated every rule of pedagogy; it was so removed from the old image of the teacher on one end of a log and pupil on the other, that the professor offered in the first faculty meeting after its opening to drive the bulldozer that demolished it. Thanks to good grace and a poetic spirit, several decades later the president of the college where he taught gave him that opportunity.

Such stories of pedagogical horror (and justice) aside, even the architecture of schools has separated them from their traditional functions as well as from the institutions they were meant to serve and enrich. Good “signage” aside, it is often impossible to tell from the highway whether a building is an elementary school or an insurance company; whether a building cluster is indeed a community college or a hospital—or, absent a certain kind of fence, a prison. One can assume, that if a building looks like it has a religious function, it is not a school. And one can also assume, that the greater degree of safety and security that surrounds a building or a campus, the less likely it is to be a school.

We have assumed the safety of our children (loosely defined, ages 5-25) in schools for mostly traditional reasons. Precisely because education is so deeply woven into the fabric of our little platoons we have wanted to think of schools as naturally secure zones. After all, even gangsters love their children! There is almost no money sitting around schoolhouses, so who wants to rob them? Doesn’t harming children guarantee universal condemnation and swift retribution? What is to be gained in terms of power, wealth, influence—any category for which violence is often employed—by destruction of schools and their students and teachers? Thinking in commonsensical and traditional terms, it makes no sense for schools to become battlegrounds. Except that they are. Except that all the traditional institutions have become victims of progressive ideology and social engineering, and they no longer function as the protectors of culture and social order. Except that as you drive around and look at schools, and talk with their inhabitants, and read about their troubles, and consider the remedies our ruling classes put forward to make things better, reality intrudes.

Consider the following (without placing blame even on committed progressive ideologues), as objective realities that do not require statistics to know that they are true.

  • Families no longer have much to say about discipline, curriculum, hiring practices, standards of dress and behavior, or, in some cases, drugs that may be administered and “counseling” services that are provided to their children. In large part, this has to do with the fact that functioning families are in the minority in many areas of the country.
  • Churches and religion (and therefore the moral education they usually try to provide) are almost entirely banned from schools, except in private schools that refuse government money—a tiny number.
  • Almost all schools built since the 1960s have been positioned without regard to the proximity of residential neighborhoods or their potential for integration into the normal functioning of community life. Except for sports, there is little connection between school and community. This is often related to the reality of urban and suburban sprawl, and to the astonishing mobility of the American population.
  • Those who conduct education, teachers and administrators especially, but in many cases those who provide maintenance and transportation, have gradually become employees whose training, standards of professional conduct, and loyalties (the people and rules to which they are responsible) reside not in the schools but in universities, unions, government bureaucracies, and private corporations.
  • The ruling elites who have effected most of these changes have been overwhelmingly of a progressive cast of mind that favors change, social engineering, secularization, efficiency and diversity above all traditional communal arrangements.

The result is educational cultural chaos that will take much time and patience to correct.

In the meantime, we can address the need to make schools safe for learning. Relative security from the physical effects of cultural warfare is possible, but only if we are willing to admit to the conservative principle that as in all things, order is the first need of all. Order is best achieved through cultural consensus, but in the absence of consensus, or even the willingness to seek it through patient discernment, it may help to apply a conserving principle using a practical American idea: whatever works.

It is not necessary here to debate human nature as it relates to guns, or to point out that even progressives seem little bothered by the potential for destruction of fantastic killing gadgets as they are portrayed in such fantasies as Star Wars or wielded by Captain Kirk. Future-oriented progressives (meaning, most of them) apparently think that someday weapons can be restricted to the hands of good people or the ruling elite. Right now, and since probably the 1960s, what bothers liberals about weapons—guns in particular—is that they are often in the possession of deplorables who also hold Bibles in their other hands and of savages who populate inner cities or the dangerous towns and culverts of flyover country. The truth is this, that there are about as many guns as people in the present United States; they are enormously useful, fun, and popular; and nobody has been able to show that they are any more dangerous than a whole array of other tools. Automobiles, knives, hammers, and syringes all kill more Americans every year than guns do.

Big questions aside, we are a gun culture, and while sensible suppression of their bad uses probably should be on our minds, we would do well to be more concerned with getting more good than harm out of them. “Experience must be our only guide,” John Dickinson once said about constitution-making. “Reason may mislead us.” No matter the good intentions of reasonable gun control progressives, experience shows us that we can no more control guns in a literal sense than we can control alcohol (we are also an alcohol culture) or, for that matter, sugar, hammers, or the distribution of money. To those progressives who insist that they can devise laws to ban or restrict severely such things, we must say (paraphrasing the late Stan Evans), “We wish you well—just don’t make it compulsory.” There are also the wise words (perhaps apocryphal) of the Arkansas judge to an offensive lawyer: “You should never try to teach a pig to sing. It can’t be done, and it annoys the pig.”

Ideologues, religious fanatics, lunatics, and evil people have caused havoc in a few schools in the past couple of decades. Although the death toll nowhere approaches that of opioid overdoses, there is something uniquely awful about children getting gunned down. Forgetting for a moment that the citizens who are most exercised about banning guns as a solution to school shootings are often the ones who are most adamant in allowing the slaughter of an even more vulnerable population, the unborn, there is clearly a consensus in our polity in favor of taking some kind of vigorous action to keep children safe in schools.

President Trump has caused distress in progressive circles by calling for the use of guns to prevent school violence. Although most of the media shorthands his idea as “arm the teachers,” a more constructive slogan might be, “keep children safe—use guns for good.” America has millions of people who have been taught the responsible use of guns. It would not be a daunting task to convert this pool of talent and good citizenship into the main deterrence against school terror. It would be too simple, and a bad idea, to suggest diverting law enforcement officers to the task. It would be even more irresponsible to put the burden on men and women who have already accepted the very difficult calling of teacher. But it may be possible to think about an addition to the school professions, “Educational Security Officer,” or some such name. Some teachers might accept the challenge—not many, we should hope. Some people who are currently administrators or “para-professionals” are likely candidates. A large number of military veterans would perhaps be attracted to such a noble task, already having a background of discipline, weapons-training, and patriotism. Many of us who live outside the Beltway know that this is one area of potential competence that our country does not lack.

The good news is that school security is not so great a national crisis as to require a national “School Safety Czar” of national legislation to prove that our “War for Safety” is serious. We are still free enough to use existing laws and institutions to experiment in states and local communities, in government and private schools, to see what works. We could even enlist retired educators to do research, promotion, evaluation. At “thirty and out” there are hundreds of thousands of educators who may be burned out from the daily classroom grind but who are still deeply invested in improving the educational enterprise. This is almost uniquely one of those issues that is both national in scope and profoundly local in its implications, and is suited to give us an idea of whether the federal system still works. And rooted in reality, and not condemned to failure by progressive ideological fantasies.

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