Benevolence without compromise
Growing children need benevolence. They need an intelligible world, one full of affordances for action and understanding. They need other human beings who love them, who love others, who love themselves; they need humans who believe in humanity.
Children need benevolence like they need food and water. They need material from which to form foundational, soul-level, implicit beliefs about themselves, about human beings, about the sort of world they live in. The young child who can become benevolent—who has a deeply positive view of her relationship with the world, who starts life with both self-love and an expansive view of herself—is poised to find meaning, develop virtue, love greatly, and live a full life. A core benevolence is a foundational pillar of good character. It underwrites all thought, all action, all relationships. It’s the ultimate “secure attachment”.
This is what school shootings threaten.
The phenomenon of school shootings presents a safety challenge and a policy challenge. But the more profound challenge is philosophical. They present a worldview challenge. They are an overt attack on benevolence, on meaning, on making any sort of moral sense of anything, on life itself.
The pattern of periodic school shootings in the US, of which the slaughter of elementary school children in Uvalde was the latest awful exemplar, is so atrocious and so senseless that it is profoundly disorienting. It is morally and philosophically disorienting. It creates cognitive dissonance at the very basic level of being able to make sense of the human condition.
I think it’s plausible that this is part of the motive for school shootings. The more intellectual shooters write telling, nihilistic screeds that paint a black picture of life as meaningless, culture as an offensively hollow lie, and children as in need of salvation by murder. The less intellectual ones manifest these ideas in the patterns of their lives. American gun culture is not new; men who allow their dispossession to metastasize into wickedness are not new. What is new is the depth of our meaning problem and the vast surface area that our culture offers for indulging in its worst aspects.
I don’t know how confident I am that this is an accurate diagnosis of the cause of school shootings. But I am confident that their effect, their most salient function, is to cripple benevolence. How can one maintain an openness to the world and a belief in humanity in the face of the utterly senseless atrocity of the deliberate mass murder of innocent children? It is as though school shootings are meant to present an argument against maintaining our benevolence, and goddamn if that “argument” isn’t difficult to refute.
That is our primary challenge, as educators and also as a culture. In the immediate aftermath of Uvalde, Matt Yglesias fired off this tweet:
It was ratio’d and widely criticized as, at absolute best, tone-deaf. (He later apologized for it.) I found myself in a very small minority of people who thought the tweet was healthy and good. It was a raw attempt to simply assert that idealism and benevolence. It was a brute force reorientation towards the good and the intelligible.
In the long run, one can’t brute force benevolence. It needs an intellectual, philosophical defense. We need an account of the goodness of human beings and also an account of our dark side, and they need to be integrated and held in a way that allows us to think and act. Ultimately, we need a society that can actually solve these problems. That requires legal and policy resources, which might help at least some. More than anything, it requires cultural innovations that can draw on a true philosophy of human nature, that can keep moral despair vastly more marginal than it has become today.
But even absent that full defense, raw affirmation of the conviction that benevolence is important is itself valuable.
It’s especially valuable for educators. Part of the immediate reaction to school shootings is always to harden schools against these atrocities. School shooter drills, armed personnel, limiting and securing egresses, reinforcing doors.
These measures buy safety, or at least the appearance of safety (their effectiveness is a matter of debate, and I’m on the skeptical side). But they pay for that safety with benevolence. They loudly proclaim to the school community that it is under threat, that it could be attacked at any moment, that the wolves are at the door, that one must prepare to be murdered. They instance the nihilist pattern: the world is not intelligible, human beings are not good, your best hope is to be prepared to barricade the world off at any moment.
This is a far greater challenge than the safety challenge. School shootings are horrific, and for their victims, lethal. As a matter of raw actuarial risk, though, they are not an especially major threat.
The threat is that they are harder to orient around than the Yellowstone supervolcano. It’s easier to make sense of a geological catastrophe than a moral catastrophe. In the former case you need predictive science, and to gradually work towards science-fiction-esque preventative geoengineering capabilities. In the latter case, you need… what? Better gun policy, which seems fraught and unlikely? A better approach to mental health, which seems nebulous and elusive? A better moral culture, which would require who knows what? It’s unclear what to do, and so we panic. We lock down. We turn schools into hard targets with brittle souls. And then we send our children there to incubate their souls.
The job of schools is to instill love, confidence, even vulnerability—a term that I normally dislike, but that is usefully charged in this context. Children need, literally need, to be able to look out and be entranced and excited, to wonder and to venture forth. They need to fall in love with humanity, with their own humanity and the humanity of others.
To harden schools against school shootings is to design for a meaningless world. Education is always soulcraft, whether we recognize it or not; a school environment that is designed around atrocity preparation is soulcraft for preppers. On the margins, at least directionally, it soulcraft for more school shooters.
In terms of school policy, I think what is needed is some Yglesias-like spunk. It’s to assert our benevolence.
It takes thought and courage to not do things that would be worse than nothing, in the face of understandable and tremendous pressure to “do something”. But one should not apologize for being uncompromising with respect to benevolence.
In terms of a deeper school philosophy, precisely what we need are schools that have a pedagogy that is robustly integrated with a philosophy of benevolence. And this is precisely what Montessori provides. Montessori pedagogy is designed to create strong selves in the sense of strong valuers: an individual who loves, whose love suffuses her every thought and action, who has the agency to imbue meaning into everything.
The Montessori approach is not designed to fend off nihilism, but boy does it. Montessori herself had no conception of school shootings, but she did live through both World Wars and did grapple with the unspeakable horrors of her own time.
“…peace-loving men, men endowed with the best intentions, have earnestly tried to create a world where peace could reign. And they have not succeeded. Think how hard humanity has worked towards this ideal of peace, how many moral guidelines they have laid down…
“Humanity is a monster when adult—bloodthirsty, indulging in continuous slaughter.”
What’s her solution? She has a whole pedagogical answer to this, but first, at the level of orientation, it’s the aesthetic point again: to reassert benevolence. We center ourselves on man’s horrors,
“[b]ut man is great. We have only to look at civilization to realize the greatness of which man is capable. But we are focused on his errors and mistakes, not his greatness. The fault lies with us…
“Therefore, I say, we must refocus our hearts. We must put the creations of man at the centre, and not his defects.”
Everything in the school, from the very design of the environment—which Montessori thought should be roughly the opposite of a barricaded, properly drilled school—to the teachers, who need first and foremost to undergo the perspectival shift just gestured at—everything is designed to help impart this focus on meaning, on humanity, on moral vision and confidence to children extremely young.
She did consider this a bulwark against atrocity. Her son (and closest collaborator) wrote of the citizens of evil social systems:
“But had they been helped during childhood to incarnate, besides the reality of the functioning of the world and of society, a feeling also of gratitude towards the anonymous benefactor who works for them—and which is the whole of humanity—then I have no doubt, if some fanatic of new ideologies were to tell them ‘follow me to glory’ (meaning: follow me to war) they would stop to think.” (Mario Montessori, “The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education”)
I’m not sure how fully I believe that schools themselves can solve the problem of a culture where moral decay manifests as random violence. I’ve written before about the limits of an education system to solve problems like war. Education is part of the answer; it’s a transmission belt to children of something that we need to tackle at adult levels as well.
But if schools can do anything to help, it’s doing the job of soulcraft right. Schools should help foster children who repudiate senselessness in the patterns of their own lives. To do that means not letting the nihilism of school shootings creep into our educational approach under the rubric of operational safety policies. It means, more broadly, taking ownership of issues of meaning and character in development, a job many educators simply eschew. It means an education that is benevolent without compromise.