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Arming Teachers, Killing Education: Why Trump’s Proposal Has Nothing to Do With Safety

It’s about ending the progressive role of education.

Donald Trump takes part in a listening session on gun violence with pre-selected teachers and students in the State Dining Room of the White House on February 21, 2018. (Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

On the surface, it would seem mystifying that the right wing — which is openly hostile to teachers’ unions and public schools — would propose to arm teachers as a response to the Parkland, Florida, massacre. If teachers’ unions and universities are frequently derided by conservatives as fronts for the Democratic Party at best and communists at worst, it would seem that Trump wants to arm the enemy.

Of all the right-wing responses to the alarming epidemic of school shootings since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates almost 20 years ago, this would seem to be the most counterintuitive — and yet it tells us more about the right’s agenda for education than any other single proposal.

The teacher will become an armed representative of the state, with the legal right to take someone’s life.

For the right, the liberatory power of education has always been seen as a threat — from the “loyalty oaths” introduced for teachers during the Cold War, to the Republican proposal to end ethnic studies curricula in Arizona. Arming teachers will do very little to stop the epidemic of school shootings in the US, but will do a great deal to change the teacher-student relationship. Rather than a teacher or professor who may aspire to be a mentor and, in many cases, social worker, consoler and caregiver of last resort, the teacher will become an armed representative of the state, with the legal right to take someone’s life.

One way to make sense of this strange state of affairs is to consider the right-wing conception of government. As economist James Galbraith argues, the idea of free-market conservativism has long been a myth. In most right-wing policy proposals, from Trump’s infrastructure plan to tax cuts, the state does not shrink, as libertarian Grover Norquist colorfully put it, until it is small enough to be drowned in a bathtub. In reality, the state is transformed from a guaranteer of the general welfare to a “predator” — an active instrument for the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, if need be, down the barrel of a gun.

The linguist George Lakoff has described this vision of the state as “paternal,” as opposed to the liberal “maternal” state: a strong father who can protect the home, defend against enemies internal and external, and maintain public and private order. Whether it is Galbraith’s “predator state” or Lakoff’s father-state, one thing it isn’t is small, weak or drownable. Rather, it is a state of increased power and magnitude. What has changed is the nature of the expenditure: Money is taken from programs designed to help the poor and disadvantaged, such as food stamps, public education and Medicare, and given instead to spend on border security and the military.

Public education has long been at the center of this debate precisely because it represents both the repressive and progressive statist tradition simultaneously. Public education does often serve the coercive impulses of the state — particularly in low-income and in majority-minority school districts in which “zero-tolerance” policies have created what some education scholars refer to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Yet public schools, in education reformer John Dewey’s words, are also “the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” In addition to their function as a carceral babysitter, public schools have often been on the vanguard of the most progressive social policy and democratic practice, from high school ethnic studies courses in California and Arizona, to public universities in which students can encounter radical thinkers from bell hooks to Karl Marx, often for the first and only time. While teachers often go out of their way to provide for their students, we do not hear stories of prison guards buying crayons and sketchpads out of their own pocket for prisoners for a reason. It is not an accident that students are often at the forefront of democratic movements.

The right does not imagine teachers wielding weapons so much as weapons remaking teachers.

Bearing the role of public education in mind, it is self-evident that arming teachers will do little if anything to actually make schools safer. Not only would having multiple shooters increase the confusion and mayhem of a mass shooting, the “good-guy-with-a-gun” theory has been widely debunked, and leads to all kinds of other bizarre questions, such as: Who decides which teachers are armed? Where are the guns stored? Who decides when a teacher can use a gun? What are the penalties for misusing a gun? The practical problems with arming teachers are so abundant, like many of Trump’s gestures of contempt, these “solutions” are not designed to solve real-world problems, but rather to shift the discourse and change the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable in civil society.

The proposal to arm teachers should not be seen as just a joke. It is not serious as a way to stop violence, but is deadly serious about one thing: ending the progressive role of education and educators. The proposal is not about helping students, but turning the student-teacher relationship from one of trust and respect into one of violence. It is to take our most common and often most intimate relationship with the state and turn it into Galbraith’s predator or Lakoff’s strong, authoritarian patriarch. The right does not imagine teachers wielding weapons so much as weapons remaking teachers.

In many ways, the idea of armed teachers is not separate from the proposals of Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. From her statements opposing Title IX and sexual assault protections, ending civil rights enforcement for LGBTQ students and students of color, to expanding school vouchers, she promotes a concept of “free-market” education that delivers students to private interests — a process she compared to choosing “either an Uber or Lyft.” In such a privatized world, the school is less a place of safety and exploration for a diverse US than a place in which students are expected to obey and perform.

As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us, the history of the Second Amendment has little to do with democratic militias defending against the British empire, but rather in the need for settler colonists to arm themselves in war against Native Americans and slave revolts. Every citizen of the new republic had to imagine themselves as both a member of a democratic polity and also as a soldier, armed against a racialized threat.

The proposal to arm teachers reminds me of one of those Western films in which an “effeminate” urbanite is given a gun by John Wayne, and in the firefight that ensues, emerges as a “real” American. We should think of armed teachers as yet another attempt to transform every aspect and element of the government from one that helps, to one that incarcerates, intimidates and if necessary, kills.

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