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After Vegas shooting, we should teach and debate gun issues in schools | Opinion

Teachers should help students understand what happened. So let's ask them why these cataclysms occur, and what we can do to prevent them.

Nancy Hardy touches a flower on a cross in Las Vegas placed in honor of mass shooting victim John Phippen, of Santa Clarita, Calif.
Nancy Hardy touches a flower on a cross in Las Vegas placed in honor of mass shooting victim John Phippen, of Santa Clarita, Calif.Read moreGregory Bull / Associated Press

Talk to the children. Let them express their fears, worries, and anxieties. Most of all, reassure them that everything is going to be OK.

That's the typical educational advice you hear after a tragedy like the shooting last week in Las Vegas, where a gunman murdered 58 people. And surely teachers should offer consolation and support to anyone who needs it, especially to children who have been victims of violence themselves.

But teachers are also enjoined to help students understand what happened. So I have another suggestion:

Ask the kids why these cataclysms occur and what we can do to prevent them.

Yes, that raises the specter of politics in the classroom. But the classroom should be political: that is, it should teach children how to engage — civilly and respectfully — in the controversial issues of their time. And few issues are as controversial as the regulation of firearms.

We saw that after the Vegas shooting, when half of the country called for greater gun control while the other half insisted legal restrictions could never have stopped gunman Stephen Paddock. Gun-rights groups like the National Rifle Association also condemned the "politicization" of the tragedy, insisting it was unseemly to use the death count to demand new regulations.

When a political organization tells you not to engage in politics, we've entered the theater of the absurd. Mass shootings are hugely political events, exposing our nation's deepest divisions over who we are and what we want to be. The only question is how — or whether — we can find a language to speak across these differences, and to bring us a bit closer together.

And that's where schools come in. If we want to live in a society where we talk with one another — instead of past one another — we need to teach the next generation of citizens how to do it. And they certainly won't learn that if our schools shy away from controversial issues.

Instead, our children will imitate the 24/7 orgy of anger and invective they encounter on the airwaves and the internet. They'll call one another libtards and loons, wingnuts and nutjobs. They'll assume the very worst about anyone who disagrees with them. And they'll never find any reason to question their own beliefs and biases, which is the beginning of real understanding.

Before the news cycle moves on to something else, I'd encourage all of our schools to address the gun issue head-on. That means presenting students with a wide range of opinion so they can formulate their own.

It also means distinguishing opinion from fact, which has become a huge challenge in these days of digital hoax and rumor. But that's all the more reason our schools must take it on.

So teachers will need to explain the fact — and, yes, it is a fact — that Americans did not have a constitutional right to purchase and own firearms for most of our history. Only in the 1970s did our courts start to interpret the Second Amendment as guaranteeing individual gun ownership.

Should everyone be able to own a gun? That's an opinion question, not a factual one, and reasonable people can disagree about it. Maybe the courts were right to expand the scope of the Second Amendment, and maybe they were wrong. But everyone should know the facts about the amendment so they can come to their own conclusions about it.

And that will require teachers who let students do that. Educators who foist their own opinions on students — or disguise these opinions as facts — are no longer educators; they are propagandists. Teachers are political beings, of course, and they should be free to say what they think. But they must never insist that students think the same way.

Finally, we need to give our teachers — and their students — the space to pursue this debate, whether our own side wins or not. There's already too much hollow talk in education about "critical thinking," often brought to you by people who think every critically minded person will share their point of view. But if you believe in debate — indeed, if you believe in democracy — you have to be willing to lose.

News flash: Americans disagree deeply about guns. Why pretend otherwise when the kids are in the room? They already know we differ, sharply and vehemently. What they often don't know is how to deliberate these differences in an atmosphere of reason and respect. It's time to teach them so that — one day — they can teach the rest of us, as well.

Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author (with Emily Robertson) of  "The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools" (University of Chicago Press).