Unless the Legislature decides to stop micromanaging the state university system, next year students will be allowed to carry guns into classrooms, student unions, dorms and cafeterias.
That prospect has raised alarms all around higher education, and there’s little evidence that a wave of reason is about to wash over the Capitol.
In the distressing new normal of our deeply divided culture, hyperbole dominates discussion of the issue, including unreasonable fears about students routinely gunning down faculty and fellow students on the one hand and, on the other, fantasies about self-appointed student guardians blasting terrorists as soon as they barge through the classroom door.
In the real world, things are different. Attacks on professors and fellow students – whether with fists or knives or clubs – are blessedly rare and unlikely to increase just because some students are armed.
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But even if there’s not a single shooting for years after the law goes into effect, allowing and encouraging guns in classrooms is a really bad idea being imposed on our universities purely as a show of ideological bravado. For some of our more gun-happy legislators, it’s also a way to show the pointy-headed wimp “libruls” in the ivory tower who is boss.
It’s a terrible idea because the dynamic between students and teachers inevitably will be degraded – in some ways that are foreseeable and some as-yet unimagined. Gun supporters will be able to count the days that pass without incidents and declare success, but there will be no way to measure the underlying damage to the educational process.
During 10 semesters of teaching courses in ethics at three universities, it became clear to me that the most effective learning results from discussions throughout the room, not lectures by someone standing at the front of the room.
My courses, for instance, were based on realistic case studies in which students assumed various roles and I played provocateur, pushing them to test their instincts and beliefs against the beliefs and assumptions of others. That meant forcing students beyond their philosophical comfort zones to think in new ways or at least recognize the existence of opposing views. That’s the essence of higher education: Students should leave the classroom and the university not simply with more information but with expanded vision, understanding and maturity.
It is only human nature for the peole who lead university classes to have new concerns when dealing with armed students. Perhaps the result will be backing off the intellectual stimulation or relating to armed students differently than to unarmed ones. Or they may be concerned about stimulating vigorous discussion among students that winds up carrying beyond the classroom.
It would be a simple act of common sense for the Legislature to undo its action and allow universities to set the dynamics on their campuses. It is clear, however, that universal open carry (without licenses and training) is the ultimate goal of the gun lobby; the existing campus legislation is only a first step.
How would you feel about getting into a heated debate with a 21-year-old who has a revolver lying on the desk or sticking out of a backpack?
That’s not education.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at email@example.com.