Friday, July 20, 2012

Brains to Bullets: Graduate School Gunmen

This morning when I woke up, the first thing I heard about was the shooting in Colorado during the premier of The Dark Knight Rises. Since I had gone to the midnight showing, getting to the theater two hours before the movie started despite having advanced tickets, it clearly had freaked my mom out to think that it could have just as easily been at our local theater. I imagined myself there, with all the chaos of bullets flying, people scrambling, gas oozing. As my friend Eye said, "Talk about life imitating art." Sad, but true, in this case. It was like a real life Joker attack, senseless and without motive thus far, incited to create fear and chaos. It was homegrown terrorism (of course, unless he was Arab, the media wouldn't label it that way, but that's an argument for another day).

My first reaction after I heard about it, like any good academic, was to read about it from different news sources to find out what really happened. There was no shortage of sources. Right away I learned that a man just a bit younger than myself named James Holmes was responsible for the horrific event. He was a 24-year-old who walked into the theater where the movie was screening wearing a gas mask wielding guns and smoke bombs. He incited panic and then shot people as they tried to leave, children included.

What I read in the Los Angeles Times, however, really bothered me:
[Holmes] was described by law enforcement sources as a loner. He was a student at the University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus but the school said he was in the process of withdrawing from the graduate program in neuroscience. 
For those of you who follow my blog, you may remember a post just a few months back about a similar situation, "When Your Dad Knows the Guman... And Says He Was Really Smart."In that case, a young guy who had worked for my dad, one who had a B.A. in Chemistry from Carleton, a B.S. in Engineering from Columbia, and had recently started a graduate program in Biology, took to open-firing at a mental health clinic in Pittsburgh.

They say there is a thin line between genius and insanity, but I want to know what is making these men snap. Notice, there a few incidents of women going on shooting rampages. Many of these massacres are caused by men with higher education and guns.

So again, I have to wonder if our survival-of-the-fittest, pit-students-against-each-other mentality in higher education is partially to blame for what these men have done. As you can see, both snapped at about the same time that they withdrew from graduate studies, and it appears that neither flunked out, but mysteriously decided to stop going. Did he need someone to reach out and lose it when no one did? Was the pressure to be perfect too great? Though graduate students seem adult and self-sufficient and thus, are usually left to work on their own, I think graduate students need just as much, if not more, mentoring and encouragement than undergrads.

Our very own Peter Elbow talks about how disheartening graduate studies can be in his book Embracing Contraries. He talks about a time when he had enrolled and basically failed out. He thought he wasn't smart enough or organized enough to be a student and couldn't focus. It took teaching and find his way back to enjoying learning to get him back into school. Of course, Elbow seems better adjusted and more personable then the two shooters, who were both known for being loners and slightly odd, but seemingly harmless.

What I guess I'm really getting at here is that in the wake of the aftermath, there's hundreds of people talking about gun control issues, there are politicians "keeping the victims in their prayers," and there are people posting Batman ribbons on their Facebook walls, but no one is really doing much or assessing what can be done to prevent these incidents. Very few people are willing to say that mental health issues or American ideologies are partially at play here; they simply want "justice," whatever that means. They want blood for blood. What's even worse is those who are using this incident as a platform for their Political views or campaigns.

Now, this is not to say that killings are justified or that the shooter should be let go, but this is to say that we are a society that produces crime through our apathetic "mind your own business" ideologies, our constant drive to compete against our neighbors, our dependency on pharmaceuticals to "cure" all kinds of mental health issues, and the way that we set up a separation of spheres between academia and the "real world." We've hyped up the idea of "making a name for yourself" to the point where it must be done, no matter how it is done.

When it comes down to moments like this, I don't care what Stanley Fish says about simply being an "academic." Educators have a responsibility to encourage collaboration, to reach out to students even when they make us uncomfortable, and not to make students feel lesser for seeking out help. Actually not just educators, but all human beings have that responsibility. It may not solve every issue, but it will help people from feeling isolated and unwanted and ultimately feeling the need to harm themselves or others.

With that said, my heart goes out to those people that are suffering as the ripple effect of this tragedy sends it waves out over the community and the country. It was a senseless, intolerable, selfish act, and I hope that some good will come of it so that those who were killed will not have died in vain.

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