Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is a former adviser on Education, Peace, and Justice to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and is co-author of Cultures Under Siege: Collective Violence and Trauma. This op-ed was originally published Dec. 20 in U.S News & World Report.
The horror of Sandy Hook, Conn., destroyed innocent children and their families and left the country and the world, in the words of President Obama, "broken-hearted." When precious children — life at its most purely platonic — are mass murdered in schools, what is buried with them is society's most fundamental social contract. Protecting the young and helpless is the bedrock of humanity. It is constitutive of any human social system. All societies known through the historical or ethnographic record are structured around basic systems devised for protecting, nurturing, and giving the tools — emotional, social, and cognitive — to the next generation to carry forth with the work of perpetuating a culture's values and world views. Open any good ethnography of world cultures and you will find a chapter on socialization or child rearing. Tending to the young is an evolutionary imperative.
We can and indeed do prepare to imagine individual loss and death. What the human mind simply cannot contain in our imperfect cognitive schemas and emotional architectures is the scale of destruction of human life we witnessed in Sandy Hook this dark December. Excavating any truths from the horrors visited upon that school is a fraught undertaking — at best leading us straight into the dead-ends where language fails to guide and, at worst, into clichés and platitudes unworthy of the suffering at hand. The tragedy of Sandy Hook robbed us of the most elemental human impulse: to make meaning and sense of our world.
We are left only with questions. In the weeks and months ahead many voices, some right on but many of dubious value, will make themselves heard as they try to fill in the deafening vacuum of meaning Sandy Hook has left behind in its horrible wake. "It's the culture of guns!" "It's Hollywood's culture of violence!" "It's video games!" "It's broken families and the lack of authentic intimacy!" "It's our broken mental health system!" "It's the synergies between the culture of guns and …." But be aware of facile answers and magic cures. This massive trauma is unequivocally incomprehensible; it violates our most intrinsic cultural and social values.
Schools are unique institutions of society because they are the places where "basic trust" first migrates from the private sphere of the home into the public sphere of the larger society. In current years, our national conversation about schools has regressed, as so much in our culture, to the least common denominator. We are not asking the question of the first order: What is the purpose of schooling? If our collectively answer is "to prepare children to compete for the jobs of the future," we are settling for the lowest hanging fruit. What we ask of schools is implicit in our view of a life worth living — it embodies our shared value of the person and of society.
Humans have an evolutionary predisposition to attachment, sociability and belonging, starting at home where basic trust is first established. Eminent child psychologist Erik Erikson once noted that the child's first social achievement is when she is able to let her parent out of sight without fear. This is a milestone in the pathway to the signature human achievement: sociability. The parent has become an inner certainty and not just an outer predictability. Little by little, basic trust will suffuse other relationships radiating outward from teachers and mentors and, more broadly, to fellow citizens and human beings in the world at large. In our society, schools are the midpoint between the helplessness of infancy and the autonomy of life in adulthood. The rituals and practices in and around school symbolize the migration of our littlest and most vulnerable citizens into the uncertain world beyond; one baby step at the time, the inevitable journey will take them to the sphere of citizenship and belonging to the larger society. Without basic trust there is no sociability and no citizenship as the Greeks and Romans first envisioned it. History, the great H. G. Wells wrote, is a race between education and catastrophe. When school becomes the site of such an indescribable catastrophe, we as a society risk losing the human race.