It was with an unbelievable sense of shock and sadness that the California Council for the Social Studies Board of Directors, of which I am a part, received information about the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords while conducting business in its January board meeting. Our business was being conducted in the historic courthouse in Ontario, CA, in a building over 100 years old. That morning, Social Studies leaders from all over the state flew in to participate in the democratic process of leading, guiding and debating the issues pertaining to our discipline, as time-consuming and grinding as the process can sometimes be.
Due to the age of the building, we were not connected to wireless internet during the all-day meeting, but reports of the tragedy soon trickled in via Blackberries and iPads. Stunned silence followed the news announcement by CCSS President Greg Spielman, followed by cries of disbelief and shock. How could this be possible?
As social scientists, it is in our nature to place events on a timeline of a history, to look for patterns or changes in thoughts and ideas. The changes in the tone and discourse in politics and education have not gone unrecognized by us.
The unspeakable tragedy that befell Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others strikes at the heart of everything the Social Studies discipline stands for: participation in the democratic process, civic duty, and the ability to understand multiple perspectives while at the same time practicing tolerance. Early reports indicate that the perpetrator of this crime may have been motivated by the angry, vitriolic rhetoric disseminated through the media and on internet forums. It is not a leap of the imagination to conclude his shots were meant to silence the Congresswoman’s ideas, stop her work.
These early indications have led many to question the price we pay as a society when we put profits and politics over people. Shaming and naming teachers, hard-working public servants, by publishing questionable scores and ratings in the Los Angeles Times may have generated page-hits in the short term, but growing and fostering a disrespect of our nation’s teachers accelerates the destruction of our society and our values in the long run. Jill Stewart, news editor of the LA Weekly, in a single piece published in the wake of the suicide of LAUSD teacher Rigoberto Ruelas used the following terms to describe teachers and union leaders: pipsqueak, laughingstock, infantile, evil, abusive, incompetent, awful, craven, do-nothing, sad-sack, anti-child. LA Times reporter James Rainey places teachers in the same category as corrupt politicians and negligent social workers in this piece. The list goes on. Practically speaking, do we really want to lower the status of teachers, many whom are the only ones that today’s youth still listen to?
Several victims in this tragedy have connections to the Social Sciences: Federal Judge John M. Roll was a member of government who held the important duty of maintaining our system of laws. Aides Gabriel Zimmerman and Pia Carusone were also participating in our democracy by meeting with the Congresswoman’s constituents on a Saturday morning. The nine-year old child, Christina Taylor-Green, was also excited about a possible life in politics, having just been elected to her student council in elementary school. The double tragedy in this child’s life: she was born on September 11, 2001. Tweeter Anti-Inellect wrote “born on a day of terrorism, killed in an act of terrorism.”
But in our darkest moments, we remember, we dig deep down into our psyches and become the Americans that we are supposed to be. On 9/11, people ceased being blue or red, black or brown. They were patriots under attack and they united for survival. Can it be more clear that now more than ever we must unite to save our democracy, to preserve our society and its values?
In the midst of the dark events of yesterday, we saw glimpses of what we stand for. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik issued a poignant statement:
I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what (we) see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching.
It took a lot of courage and introspection for this law enforcement leader to speak plainly, and frankly. It is a sad moment in time when speaking up for our values becomes a rare and intriguing occurrence.
As we left our board meeting, with heavy hearts, the significance of the mass shooting began sinking in. I thought about the power of words and imagery that so many throw around carelessly. I thought about words and phrases such as “trigger,” “dropout factories.” I think about former Senator Gloria Romero comparing Compton educators to “batterers” and wondered whether the writers of those words ever stop to think about the consequences of their prose. Has the moment arrived where enough is enough? Because it is impossible to believe that continuing down the road of uncivil, polemic rhetoric can in any way enhance or improve our educational system, on which our democracy is built.