In just a few years, the push to allow concealed weapons on campuses has shifted from a long shot in a few states to a movement that's gaining steam in many parts of the country, including two of the most populous states.
Against vociferous opposition from the state's own university system, a Florida Senate panel last month approved a bill allowing students, faculty and staff with appropriate permits to carry guns on public college campuses. This brings to 10 the number of states that are poised to consider so-called campus carry legislation this year. Nine currently allow it in some form or another.
This most recent wave of legislation is buoyed by arguments that guns on campus will help address the problem of sexual assault. As Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore put it memorably, “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. [Sexual] assaults... would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in the head.”
Critics retort that guns are a distinctly combustible ingredient added to college life, where young adults occasionally engage in binge drinking and wild partying. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine how guns can solve the problem of sexual assault on campus. Who is to say the ones carrying out the assaults won’t be armed, too?
As the campus carry movement picks up steam nationwide, there is, I would argue, another major concern worth considering -- one that has been wholly omitted thus far: How might guns impact the atmosphere and pedagogical goals of the classroom, and the political mission of the university? For, it seems clear to me, guns stand opposed to all that. There is something inherently contradictory about guns in college. They are a rude, unnecessary intrusion from the outside world, and threaten the intimacy and openness that academe hopes to foster.
American philosopher John Dewey argued that the classroom is the root of democracy, since it is where individuals learn to talk to people of different backgrounds and perspectives, collaborate, and negotiate differences. The classroom is where the all-important process of socialization occurs -- something that cannot take place at home, steeped in the privacy of family life. A functioning and vibrant democracy requires that citizens learn to work with one another, which in turn demands openness -- and a willingness to trust.
Guns communicate the opposite of all that — they announce, and transmit, suspicion and hostility.
In the humanities (where I teach), the seminar room is a designated space for intellectual exploration, and students must feel safe and encouraged to do just that. They are expected to take risks -- moral, political and personal. Controversial ideas are aired, deliberated and contemplated from many angles. Sometimes these ideas are offensive.
Many academics will contend that, at least ideally, classroom debate should be lively, even heated at times. Emotions may run high. As a case in point, I think of the many uncomfortable discussions following the Ferguson and Staten Island police killings last year. Differing views of what constituted racism -- and especially, whether racism lingered and was still entrenched -- elicited highly personal conversations, sharp comments and campus protest. In frank discussions, ugliness, racist undertones and deep cultural mistrust were exposed.
Honest exchange is the only way forward amid such controversies; different perspectives and experiences, even if they cause resentment in the short run, must be uncovered and understood if we hope to expand the bounds of empathy. Unpopular views must get a hearing in the classroom. Professors are obligated to foster a setting where students feel comfortable airing their most deep-seated fears and prejudices -- which may not be looked on kindly by others.
Guns in the classroom threaten this dynamic. Will students feel so safe and free when surrounded by other students who may be, secretly, arms bearers? Will they feel emboldened to take moral and political risks? Will they feel inclined to air potentially offensive views? I doubt it.
In fact, the prospect of guns in the classroom is more likely to cause professors to keep the conversation tepid and avoid certain controversies; everyone else will watch what they say, how they say it and to whom. This would be quite the opposite of the open and transformative exchange that universities have made it their mission to offer.
There is a further point. As we saw in the aftermath of the Ferguson and Staten Island police incidents, and earlier with the Occupy Wall Street movement, university campuses are places where political protest takes root. Perhaps colleges are not quite the haven for political protest that they once were -- like, say, in the 1960's. But universities have traditionally been places where students practice protest -- where they practice articulating and voicing political concern, and engaging in productive, demonstrative assembly. Sometimes the protest tactics they practice are aggressive, and push the envelope. Again, I would say, this is how it ought to be on campus -- it hearkens back to universities’ role as political incubators and testing grounds.
But guns are noxious in an atmosphere where people will experiment with risky methods of protest. To that extent, guns on campus may well kill such protest.
Guns may provide a basic kind of bodily and personal safety. This is the recurring argument put forth by campus carry proponents. This argument is dubious at best. But this much is clear: guns do nothing to help universities attain the kind of safety they desire and need -- the safety that enables intellectual and political exploration. Guns by their very nature dampen speech -- they chasten it. Colleges simply cannot tolerate them.
Firmin DeBrabander has writtenDo Guns Make Us Free?to be released by Yale University Press in May. He is also a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Although these sound bites slight the seriousness of their subject, Cuomo’s critics raise a fundamentally important question: When low- and middle-income students are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars of debt, how can government support for college prison programs be justified?
And the issue matters not only in New York State, where Cuomo’s proposal has captured public attention, but nationwide, where the idea of promoting college education in prisons is mostly ignored by politicians fearful of the kinds of attacks Cuomo is receiving.
We agree that any argument for funding college courses and/or degrees for prison inmates must reckon with the reality of the financial pressure on students who incur onerous college loans only to face an uncertain job market. In New York State, 6 out of 10 college seniors graduate with debt averaging $25,537, a reality not lost on some of our students in the Cayuga Community College-Cornell University Prison Education Program. Many men in our program have sons, daughters, nieces and nephews on the outside who are struggling to pay their own college loans.
That said, approaching college programs for prison inmates as a matter of “them or us,” the middle class or the undeserving poor, distorts what is at stake. This happened before. In the mid-1990s, Congress eliminated the use of federal Pell Grants for college programs in prison in response to critics who claimed that they drew resources away from worthy young men and women who were struggling to pay their way through college.
That was misguided then, and it remains so now.
First of all, the cost is relatively small. Governor Cuomo has proposed 10 programs, each with about 100 students, at a cost of $5,000 per individual that totals about $5 million. Compare this to the financial support available to New York college students more generally. In 2013, close to $2 billion in federal Pell Grants were disbursed to about 97,000 students in New York State, a figure that does not include a vast array of other federal and state as well as private scholarship and loan money available generally to students in New York’s two- and four-year colleges.
Second, the us-vs.-them frame is blind to the crime reduction and tax benefits that even a small college-educated prison population can deliver. College programs lower the incidence of crime both inside the prison and beyond its walls. Facility superintendents are usually eager to have college programs. A good discipline record is required to join and remain in the program. In those facilities with college classes, the incentive for staying out of trouble rises sharply.
When college-educated individuals are released to the street, recidivism drops dramatically. The Bard and Hudson Link prison education programs record low single digit return-to-prison rates of their students and graduates. A careful, synthetic analysis of multiple studies done in Ohio reports college as contributing to a one-third decline in reincarceration.
Even under conservative assumptions, the program will pay for itself and more. Assuming a $5 million cost, the release of no more than one-tenth of the 100 students in each of the 10 graduating classes, and recidivism rates of not more than 25 percent (much above the single-digit recidivism rate that New York State’s college programs currently experience), the savings during the first year are close to $5 million. Compounded over many years, they are substantial.
Third, it would be a mistake to see the benefits only in quantifiable monetary terms. Many student recipients of a college education behind bars play a role in urging young members of their own families to stay in school, to work hard, and to consider college. On returning home, many of these former students become passionate mentors of younger adults who face the same choices they once did. And the “us-them” divide is blurred still further in that many prison students become us returning to OUR families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our communities.
We ask that voters and our elected representatives act on the proposition that all New Yorkers – and all Americans – are better off by ridding ourselves of the legacy of binaries that force us to choose between the morally pure and the undeserving poor and by implementing public policies that reflect a commitment to provide education free of any racial, class, or moral litmus test.
Glenn Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.