In the coming weeks we will doubtless learn more about how exactly this all came to pass. We will learn about the perpetrator and his mental problems. We will hear about how he obtained firearms and, perhaps, why he chose to use them. We will also hear about how colleges are prepared to deal with this sort of violence. That, in particular, has already begun. The president of my own University, within a day of the Virginia Tech debacle, sent a mass e-mail detailing all the steps taken by the university in recent years to make sure something like that doesn't happen here. What concerns me is that, had this incident happened here I am quite sure the president of Virginia Tech would have sent the same e-mail.
Years ago when I was learning to be a teacher I asked a member of my faculty if there were some procedures or guidelines for dealing with a student who came to class armed and unbalanced. What I was given was a set of instructions from the university that began with "Evacuate the classroom in a calm and orderly fashion." To this I could only respond, "That's really the trick, isn't it?" I can figure out for myself that if someone comes to class armed and dangerous we should all probably try to get away, but it's the HOW of it that I need help with. I'm not saying I want the university to train me as a hostage negotiator, but some sort of advice would be helpful. Reading this recent e-mail from my university President, I experienced an echo of the same disbelief I felt all those years ago. The e-mail told me about all kinds of training seminars, workshops, and initiatives to deal with such problems... all of which I had never heard of. Considering that my department teaches an awful lot of students, if we've not received any of this training I find it doubtful that very many instructors have. I don't object to training SWAT teams and campus police to deal with this sort of thing but, really, by the time they get involved the carnage is already largely over.
I know that research is the primary goal of an awful lot of universities. I know that we're usually discouraged from devoting too much time to teaching. I get that. I don't always agree with it, but I get it, and most of the time I'm onboard. The problem is that when I stop and think about it, one thing keeps running through my mind: This didn't happen because we've been paying too much attention to the students.
We are now, and have been for quite some time, unprepared for this sort of thing. Speaking personally, I just wish we wouldn't pretend otherwise.
* One of my colleagues is very specific on this point, arguing that violence like this is constantly occurring around the world more or less unnoticed in the U.S. This is, of course, true but it doesn't in any way reduce the impact of this event for us. Rightly or wrongly we, like most other humans, feel tragedies that strike our own tribe members more strongly than those that effect others.
** Including a holocaust survivor, Liviu Librescu, who attempted to prevent the gunman from entering his classroom by blocking the door with his own body.
*** It's one of the interesting quirks of human nature that we react more strongly to "senseless" killing than other kinds. So, if you kill me because I got in your way during a robbery, we at least can understand that. It was instrumental killing. Killing someone just for the hell of it? That seems to elude most people's grasp and, thus, is more terrifying. Yet, at the end of the day, killing is still killing.
As a side note: Quite clearly I'm in a bad mood about all this.