Guns and learning don’t mix



A bill that grants students 21 and older the right to carry concealed weapons at Georgia’s public colleges and universities was ratified last month and awaits Governor Nathan Deal’s signature. He has suggested, among other changes, that faculty members should be allowed to ban weapons from their offices and in disciplinary hearings. Those caveats are sensible, but even if they were to be included, they would hardly mitigate the law’s harmful effects.

Meanwhile, Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, has decried the bill’s passage in testimony before the state legislature. He was supported by the system’s university presidents and, he said, by campus police officers, who believe that they would be at increased risk if the law goes into effect.

While there is an outcry on both sides of the issue, little has been said regarding how this bill is yet another step — if an extreme one — toward undermining the role of faculty members, a process that has been decades in the making.

Legislators may think that students, upon turning 21, will begin to act responsibly. Classroom experience proves otherwise. Those of us entrusted with molding these young people have learned that the quest is equal parts discipline and inspiration. I have taught college students for 30 years and have been adamant about not allowing them to bring the “street” into my classrooms. Numerous studies have determined that we encourage learning by making a clear distinction between public and private spaces. Consequently, I do not allow cellphones (except for class activities), baseball caps, short-shorts, feet on chairs, tardiness, or anything else I deem provocative and/or distracting to students or myself.

Those measures have helped me create a disciplined atmosphere of inquiry and debate — the hallmarks of higher education. Some of my students take issue with the rules and vent their frustrations in end-of-course evaluations. Others appreciate the order that I maintain, not to mention the strength of will required to do so. However, being liked by my students is of less importance to me than their mastery of the subject matter and their ability to take on opposing ideas.

The Georgia legislature’s action empowering students to bring guns into classrooms will significantly transform teaching in this age of perpetual distraction. It is hard enough to get students’ attention, but I’ll now be forced to compete with fixations on “Who’s packing?” and “What are they packing?”

Even more important is what the bill, by implication, does to one of the major goals of education: the critical and thoughtful consideration of multiple perspectives.

The exchanges that I have with students are based upon trust and respect for differences of opinion. Free speech is the foundation upon which students become critical thinkers and informed citizens. It is in the safety of the classroom that students are challenged, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Will guns in classrooms, as my students and I rightfully fear, inhibit discussions? Will a concealed weapon mean that some students are in charge more than others? In short, by disempowering faculty members and campus police officers and emboldening students to make decisions for which they are not prepared, is the Georgia legislature — like its national counterpart, in Washington — neglecting its responsibility to apply the Constitution to the realities of this century?

While I do not doubt the sincerity of Governor Deal’s concession to allow faculty members to decide whether or not to allow students to be armed during disciplinary meetings and office hours, how would this play out? If we do not allow weapons during office hours, will our doors be outfitted with metal detectors? Will there be security guards posted at department entrances? Will we be asked to frisk our students?

In my case, the issue is moot: If this bill is signed into law, I will no longer conduct office hours without a campus police officer present, even at the cost of compromising the student-professor relationship. I do not flatter myself that I am an extraordinarily empathetic person, but in some cases I am the only adult in whom a student can or will confide. I keep my students’ secrets under lock and key, which would no longer be possible under this law.

If the governor believes college to be a worthy undertaking, one that requires the utmost focus to achieve learning, then allowing students to carry concealed firearms anywhere on campus is antithetical to that end. He should veto the bill.

Author Bio: Elise Langan is an associate professor in the School of Education at Middle Georgia State University and a visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for European & Mediterranean Studies.