Why the Mass Killings in the U.S.?

Why the mass killings in the U.S.? The first and most obvious answer is that Americans (by which I mean citizens and residents of the U.S.) can obtain guns, including automatic rifles, far too easily. But there are other reasons. Gun control, though essential, won’t solve the problem, since people will find ways around the laws or use something other than guns. The killings have cultural and ideological sources, even though the killers come from widely different backgrounds. There is something particularly American about this.

First, to get this out of the way: some object to the use of the word “American” as an adjective for the U.S.A. I use it because it’s recognized and simple. Every country that I can think of has a one-word (or, at most, two-word) adjective: Russian, Soviet, Danish, Icelandic, Mexican, etc. Yes, it’s true that North America encompasses more than the U.S., and Central and South America are also America. Yet no other country has “America” as its short name, hence the chance of confusion is negligible.

Criminals do not exist or act in complete isolation; they come out of a history, a culture, an infinite set of attitudes and beliefs. Even mental illness cannot be separated from “normal” life. Besides the availability of guns, what conditions in the U.S. might give rise to mass shootings?

I discussed this with my twelfth-grade students yesterday, and several ideas came up. One was that many Americans feel special: entitled to something good in life, angry and wounded if they do not receive this, and convinced of their own right to avenge themselves and pursue their own “happiness,” as it were. The same cannot be said of Hungarians, who view life with a basic pessimism, who don’t think they are owed anything in particular, who believe that they will be lucky if they achieve a fraction of their goals, and who see the absolute importance of helping others and being helped. (There’s both good and bad in both attitudes, which have plenty of variations and exceptions; the point here is not to judge them but to consider where they lead.)

Another difference is that in the U.S., there’s a much greater value placed on being in the spotlight, having your fifteen minutes of fame (or more, if you can manage it). Appearing on the front page of the NYT–wow! Getting mentioned on TV–wow! The most interesting essay I have read on this subject is David Bromwich’s “How Publicity Makes People Real.” People will go to great lengths, even to the extremes of self-debasement, for a bit of media attention. In contrast, Hungarians tend to eschew the spotlight. This is changing, inevitably, with all of the influences of social media, but there’s a strong belief, with origins in the communist/socialist era and earlier, that you are better off if people aren’t paying much attention to you. Writers, artists, and others want their work to be known, like anywhere else, but children aren’t typically encouraged to “put themselves out there,” except in formal academic, artistic, and athletic competitions.

This Hungarian reticence is refreshing but also has its drawbacks. Whenever I teach Shakespeare, there are some students who play their roles brilliantly in class but absolutely refuse to take part in a public performance. I have had dreams of putting on a musical at Varga, but just persuading enough students to take part would consume an entire year. In contrast, at my former school in NYC, the annual musical might have a cast of a hundred students or more. A hundred students, singing and dancing together on stage and through the aisles. When I taught there, the challenge was the opposite: to encourage quiet thought, which exists here in spades. I love the thoughtfulness of Hungarian culture and feel at home in it–but also come across as exuberant and enthusiastic in comparison with most Hungarians. I think others would agree. So it’s a complex matter: what a culture does and doesn’t emphasize, and what it brings out of a person. Many of us have combinations of cultures in our lives and hearts.

Crime exists here in Hungary too, as does violence, but they’re both usually of a surreptitious, inconspicuous sort: muggings, domestic violence, theft. People aren’t trying to make a splash or get in the news. On the other hand, you can be fooled into thinking you are completely safe here, and you aren’t; you have to be careful and alert here, as anywhere.

So, if you put these three conditions together: availability of guns, sense of entitlement, and desire for attention, and consider them as particularly American, coming out of the country’s history, culture, and beliefs, you can see part of the source of so many mass killings. This doesn’t explain everything, or even close, since you can seek attention and believe in your own specialness without dreaming of killing anyone. In fact, you can hold these attitudes and lead a life of kindness and gentleness. (I’m special and you are too!)

But this is a start.

To Promote College Readiness, Congress Abolishes Speeches

talkAfter hours of snappy debate, both houses of Congress approved a bill that will forever prohibit speeches, monologues, lectures, books on tape, and other forms of communication in which a single person speaks for more than two minutes at a time.

“We are up against a crisis of epic proportions,” said Representative Frank Megalogos, D-MI. “Today’s graduating seniors are woefully unprepared for any sort of college or career, and why? The reason is simple. They have not been cognitively engaged. Someone has been talking at them, all these years, and they have just been sitting back. This has got to change, folks!” He looked at his watch and halted.

“Now, turn and talk to your neighbor about what I just said!” he shouted. “Come on, I want to hear voices! Talk, talk, talk!” The people in the room dutifully generated a buzz.

According to members of Congress, the key factor in student success is teacher quality, which essentially amounts to teacher disappearance. “Effective teachers are so good, you barely notice them,” said Senator Maria Vidrio. “You never hear them speaking. You never see them at the front of the room. They make the students do the bulk of the work, which means the students are twice as cognitively engaged as they would otherwise be.  A great teacher doesn’t even have to know much about the subject, because it isn’t her knowledge that matters. What good is a whole bunch of knowledge, if the kids just take it in passively?” Aware that she might have gone on too long, Vidrio caught herself and yelled full force, “Now, turn and talk! Turn and talk!”

Asked how a ban on speeches could possibly be compatible with the First Amendment, Megalogos let out a long, bitter laugh. “The very question proves the sad state of American cognitive development,” he answered. “There is a world of difference between freedom of speech and freedom to deliver a speech. People can still say whatever they want. They just have to keep it short. This shouldn’t be startling. The same rule applies everywhere. It’s what people want. Even my best friends expect me to keep my emails to a sentence or less. Some of my family members don’t want to hear from me at all.”

What was to be done about existing plays, recordings, and other works in which someone speaks at length? “Obviously, we’re not going to get rid of classic films like A Free Soul,” said Representative Murgatroyd Barrymore, who denies any relation to the actor Lionel Barrymore, who gave an outrageously long monologue in the film. “Instead, we’ll re-edit them with frequent commercial and activity breaks. That way, American consumers can continue to enjoy these old greats while benefiting from maximum cognitive engagement.”

What about religious services? “No one is exempt,” Barrymore replied. “Every single religious ritual out there has got to break it up. No more sermons of any kind. No more long prayers, long songs, long anything.”

Isn’t listening a form of cognitive engagement? “No, not at all,” replied Vidrio, who had been turning and talking for a good portion of our interview. “Listening is just plain zero-like. Sometimes we’ve got to do a little of it, but the less of it the better. We’re only cognitively engaged when we’re doing something. Research has shown that we learn the most when teaching others, especially in a noisy room.”

Not everyone shares the majority’s enthusiasm over this new bill. “I hate noisy classes,” said Wilky Roman, a high school senior in Wichita, Kansas. “I can’t think when everyone’s talking at once. I have to take a bathroom break, just to get my thoughts together, and then I get in trouble for taking so many breaks.”

“The kid is just making excuses,” said Megalogos. “Anyone who needs time alone is just being lazy. We’re in a fast-paced collaborative world, and if you don’t like it, the best thing you can do is change. Bring yourself up to speed. Give in to the noise.”

According to underground reports, a number of rebels have gathered in the Shenandoah Caverns to indulge in the outlawed practice of listening. Speakers, actors, and musicians will perform; discussion will follow. The schedule is booked for the next five years but may lead to multiple arrests.

Teaching, Reserve, and Listening

When you go into teaching, you confront yourself. You see your own weaknesses and subject yourself to others’ judgment. You have to adjust your actions, moment to moment, and yet stay strong. To do any of this well, you need a sturdy place in your life where you do not need to prove or explain yourself. You must keep a good portion of your life in reserve.

Of course, this need varies from person to person. There are teachers who live for their work, year in, year out. They seem content, even though they do little outside of school. Others plunge into their work for a few years and then move on to something else. Still others try from the start to protect their lives, with varying degrees of success. A few stay detached all along; they have no difficulty putting their work aside at the end of the day, or even before.

No matter what a teacher’s relation to her work, she will be asked to do more and more. Teachers are expected not only to plan and deliver lessons, but also to document every aspect of their work, take part in community and professional activities, attend numerous meetings, gather and analyze “data,” perform other assigned duties, shift duties unexpectedly, and be available after hours. These numerous tasks crowd out the basic responsibility of a teacher: namely, to teach well and then go home.

What does it mean to teach well? It takes many different forms, but it consists of bringing student and subject matter closer together. This carries three basic risks: the risk of failure (where the student doesn’t understand or doesn’t take interest in the subject), the risk of success (where the student doesn’t need you any more—temporarily or permanently), and the risk of ambiguity (where it isn’t entirely clear whether you have succeeded or failed). All three can be painful; it takes strength to contend with them.

Where does this strength come from? Not out of exhaustion or out of a hectic day. Not out of “turn-and-talk” activities or the Common Core Standards. To face the daily failures, successes, and ambiguities of teaching, one needs intellect and humanity—that is, a full life. Some may find this in literature, some in religion. Some may have it  in their families. Some may find it when carving wood. This is where “going home” comes in; a teacher must have a separate existence, not just a rushed break now and then.

You don’t show your full humanity in the classroom, but it is there nonetheless. Within a single lesson you may have clumsiness and grace, patience and impatience, accuracy and error, alertness and abstraction, and more and more; these combinations and permutations affect how things go. Of course, they don’t fully control the course of events; the subject matter has its own ways, and students bring a great deal of their own. Nonetheless, there’s motion along a precipice. There’s a sense of fate and flexibility at once; you bring your knowledge and character to the table (and can’t change them once you’re there) but still adjust to the company and room.

This sounds exhausting, someone might say. Why would someone put herself on the line, day after day? Well, it’s a joyous undertaking, if it doesn’t break you. That takes us back to the beginning: a teacher must have a stronghold. Yet a stronghold isn’t enough. A teacher must also have the students’ basic attention.

Today it is more or less assumed that a teacher must fight for attention—that she must employ all sorts of “strategies” to get the students to listen, even at the outset of the lesson. But what if it could be assumed? What if our society understood it not only as a courtesy, but also as a foundation for learning and creativity?

A student who listens (and who doesn’t disrupt class) is building intellectual patience and flexibility. The teacher, for her own part, has room to introduce complex topics without rushing to quick conclusions. In addition, she has room to listen to the students and draw out their ideas.

Such listening also allows teachers and students their flaws and strengths. A lesson should not be sloppy—but an imperfection need not tip the room into chaos. To listen to another is to allow for foibles, both in the speaker and in oneself.

In listening there is an underlying dignity. I listen to you because you don’t have to prove yourself worthy, nor do I. Listening, like all attention, is imperfect; we rarely take in fully what we hear. We often don’t have time or energy to listen to others—so those places of listening, such as the classroom, need honor and protection.

My most exhausting days of teaching (since I began in the public schools in 2005) were not the longest days, or the days with the most work, but rather the days when I couldn’t finish a sentence because of the interruptions. The breaking of the sentences left me, well, not quite broken, but more like a creaky house, where every step causes a plank to groan.

It takes years to build listening. It starts in the cradle, when we first listen to stories and start noticing their patterns and rhythms. Later we learn to listen to things that (unfortunately) don’t have much of a lilt. Listening isn’t always beneficial; sometimes one has to stop listening, for one’s own good and that of others. There are rants and bad songs that I really don’t need in my mind—but there are also things that surprise me (in both directions).

Students will challenge authority, no matter what, but there’s more for them to challenge if they know what the lesson holds. The most serious challenges come from students who have been listening; these challenges enrich the lesson and the course.

How great it would be if teachers and students could assume a certain level of listening, instead of having to earn it.  What calm and liveliness this would bring to the work. The teacher’s separate life would have inherent protection, since the classroom, being intact, would have its beginning and end.

Note: I temporarily deleted this post and then restored it (with two minor edits). I apologize for any confusion.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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