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Sandy Hook Must Push Us Toward the Collective and Away from Individualism | The Nation

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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

Sandy Hook Must Push Us Toward the Collective and Away from Individualism

Americans understandably had a variety of reactions to the horrifying news of yet another mass shooting, this time at a school, on Friday. My own was at first complete horror—but, as for many of us, it slowly solidified into a resolve to do something concrete to stop the rising tide of mass shootings. What’s to be done to shield our children (and ourselves) from random violence such as this? Some have argued that arming teachers—indeed, arming as many individual citizens as possible—will make us safe. Others reacted by advocating that parents homeschool their children.

I can understand the motivation behind both reactions. This sort of violence is inherently random. The best protection often seems to be to do whatever you can to make yourself, and your children, as safe as possible. If that means owning a gun (or many), in the theory that you can stop any violence heading your way, so be it. If that means taking your children out of schools, which have become targets of violence, so be it.

But this is not the time for going further down the individualist path, for cutting ourselves off from the community we live in. This is exactly the time when we need to reinvest in what we can only do collectively, as a community. We need to come together in ways that can begin to respond to the horror visited upon Sandy Hook.

Accounts may eventually change, but as it stands now it seems appropriate to call many of the Sandy Hook teachers heroes, both those who survived and those who lost their lives. The body of Anne Marie Murphy was found covering those of her students in a final act to try to save them. Current reports say that the principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach ran into the hallway toward a hail of gunfire. Victoria Soto hid her students and then reportedly told the attacker that they were in the gym. Other teachers ushered their students into hiding places and kept them as quiet and calm as possible while the chaos was unfolding outside their doors.

These are the public school teachers who we so often vilify as lazy, overpaid and entitled. Yet these enormous acts of bravery reflect the smaller acts of everyday selflessness that comes with the job. They are not trained to run toward gunfire like police officers, but some of them did so on instinct anyway. I wasn’t surprised. Having taught first grade myself, I know that it’s hard to start, let alone stay, in that job without an overwhelming passion for serving the next generation. Teachers educate and shape our children, but we show our value of this service by paying elementary school teachers just $51,000 a year at the median, even though most positions require a Master’s degree.

In the wake of this stark reminder of not only how much trust we put in teachers to protect and develop our children, but how well so many of them respond to that call, we can better value them by remembering how much they sacrifice in efforts to reform our education system. We can better value these public servants with more respect and, yes, more pay.

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t react by taking our children out of the system altogether. As Dana Goldstein has written, the urge to homeschool “is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families.” It takes a certain lifestyle to be able to homeschool; removing all the children from the schools whose parents can afford to do so leaves everyone else to soldier on. It may even harm the educational performance of those left behind, as Goldstein points to evidence that low-income children’s test scores rise when they go to school with middle-class kids.

But it is also rooted in a dog-eat-dog mentality. Pulling your children out of the education system may keep them out of schools that could become the target for violence and may provide the exact education you want for them. But it leaves that system in neglect. It withers away the promise of an equal education for each and every child that our government is meant to make to its citizens.

We also don’t value teachers by handing them each a Glock. Mother Jones has concluded that more guns merely means more violence. Not to mention that none of the mass shootings the country has witnessed over the past thirty years were stopped by an armed hero standing up to the attacker.

The urge to confront mass killings by telling every American to purchase his or her own personal arsenal—a call many heed, as gun sales usually shoot up after a massacre—is a step toward individualism and away from a civilized society. Individually, in the face of unpredictable violence it can make sense to want to arm oneself to respond to what may come. But that means a lack of trust in our common goal of safety for all.

Agreeing to ignore the instinct to pick up more guns means trusting that the police will show up to answer your call, that you’ll be treated fairly by our criminal justice system, that our laws will be enforced in a way that truly prevents violence. Our system fails at many of these goals. But the alternative is each citizen being a private army of one, on the defense against all others around him.

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Just as with homeschooling, by giving up on our public safety systems we often starve them of the resources they need to adequately protect us. As I wrote in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, our deep distrust in government, and by extension the police force, doesn’t just lead us to pick up a gun. It leads us to slash police force budgets. In a follow-up post I acknowledged the many ways in which the police are rightly distrusted by many groups, particularly young black men. But part of the point of having a collective entity police the streets, rather than armed citizens, is that we are all responsible for it—and it, at least in theory, answers to us. We can reform these systems. We must reform these systems. There’s no accountability for an army of George Zimmermans.

And the evidence is becoming clearer: if we really want to hold the tide of mass violence at bay, we have to enact stricter gun control laws. That will mean that some citizens will have to lay down their arms or be stopped from purchasing more. An individual safeguard will have to be sacrificed so that we can protect our society overall.

President Obama acknowledged the need for coming together in his speech in Newtown. He spoke of how

this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

To paraphrase something I saw on Twitter in the frenzy of sharing that followed news of the tragedy, if our government can’t keep children from being homeless, hungry and in danger, what is it for? This is what coming together is for. It’s for educating our children together. It’s for ensuring that they’re safe, together. That’s the clearest lesson I can take from the painful tragedy last Friday.

In her latest post, Jessica Valenti writes that the well-being of all children is our collective responsibility.

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