The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters and Other Observations After a Trauma

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters - F. Goya
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – Francisco Goya, c. 1799

Reason does not sleep, and yet there are still monsters. We’re reminded of this a lot lately, far more than I can ever recall. So I think that now, while so many of us are engaged, is the time to think about whether we–you, me, our perceived political adversaries–are approaching the ends of reason. I mean Reason in the way that the Enlightenment thinkers understood it: in the belief in the capacity for human rationality, and not superstition or dogma, to win the day. I mean it, also, in the subtler sense of simply being reasonable, of knowing your reasons for thinking and feeling a certain way and, especially, for using logical reasoning to understand that our perceived adversaries–some of whom you may believe to be monsters–are in fact humans, capable of tremendously rational actions and infinite goodness. If these are the monsters we face with reason awoken, what hope do we have should it slumber completely?


Training teachers to use firearms to prevent or disrupt further school attacks is unreasonable. In fact, the suggestion itself may be proof that we’ve gone beyond reason in public discourse. Blaming video games for violence while advocating for action flick retaliation efforts from teachers against school attacks demonstrates a complete lack of reason and logic and rationality.


Three reasons why I don’t want a gun in my classroom:

  1. I would prefer to address this situation with wisdom rather than weapons. That might sound empty or romantic, but here’s what I mean: we need to talk about joining educators, law enforcement officials and mental health experts to create a process for acknowledging and addressing “troubled” students and providing for their needs. I don’t know what legal processes this would require or if it is even really a pliable solution. I do know that the resources currently available to teachers and administrators to address the needs of obviously troubled kids is abhorrently insufficient. Expulsion is the biggest hammer schools have in a chest of other left-handed tools.
  2. If I wanted to be a civil servant who uses a gun, I would have joined the police force. I want to teach. I want to engage with young people and help them develop the tools and mindsets they will need as adults to be civically functioning, healthy people. I can’t get through to all of them, and never believed that I could. But I know that I don’t have the capacity–legally and pedagogically–to help the kids who are the worst kinds of troubled, who in themselves are noticeably approaching the end of reason. I want to help them. I don’t want to have a shootout with them. And I don’t think, despite current rhetoric to the contrary, that is at all necessary.
  3. I don’t need arms training: I need training and resources from folks who can help me recognize, assess and engage with a troubled kid in a useful way. I want training on mental health issues that goes beyond suicide awareness. I want a system that specifically outlines what can be done by educators, administrators, mental health professionals and law enforcement to intervene with a kid who is an obvious risk. I want this new system to do more than the current system that pushes the problem uphill until the superintendent of the district has to make the decision to expel a child who might then turn around and do the unthinkable in retaliation.


It is absolutely harrowing to be in an even seemingly legitimate lockdown. We had one earlier this year and I was wrecked over what amounted to a very serious drill. I did not wish I had a gun. I wished I had an escape pod. When the cops eventually showed up to check the halls, seeing them in their bullet-proof vests, pointing their rifles into my classroom for the all-clear was not at all reassuring. It was only slightly less unsettling than the darkness and uncertainty. How did I know this was a cop and not a shooter in cop’s clothing? How did this officer know if I was a “good guy?” I was shakily nervous when I opened my classroom door. What if I reached too jerkily for the handle? What if he mistook the phone in my hand for a weapon? I understand that these are trained individuals, but they are human, after all. And while I was glad that it turned out to be nothing, I was not glad to see such large guns in a place where I so often feel so safe.

Which is why when I see calls for more armed guards or former veterans manning the doors of our schools it plays like a childish fantasy, a knee-jerk response from, what I have seen, primarily men looking for revenge. I understand that impulse, especially in the immediate aftermath of the shock, but I also know that the last thing any school needs is a Frank Castle standing by the buses and prowling the halls day after day. It is far too slippery of a slope for me, and my fears about the implications for students in urban districts already laden with tensions between local police officers, gangs, etc., are too chilling to write out completely…


We need to talk about boys.

We have long needed teachers who know how to talk to and develop boys into thoughtful young men. But we still, despite calls to the contrary, simply let boys be boys. That, by the way, is the privilege and tragedy of being a male: you are culturally expected to be self-reliant, and so nobody ever checks in with you emotionally, and you don’t know who to turn to when you need someone, so you just push on, hardening your heart. I think it’s fair to say that, amongst a slew of other things, we often let boys grow up without fully developing their emotional capacities. We often lead adolescent boys to believe their physicality is their most effective trait, that their brains and/or braun will win the day for them, and we forsake the hearts of too many young men.

We need a new definition of masculinity–and models of masculinity–that promotes not only reason, but equity and balance. We need role models that admit faults, that check in at the right levels. Boys need to know–need to see and fully understand–what it means to be strong and pliable, to be powerful and compassionate, to be faulty and fair. Boys need empowerment to be complete, whatever that means for them. They need to be given tools to recognize their impulses and act conscientiously. Boys need to know restraint and they need to know self-love. To be clear: self-love is not bravado, it is not vanity, it is not easy. How many boys do you know who know what it means to love unconditionally? How many men?  

I admit, this kind of thinking does not seem very effective at preventing would-be killers. But it might be:

In parent meetings with male students who are struggling, you can see it. They are all bottled up, unknowing how to cope: fear and shame and pride and anger and defiance all rattling inside their chests and heads and guts. They often cry. They rarely look back up after they do cry. They’re ashamed. And in their shame they don’t see that emotional moment as a breakthrough, as a chance at talking and reconciling and understanding. Despite the palpable power they’ve demonstrated, they just bury their heads. 

So, no, this last bit isn’t about killing killers. It’s about deadening the norms of boyhood so the kind of repression and rage it can create doesn’t erupt in tragedy.

We talk openly about the obvious bullies, the shove-happy kids on the playground. Sometimes, like after Columbine, we did it a lot. Clearly that didn’t make the impact we’d hoped. And it’s not because the bullies disappeared or changed tactics. It’s because the bulliness is built into boyhood.

To the matter at hand: the truth is that a school shooter, who is usually male, is ultimately the product of a constellation of social, psychological and possibly even spiritual issues. But as time moves us away from the shock of this most recent shooting, it is important to keep working towards prevention. We need to press our policymakers to make the much-needed connections between mental health, education, and law enforcement so the boys and girls who need specific, intensive help can get it before they walk into a gun shop. And I truly believe we need to help our boys locate models of masculinity to prevent the isolation and anger that is swimming in the hearts of so many of them right now.


One thought on “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters and Other Observations After a Trauma

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s