Why They Attack Schools

I posted this on HuffingtonPost yesterday.


Yesterday’s horrific news came from Pakistan. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshawar, killing at least 145. Children were gunned down in their classrooms, or as they attempted to flee. Teachers and other staff members were murdered in cold blood.

Several months ago we watched in horror as Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls from a school in Nigeria. As a worldwide campaign demanded to “bring our girls home,” the terrorists expanded the diabolical domain of their cruelties. Most of the girls are still far, far from home.

This week we observe the anniversary of the shootings in Newtown Connecticut that killed 27. The revulsion at the time energized some to demand stronger gun control laws, at least universal background checks. And efforts were made to improve mental health services. Most of the work failed to result in legislation as outrage faded to apathy (and worse) among politicians.

Since Newtown there have been somewhere between 75 and 100 shootings at American schools. Many of these were acts of violence not directed at the schools or students per se, but CNN still concluded that 15 of the incidents were similar to Newtown or Oregon — a minor or adult actively shooting inside or near a school. One school shooting every five weeks. CNN breaks down the kinds of shootings here.

Of course, there are shootings at plenty of other locations, and the motivations of the Taliban attacking a military school are very different than those of a mentally ill young man who attacks an elementary school.

But the fact that these murders occur at schools increases their visibility, and intensifies our own revulsion at the destruction of innocent lives.

Why are schools and universities the scenes of such violence? Is it because schools, with all their problems, remain for us places of hope and optimism? Places of education are spaces for people who still believe in possibilities for positive change. We send our children to school because we hope that they will learn about themselves and the world in ways that will enable them to thrive – not just to navigate more effectively but also to flourish.

We look to colleges and universities to empower students to support themselves, to be sure, but also to make meaningful contributions to their communities. We invest so much time, treasure and emotion in our educational institutions because through them we hope to build cultures of learning, of inquiry, of appreciation and engagement. Schools face the future; violence cuts the future off.

Attacks on schools are meant to undermine our core values and our belief in the possibilities for a better future. When we defend education from violence, we reaffirm our faith in the power of learning to combat destruction and to create meaning.

Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel laureate put it this way: “Innocent children in their school have no place for horror such as this.” She went on to say: “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated.”

Schools represent hope grounded in learning. They represent a culture’s aspiration to enhance individual potential and to build in students a capacity for living fuller, more meaningful lives in concert with others. Attacks at schools are attacks on this aspiration.

May the memory of those killed at schools inspire us to defend our hopes for learning beyond the threat of violence.


Wishing You Rest, Joy, and Peace

I recently sent this message to our on-campus community and wanted to share it with readers of this blog. I especially want to express my gratitude and best wishes to alumni and parent readers. We may not always agree on specific policy questions, but I know that the passionate interest of our off-campus Wesleyans is an affirmation of their devotion to this very special place. This commitment to ensuring that Wesleyan is at the forefront of progressive liberal education inspires all of us who work here.  In the words of the alma mater: “Time ne’er shall shake our deep devotion, Our deathless love for Wesleyan!”

Dear friends,

Before the horrific events in Newtown, I composed a year-end message to our community of hope and gratitude and joy. The sadness we now feel does not invalidate that message – for sadness is not the opposite of joy; indifference is the opposite of joy. And ours is not an indifferent community.

In so many ways this has been an extraordinary year, and as it draws to a close I want to express my gratitude to the entire Wesleyan family for their many contributions to making our university the dynamic, compassionate place it is. Thinking back to the warm welcome our athletes gave the new students on move-in day, I’m reminded also of their dedication and competitive spirit. I reflect on the startling art experiences that were part of the year, pushing deeply into the experimental and the traditional by turns. And have you looked at the faculty bookshelf lately? You’ll find there explorations of the biological dimensions of mental illness, and of lynching in American culture… studies of missionaries and mission statements, poetry and biographical triptychs. The scholars who produced this work are also spirited teachers who inspire students every week of the semester. Speaking of inspiration, I am continually awed by the contributions of the Wesleyan staff, who make all these achievements possible. The hard work of our staff, from reading admission files to planning graduation events, is at the heart of all we do.

The Board of Trustees, representing alumni, parents and students, continues to guide the institution with affection, intelligence and generosity. The trustees and the entire Wesleyan family are dedicated to ensuring that our university remains at the forefront of progressive liberal arts education. I am grateful for being part of this team.

With best wishes for a restful break, a joyful holiday and a very happy new year,
Michael Roth

Choosing to Act

The images and first-hand accounts from Newtown during the last few days have been wrenching. The specter of vicious violence turned against the very young makes us gasp for breath, makes us question the very fabric of our society. If this kind of thing can erupt in communities like ours, what kind of community are we?

There is another image from Newtown that is powerful in a different kind of way: the image of teachers rushing into harm’s way to protect their students, to protect their school. The care and courage of principal Dawn Hochsprung, who hid others before rushing to confront the gunman, is staggering, is inspirational. In the face of violence she chose to act. We should be motivated by her example.

Just a few years ago our school was deeply scarred by gun violence when Johanna Justin-Jinich was brutally slain. At the Commencement that followed that awful event, I asked our students to join in working to curb gun violence:

The second area where we need your help is gun control. I know many regard this as a lost cause because of the passionate effectiveness of the NRA. But it is only a lost cause if we give up. Johanna’s murder should remind us all of the idiocy of our handgun regulations. The status quo is unacceptable. With more than 30,000 people dying annually from gun violence in this country, and with more than 12,000 murders committed with guns, we need you to help us enter the world of nations governed by laws, not by violence. Debates about the 2nd Amendment and about the glories of hunting need not stifle reasonable law aimed at reducing violent deaths.

Reasonable law aimed at reducing violent deaths. Is that too much to ask? We know there are policies that have worked elsewhere – in Australia, Japan, Great Britain. We will be told that these places are very different from us, and they are. That is no excuse. We should demand that our representatives enact (at a minimum) restrictions on ammunition and on automatic firearms. And we need to act immediately.

If we falter, if we think the politics too difficult or too complicated, we should remember Johanna, and we should remember Dawn. Their care and courage should inspire us to move our country to a place where students don’t have to face wild-eyed gunmen, and where teachers don’t have to lay down their lives defending their schools.

“Our hearts are broken today”

Today we heard the shattering news of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Shock, horror, and deep sadness overwhelm us as we contemplate this terrifying event. The Wesleyan family sends condolences and sympathy to all those who are suffering tonight in the wake of the shooting. President Obama spoke for many of us when he said, “Our hearts are broken today.” May compassion and a will to prevent these awful occurrences be inspired by our grief.