The idea began with the kids.
Back in September, children in an educational program at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture were re-writing constitutional amendments as part of an exercise. When trying to re-word the Second Amendment and thinking through different scenarios involving guns, they quickly found their opinions were at odds.
“I think everyone left that class feeling a little like our members of Congress,” said Lea Bender, the teacher who led the program. “A lot of time was spent debating, but ultimately we could not reach much consensus.”
The students delved deeper, examining various viewpoints on the issue, trying to understand why firearms have become such a contentious issue in the United States. All perspectives were considered, from troubling statistics on gun violence to the NRA’s Eddie Eagle gun-safety song and dance.
“Part of the underlying lesson was the importance of being able to back up our opinions with well-rounded, factual information,” said Bender, whose “Ethics for Children” program aims to foster empathy for others’ viewpoints while prodding students to examine their own beliefs as well.
Eventually, to break their gridlock, the students proposed engaging members of the community through on-the-street interviews. With some caveats involved, Ms. Bender agreed. She had the students learn how to conduct a non-biased interview, helping them construct many open-ended questions. Not much later, they broke into groups and hit the streets.
“Excuse me,” Lochlan Brooks, age 12, asked a woman near Prospect Park, his voice slightly nervous. “Do you have a few minutes to answer a survey about gun control?”
The woman agreed.
“Do you know how many school shootings have occurred in the U.S. in the last two years?” his co-interviewer, 11-year-old C.C. Servon, asked her. “3, 20, 35, 87, or 64?”
“Well, it can’t be three, but I’ve only heard about three,” the woman said. “Wow, that’s an awful statistic,” she admitted, upon being advised that the highest number was accurate (and the figure has actually increased since then, including with a shooting at Florida State University Thursday morning).
“What are the positive or negative effects of tightening gun control?” Brooks asked.
“I can’t think of anything negative with restricting automatic weapons, but if you’re not allowed to own guns at all, the only people in the country with guns would be the military, police, and criminals,” the woman said. “That might be dangerous.”
“Should it be easier or harder to acquire a gun in the U.S.?” Zane Devlin, 11, asked a young man.
“It’s hard enough as it is,” the man said. “I would say, have it stay as it is.”
“Do you approve of hunting?” Jahi Bandele, the same age as Zane, followed up.
“Well, since I actually have been hunting,” he replied, “I would have to say… sort of.”
The interviewing process lasted several weeks. At the conclusion, the students discussed their findings.
“What do you think now?” Ms. Bender asked.
“I think we should be like Australia,” said Milo Servon, C.C.’s 10-year-old brother. “They don’t have guns anymore. They got rid of them.”
“Yeah, but we have bears,” Zane said. “They could eat you. That’s scary.”
“But doesn’t Australia have all kinds of strange animals that could eat you too?” C.C. retorted.
“What should we do with all of this information?” Ms. Bender prompted them. Suggestions were offered in rapid succession: “Make a graph.” “Send it to the Governor.” “Send it to Obama.”
“Obama gets too many letters, he never actually responds,” Lochlan said.
“Sell the data on Ebay!” Zane offered.
More serious discussion followed: was there was a difference between hunting for sport versus for food, and could hunting be good for the environment? (a young gun owner from Alabama said he considered himself an environmentalist). What did it mean when interviewees had vague support for increasing or decreasing gun control measures, but could not name specifics? Did actual gun owners differ greatly in their responses?
Though Ms. Bender realized the kids were left with a conundrum about what to do with the information, which did not necessarily add up to a cohesive narrative, ultimately, there was a bigger lesson at stake.
“This was about thinking through how we form our opinions and how we can engage in intelligent debate, even on complicated issues that our government can’t seem to figure out,” she said. “Over time I expect this issue will come up again for these kids and when the time comes, my hope is that they will be primed to engage in meaningful dialogue and, when necessary, take action.”
The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture (BSEC), based in Park Slope, is a congregation of individuals and families who choose to emphasize personal growth and social progress. Its “Ethics for Children” program provides a fun, focused learning environment for kids to explore topics that foster empathy, respect and a deeper understanding of self and others.