In 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson, part Plato, part Ichabod Crane, attacked the “corpse cold rationalism” of conservative and liberal alike in his classic Harvard Divinity School address, declaring, as any good Transcendentalist would, that: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.” For Emerson, truth was not true until perceived from deep within.
“Not instruction, but provocation,” is a phrase that lies at the heart of genuine education. After some 42 years of making a run at that, I still believe that the classroom is sacred space where opinions collide, interpretations vary, and, pray God, learning prevails. From Socrates holding forth in the Agora to today’s Power-Point-assisted seminars, when such intellectual provocation prevails, there is nothing like it, nothing in this world.
Unless, of course, students and/or faculty are packing a piece, utilizing “campus carry” laws that bring guns to class, “concealed” in pockets, purses, briefcases or backpacks. When guns show up for class, provocation takes on a whole new meaning. Learning itself is dangerous and transformative, but it should never be life-threatening. Campus carry scares the Holy Socrates out of me; it really does.
When this century began (the year of our Lord 2000), there were no laws that permitted firearms on university/college campuses. As of spring 2017, 11 states now offer such legal possibilities, including Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Ohio and Wisconsin. Tennessee lets faculty, but not students, arm themselves. (Hopefully faculty meetings are firearm free!)
Sixteen states ban concealed weapons at universities: California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming. (The North Carolina legislature is working hard to arm college students, but they can’t get beyond court-rejected, racial-discriminating voting and gerrymandering laws.) Twenty-two states leave the decision of on-campus weapons to the discretion of specific educational institutions.
The increase in campus carry options were significantly impacted by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which a senior student gunned down 32 students and wounded 17 in a horrendous killing spree. Many insisted that the gunman might have been stopped had students and faculty been sufficiently armed. The shooting prompted schools to tighten lockdown policies, increasing campus police, and expanding electronic alert warnings. Campus lockdowns are no longer uncommon in schools across the country. Better safe than sorry.
In spite of cloistered quads and ivy-covered surroundings, American schools of higher education have never been immune from the social realities of their national and regional cultures. Alcohol excesses and burgeoning opioid epidemics continue to wreak havoc, often with violent implications. Sexual abuses take heavy tolls on state, private and, yes, Christian schools alike. Hostile ideological and political divides all too often lead to physical threats and attacks against faculty or students at institutions left and right of center. Will concealed weapons save us or merely deepen the danger to life and limb? Is our society itself so broken, so brutal, and intellectual provocation so volatile, that firearms are a necessary defense?
Advocates insist that the society is indeed so violence-laden that citizens must arm themselves in every setting. Some suggest that increasing sexual violence is sufficient reason for females to take up arms. Others demand that Second Amendment rights be applied in every segment of society, colleges included. I fret over implied threats and symbolic implications. Does the syllabus declare: Don’t shoot! You’re all getting A’s?
What if campus carry is simply the most dangerous of an unceasing set of classroom distractions, existing alongside tweets, texts, Google, Wikipedia and Facebook, diversions that thwart both instruction and provocation, disengaging students from ideas that might form or re-form them? Whatever else the vulnerability of learning means perhaps it is this: try as we might to protect ourselves externally and internally, we can never insulate ourselves enough to escape the insolent idea, the banal diatribe, the suicidal bomber, or the AK-47 crazy.
For years, I’ve thought (but never said aloud) that teaching means getting intellectually naked in front of a group of people for the sake of ideas, and hoping they gasp at the ideas and not the teacher’s conceptual vulnerability. Firearms that protect may also become weapons that sidetrack from what learning can and should be — the great mystery of vulnerability to ideas and each other.
In Telling the Truth, the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, & Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner tells about a high school class that “had gone better than usual” the day they studied King Lear. Buechner concludes: “The word out of the play strips them for a moment naked and strips their teacher with them and to that extent Shakespeare turns preacher because stripping us naked is part of what preaching is all about, the tragic part.” In my academic experience, provocation and spirituality are intricately related.
So please don’t come to my classes, lectures or workshops armed for anything but learning. Leave your guns outside, please. Go ahead, make my day.