Marietta McCarty: High school students lighting our way

The activism of students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida give us new hope for progress in reversing gun violence. Their passion, borne of grief and love, is inspirational and contagious.

On February 22 I met with students in leadership positions at Albemarle High School here in Charlottesville. Our meeting was scheduled before the latest school shooting. Our topic changed due to the February 14 mass shooting.

I gave the young philosophers a reading from the Flexibility chapter in How Philosophy Can Save Your Life that includes Plato’s “Myth of the Cave.” Here Socrates encourages everyone to  develop an open mind and the willingness to explore new ideas and embrace change. Their assignment, stemming from the reading, included these questions wrapped around the lack of effective gun control legislation: “If you could speak on a national stage, what would you say?” “How can this country come out of the Cave on this issue, one that ONLY exists in the US?” “What old ideas hold us back?” “What clear thinking about worthy ideas can move us forward?”

Students were prepared, thoughtful in their written and verbal responses. Here are some excerpts:

“My opinions are kinda strong. Surely the Founding Fathers were thinking of muskets loaded by hand in the Second Amendment. More guns isn’t the solution – you don’t fight fire with fire.”

“We are in dire need of change. We have become numb to school shootings. We need change not only to gun laws but also our approach to mental health. Teens have started to take the matter of gun control into their own hands due to lack of progress in government. We will be better off with a new policy after the government listens to teens.”

“There have been 19 school shootings since January 1. We shouldn’t have to live in fear and neither should our parents. All schools should have metal detectors. Post a teacher or officer at every door. (Their student council sponsor Rich Lindsay reminded his students that there are 46 doors at the school.) When the Constitution was written it was a necessity to have guns but times have changed and we no longer need guns in our everyday lives. Only government officials should have access to guns to serve and protect.”

“We must attack the problem at the source. Bring more awareness of other countries’ changes and solutions. Develop “Flexible” minds that can understand different views. You can’t talk intelligently if you don’t listen. Everyone must be open to change. Encourage people to join the walkouts and protests to talk about what they represent.’

We’ve got to think outside the box. Sticking to the past will not work. Getting people to come out of the set-in-stone safety of their views on gun rights will bring us closer to the one thing we can all agree is bad: bloodshed. Empathy is part of the solution. Talk to people before reporting them.”

So much to ponder. The students agreed among themselves that gun control is a touchy subject and that there are two distinct, opposing, unbending sides. They insist that mental health treatment and awareness as well as programs to handle bullying should be included in the discussion of gun control. Albemarle High School students are making a video for the Parkland students and faculty. Administrators are providing opportunities for Albemarle students to express themselves in forums and smaller settings. How can educators best engage students and provide them a safe, vigorous learning environment while also encouraging civic involvement and using their voices?

Rich and I talked outside the school after the students headed off for lunch. We shook our heads at the tangled knot of an issue that has long resisted progress – hopefully until now. We concluded that the ongoing dialogue should begin with the one point of common agreement: people should be free to move about safely. How do we move forward with that goal in clear view? How can we keep our collective eyes on that prize? The worst choice is inaction. So let’s talk. Let us proceed.

What’s the simplest piece of the many-sided problem of gun violence to address here and now? Outside Plato’s Cave of confusion and darkness, what solutions present themselves?

Marietta McCarty is the author of bestseller Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy with Kids, Nautilus Award winner How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most, and The Philosopher’s Table: How to Start Your Philosophy Dinner Club—Monthly Conversation, Music, and Recipes. Marietta is currently at work on her fourth book, due out in October 2018.


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