Personal Responsibility and Gun Violence

Several decades ago, when I was teaching analytical chemistry, I received a sample of road dust with a request that I determine whether it contained toxic substances. It came from the neighborhood where I had lived during high school.  As one might expect, there was a story behind the sample.

Months earlier the major highway in the region had closed for repairs to a railroad overpass.  The detour added many miles for north-south traffic through the county.  Eventually, regular commuters and long-distance truckers got word of a small local road that bypassed the construction.  It didn’t take long for heavy traffic to destroy the road’s thin layer of asphalt.  The local authorities responded by plowing up what remained of the paved road, returning it temporarily to a gravel surface.  The expectation, I presume, was that the rough surface and the clouds of dust would force traffic back to the official detour.  It didn’t.  And throughout a long, dry and very hot summer, the local residents lived in a haze of road dust.  Those in poor health struggled and families worried about long-term harm to their children.

As one might expect, the dust settling in the houses was rich in chemical composition. It wasn’t difficult to trace the organic compounds to the pulverized asphalt and road oils. These were mixed with a strong dose of the inorganic compound that had been sprayed in a futile attempt to settle the dust. I decided to return to my old neighborhood to personally explain the results of my analysis.

The community meeting called to discuss the issue went as expected. Local TV reporters showed up with cameras. Voices were raised and people yelled at the county official who had the courage to show up.  There was talk of petitions and protests. All of it was justified after weeks of frustrating inattention.  About the time things reached a fevered pitch, two farmers joined the meeting, standing quietly at the back of the room. They had been cultivating fields under the hot sun all day and it showed.  After about five minutes the two farmers whispered to each other, shrugged their shoulders, and walked out of the room.  I could scarcely contain my anger. There was a community problem, children were at danger, and these two neighbors didn’t seem to care.

As it turned out, I was much too quick in my condemning judgment.  Soon I heard the roar of diesel farm tractors on the road. Behind those tractors, which were large enough to cover both lanes, were large tanks of water and a fine mist of water being applied to the gravel road. The water settled the dust and the slow-moving, wide tractors, which appeared regularly in the coming days, made the narrow road a very inconvenient if not impossible detour. Soon word was out and through-traffic returned to the officially sanctioned route.

While some of us demanded action, others took action. The experience reminded me that on some days we can win an argument and on other days we can solve a problem.  But rarely can we do both at the same time.

I applied this life lesson in my response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  My in-box was filled with notes endorsing a letter by a colleague demanding that President Obama take immediate action to limit the availability of assault weapons.  Almost lost among the endorsements for this strong note was a second letter that urged college presidents to mobilize their campuses to find solutions to the many and complex issues that contribute to gun violence.  Signatories of the first letter demanded action by the President of the United States.  Signatories of the second letter pledged personal action.  Both are good letters.  I am glad that so many of my colleagues are offering their support.  I am sure that President Obama will read carefully the request from so many of my good colleagues who are urging him to action.  Personally, I have opted for the second letter that pledges personal responsibility for engaging the Monmouth College community in finding ways to make our children safer.

The letter I signed was drafted by President Lee Pelton of Emerson College.  In it he wrote:  “Our nation looks to colleges and universities to solve its most pressing problems and these are issues on which we stand ready to provide a way forward.  We, therefore, pledge to do that which we do best in our communities:  engage thought leaders, faculty, students, staff, trustees and friends in meaningful debate and dialogue, which in turn, might lead to positive action.”  This pledge has been transmitted to President Obama.  As important as it is that he knows we plan to take action, it is even more important that all members of the Monmouth community know that I have pledged our action.

Like the residents of Newtown, Connecticut, we live in a small town that seems isolated from the day-to-day impact of gun violence.  Yet we have once again been reminded that none of us, wherever we live, can or should ignore the potential for unexpected and devastating impact.  We must also not forget that many of our students are spending their Christmas break in areas where homicide is a regular—if not daily—concern.   There have been more than 500 homicides in Chicago this year, the majority of which involved firearms and, in far too many cases, children as victims.  As a national liberal arts college we should contribute to the resolution of gun violence because it is an issue of vital, national concern.  As a community that cares deeply for all who study here, we have a special responsibility to address this issue that is close to home for students we love.

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Unless a college

Have you ever wanted to use a clever statement or phrase that you heard or read and realized that you couldn’t remember its origin? That can be a real problem when working on an academic assignment. Prefacing the phrase with “a famous person once said” or “I think it was my grandfather who told me that” often gets us by in casual conversation, but most of us would still prefer to remember the context, the speaker, and the exact wording when we use a timely quote.

I spent last weekend trying to remember the origin of an old bit of advice regarding the joining of clubs.  I vaguely remembered reading or hearing something like: “Don’t join many clubs, few if any. Join the church and join the family but not much in between, except perhaps a college.”

My first thought was that this must be something I read in 1973 as part of a course on famous American orators. Daniel Webster was my best guess as the speaker to first utter something similar to this phrase. But, a check of famous quotations from this legendary orator did not turn up what I was looking for. Perhaps my memory was fooled by Webster’s memorable line in arguing a case for Dartmouth College in front of the Supreme Court in which he proclaimed, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those of us who love it!”

I typed my remembered quotation into a search engine and found no match. Not only had I misremembered the speaker, but clearly I didn’t have the wording quite right. So, I turned to Jeff, who edits much of what I write and asked if he could track down the correct wording and the speaker. His search came up blank, but he suggested that maybe I had the wrong Webster; perhaps it was Noah instead of Daniel. Certainly Jeff’s was a solid suggestion—Noah Webster had many positive things to say about colleges and churches and was probably a proponent of families. But, no match came up among the famous statements of Noah Webster.

When all else fails, turn to a librarian. I sent Rick the request, “find me the source of a quotation that I can’t remember.” After a quick try with search engines, he went to the shelves and pulled out the hard copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1980), checked the index under “join” and found both the source and the wording that I was searching.  There it was:

Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States and join the family-
But not much in between unless a college.

It wasn’t from a 19th-century orator. No, it was from Robert Frost’s 1932 poem Build Soil. No wonder it took a while to find: I was in the wrong century and the wrong genre.  And, somewhere in the 40 years since first seeing this work, I had replaced “gangs” with “clubs” and “the United States” with “the church.”

Far be it from me to ever suggest that I might turn a phrase better than Robert Frost, but in this case I like my garbled version better than the original. Of course, when he used the word gang it did not likely imply all we mean by it today and almost certainly had a more positive connotation.  And, for my purposes last weekend, it made as much sense to suggest that one join a church as to join the United States. When the phrase came to mind, I was in a church, winding my way through the visitation line for a Monmouth College student named Tommy, who had died in a tragic accident. In fact, it was the longest visitation line I had ever experienced. How could someone so young, I wondered, have touched so many people? As I looked around, the answer was apparent. He had been associated with a caring church, a close-knit college community, and a large, loving family. With apologies to Robert Frost, the situation shouted out the message:  Join a church, join a family and join a college, and you can find great joy in life.

Since my career has been spent in relatively small colleges, I haven’t attended a lot of funerals for students, but even one every year or so is too many. Each time it seems that the student was one of the most active on campus.  Maybe all college students lead exciting, busy, full lives, yet we don’t think about how special they are until a tragedy occurs.

It is particularly sad when a young person with so many adventures on the horizon is killed. When that occurs close to graduation our first thought is to think that the years in college preparing for a career and a busy life were wasted.  But, of course, those years weren’t wasted. College isn’t simply a preparation for what lies ahead. It is in a very real sense what life is all about. Being a friend, inspiring others, enjoying ideas, growing intellectually and spiritually, enriching a community—these are the riches of life and not just the preparation for some future life.

Robert Frost’s admonition wasn’t “attend college” or “go to class” or “study hard” or “prepare for a job.”  Instead he called on us to join a college in the same way one should join a family or join a country.  Joining a college is far more than taking advantage of a degree, just as joining a family is far more than taking advantage of parents and siblings. Given the exalted status of colleges, on par with family and country (and not much else), Frost certainly imagined that each of us would immerse ourselves in the full range of activities and take on both responsibilities and joys of membership in a special college community.

It was clear, as I looked at those in the visitation line, that Tommy had fully immersed himself in the gang that is Monmouth College. His professors spoke of the joy of having him in class. His football teammates carried themselves with class, seemingly trying to elevate their friend by mustering every bit of stoic dignity possible. A tearful group of volleyball players reminded us that college students don’t live in silos. Countless classmates affirmed that they had been enriched by conversations with Tommy.

College was more than a holding pattern for Tommy. It had been about much more than earning a credential. It wasn’t just preparation for life; it was life itself. And regardless of how long he or any of his classmates live, it will have included some of the best parts of life.  Indeed, a college should be joined, not just attended.

Frost was wise when he compared a college with one’s country and family. With each of these three institutions it is possible to go through life taking more than giving. Some people have no qualms avoiding taxes and dodging drafts while enjoying liberties and services. Others enjoy the family Thanksgiving dinner without offering to bring a dish or wash the dishes. Still others go to college to acquire a credential, but don’t contribute to the rich community life that does so much to change so many lives. While all of these individuals may think they are clever, in the end they miss the incredible joy of belonging to a country, a family, and a college. Belonging does require effort and sacrifice, but those who have made the sacrifice know that it is an experience like no other.

Frost’s line about gangs (or in my mind, Webster’s line about clubs) came to me while encountering members of Tommy’s “gangs.”  Clearly, Tommy had taken the effort and made the sacrifices necessary to find the rewards of full immersion within his communities. I was saddened by the death of this much-loved student. But I was happy that he spent his last three years as a member of our gang. There is no better place to live the best years of one’s life.

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