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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A Teacher’s Dissent on “March for Our Lives”

Are student walkouts a sign of critical thinking or political manipulation?

There are no words to repair the tragic loss of innocent lives. In the wake of the Parkland massacre, parents are left bereaved and outraged, continuing to fear for children’s safety. As an elementary school teacher, parents entrust their children to me on a daily basis. There is nothing I take more seriously than my duty to protect the children I work with. I can’t imagine the sadness and anger those affected by the Parkland shooting must be experiencing. No child, parent, or teacher should ever have to experience such horror and pain.

From #ENOUGH, to last weekend’s March for Our Lives, and an upcoming National School Walkout commemorating those killed at Columbine 19 years ago this April, we are experiencing an unprecedented wave of youth activism across the nation. With crowd estimates of at least 1.2 million people across the country, the turnout on March 24 made March for our Lives perhaps the largest single-day protest that the capital city has ever seen. I can’t claim to know how these events have been orchestrated. If they are in fact due to the true leadership and coordination of students, that is commendable.

However, I also cannot deny the reality that there are always politicians and media sources waiting to seize opportunities like this in order to build momentum behind their initiatives. The exploitation of people’s emotions is an age-old strategy used to secure the support of new voters. The timely and skillful organization of select groups, aided by social media and a culture that glorifies activism, has produced a formidable new generation of change-makers. For better or worse, these well-financed iGen activists will pledge their votes to anyone who will appeal to their cries of outrage.

This generation coming up—unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic—I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands. 

― Barack Obama, 2017

Change is a necessary element of progress, and people must always speak out to challenge the authority that threatens their freedom. The fact that school safety is compromised by incidents of mass violence is enough to warrant a call to action. But safety should not be confused with freedom, and the means we use to achieve safety should be carefully weighed.

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

― Benjamin Franklin

The Making of a Mindless Movement

Administrators at my school claimed that these movements are simply comprised of children advocating for their own safety and that safety is not a political issue. Though school safety itself may not be political, the new legislative measures that protesters are demanding certainly are. According to the mission of Women’s March Youth Empower, the March 14 Walkout was planned in protest of Congress’ “inaction” in response to school shootings. It was a clear call for gun reform. How is this not political?  

I am sure there are other teachers out there like myself, experiencing increasingly politicized staff meetings where only one viewpoint is accepted. This is unfortunately now a common workplace characteristic due to the deep divide that reactionary politics has produced. I am tired of the attitude that there is no other side to the issue of gun control displayed by those who let their personal moral indignation color their interpretation of our Constitution. Yet, I sit there quietly and listen to colleagues who can’t see beyond their fear and outrage.I am tired of the attitude that there is no other side to the issue of gun control displayed by those who let their personal moral indignation color their interpretation of our Constitution.

As faculty, we discussed how to approach the March 14 Walkout in an apolitical way. The walkout was carefully reframed as an event in the spirit of safety and student empowerment. The objectives of the movement were left purposefully unarticulated, as students exited campus on March 14 in ‘solidarity’ with youth across the nation. With cameras flashing, photographers from major media sources arrived to capture our youngest protesters, some as young as five years old, knowing their printed faces in tomorrow’s paper would tug at the heartstrings of many.

As I watched the event unfold, I witnessed how the idea of ‘gun control’ became equated with ‘school safety.’ Popular thinking was quickly reduced to the following train of thought—If you care at all about the safety of children, you must also care about gun control. Once the words we whispered came out of the mouths of the babes, this logical fallacy was accepted as pure wisdom.

‘Common Sense’

I don’t think that gun control is the answer, but this does not mean that I am heartless as I’ve been accused. Of course, I think mass shootings are horrific and I wish they never happened. The question is not whether mass shootings are a problem, but what course of action should be taken in response. If I don’t support gun control, you might ask, what then is my alternative solution?

While it might seem unacceptable to ‘do nothing’ in the midst of such tragedy, to me the emotionally charged reactions of gun control advocates who are ready to degrade the 2nd Amendment is equally troubling. For young people to jump on the bandwagon in protest, with little thought given to the efficacy of their proposed policies is dangerous. A quick peek at history reveals that at times there are unintended consequences to the changes we demand when efforts to promote peace and security have paved the path to tyrannical outcomes.  

To say that gun safety laws are just ‘common sense’ is an arrogant way to avoid the responsibility of defending your claim.To say that gun safety laws are just ‘common sense’ is an arrogant way to avoid the responsibility of defending your claim. Gun control advocates tend to evade certain statistics that weaken their argument. However, if you are old enough to make an argument, your argument deserves to be challenged. It’s hard to defend an argument you can’t articulate; I doubt the elementary students who walked out were fully aware of the terms they were advocating for through their act of civil disobedience.

No matter your age, I caution those who rush to embrace political action without careful consideration of the multiple factors contributing to the problems they seek to solve.

School violence is a complicated issue. Statistics can always be used to support opposing sides of the argument. Achieving school safety does not necessarily require legislative change. It requires conversation, and yet the conversations sparked so far remain entirely one-sided.

Many of us on both sides of the gun debate are guilty of confirmation bias—we have already come to our conclusions, and cling only to information that supports our own opinion, filtering out the opposition. Can we at least agree that the efficacy of so-called ‘common sense’ gun safety laws is up for debate? To end this statistical tug-of-war, a sense of intellectual humility and historical understanding is imperative. Without critical thinking, an individual has little basis upon which to form a valid opinion on the correct course of action for the future. How can young people strive to make meaningful change if they don’t understand why things are the way they are to begin with? How can we decipher what is worthy of preserving, and what’s worthy of change? Adults should not be lionizing youth solely because they are pushing for change, especially when such lack of logic stems from the demands in place.

Progressivism and Propaganda

I detest the way that children have been used as pawns for political protest. To capitalize on a tragic event like the Parkland shooting and manipulate young people’s emotions for a political cause is absolutely disgusting. Since the progressive movement in education, youth have been idealized as agents of change who possess the powers to solve society’s most profound problems. But the youth are also highly impressionable, and there is a fine line between promoting activism and indoctrination. It seems that a culture of activism is being encouraged to a younger and younger crowd each year. I cringe every time see a toddler hold a picket sign, or hear a Kindergartner parrot an adult opinion about an issue they don’t fully comprehend.

Recent events have illuminated the ways in which progressive methods of education effectively prime children for democratic citizenship. One of the primary goals of progressive schooling is to give students the experience of participating in a democratic community. Heavily influenced by the Prussian model of schooling, John Dewey, known as ‘the father of progressive education,’ wanted to produce an optimal citizenry in order to achieve his utopian visions of a unified nation. Rather than teaching blind obedience to authority, however, Dewey found a gentler way to mold school-age children into good citizens. His emphasis on socialization and student choice over academics was used to construct a strong sense of collective identity and an illusion of empowerment. By giving students an impression of autonomy, progressive education provided a more humane way of transforming children into ill-informed robots; it has become one of the most successful methods of programming the next generation to carry out the agenda of the intellectuals who lead them. Progressive education has become one of the most successful methods of programming the next generation to carry out the agenda of the intellectuals who lead them.

Interestingly, around the same time that progressive education was gaining a foothold in the American school system, the field of Public Relations was born. Edward Bernays, later referred to as ‘the father of public relations,’ justified the use of propaganda which he felt was necessary to direct social progress. This responsibility fell into the hands of trained propagandists like himself, who could shape the minds of the masses without them being conscious of having been manipulated. Like Dewey, Bernays’ tactics gave individuals the impression that they were making autonomous decisions, while in fact they were being controlled by “invisible strings” designed to pull their thought in predetermined ways. In the opening chapter of Propaganda (1928), he writes:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

The organized interplay of the media and education in order to promote desired outcomes is further described in Propaganda. As Bernays states:

Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration today that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine. (p. 48)

School Walkouts are a Propagandist’s Ploy

When I see today’s youth lining up to march for gun control, I don’t see it as an example of empowerment. I see it as the propagandist’s ploy. The use of children for political purpose is not a new tactic. With great pride, many refer to the “courageous activism” of children in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963. Rather than a voluntary act of civil disobedience, however, the Children’s Crusade was the product of a strategic recruitment campaign during a time when adult activism was on the wane.

Recently arrested, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were searching for new ways to garner momentum for the desegregation movement. SCLC leader James Bevel suggested that children be asked to participate, since they had “less to lose” than adults who feared loss of employment. Thousands of children were recruited for upcoming demonstrations and trained in methods of nonviolent resistance.

Though the children remained peaceful, they were attacked with hoses, batons, and police dogs. Although King faced criticism for putting “children on the firing line,” the Children’s Crusade of 1963 was considered a crucial turning point in the Civil Rights movement. Ultimately, it was the media’s attention to the bravery of Birmingham youth that pressured city leaders to cave into their demands. While I join others in celebrating the result of the Children’s Crusade and applaud the perseverance of the young people involved in this movement, I do not condone the means employed to achieve this victory.

Regardless of your position on gun control, I call into question the way in which children are being used to achieve a desired political outcome.Regardless of your position on gun control, I call into question the way in which children are being used to achieve a desired political outcome. I admonish those who have latched onto cheap slogans and suddenly find the idea that the NRA has nothing to do with school safety inflammatory. But most of all I abhor the unbearable climate we have created—in which the Overton window is so narrow that teachers like myself—who also advocate for children’s rights, for their safety, and for their freedom—must refrain from speaking lest they wish to throw their livelihood out the window. Take this as my first step to break the silence in our school halls.

  • The author of this essay requested to remain anonymous.