ambivalent imbroglio home

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April 01, 2003

Kids these days...

It probably comes as no surprise to most teachers that Generation Y trusts the government and supports the war. According to Neil Howe, the coauthor of "Millennials Rising" and a social policy advisor in Washington:

"These are kids who are taught to think of themselves as being the sole purpose of community life in America," Howe explains. "They've been surrounded by kinderpolitics, the idea that politicians are constantly saying, 'Do it for the children.'" The recent list of governmental reforms for kids is endless: The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Labor, Treasury, and Justice Departments, and even the EPA have passed laws benefiting young Americans. "These kids have been taught, throughout the late '80s and '90s, that government is constantly trying to do great things for kids," says Howe. "Why shouldn't they like government?"

So despite all the cries about problems with our schools, the U.S. educational system must be working just fine, after all—it's creating lots of good subjects (not to be confused with bad subjects, of course). I'm sure King George is pleased. I wonder what these kids think of the Iraq body count.

This is actually one of the reasons I'm leaving teaching (at least here and at least for now). To make a gross generalization, a majority of students (at least at this university) simply seem to lack the ability or desire to think critically about anything. And yes, I see the irony in this: If students are so lacking in critical ability, that only means my role as a teacher becomes that much more important. However, I've become cynical about the ability of college instructors (or professors) to really teach critical thinking within an institutional and cultural atmosphere that actively discourages students from thinking critically. I've said this before and I'll say it again: I'll forever be glad and thankful for the thousands of great people who continue to teach at our public universities, but I no longer feel that I should be one of them. I hope I'll be able to do more good at a policy level than I've been able to do in the classroom.

In a demonstration of my students' active aversion to critical thought, one of my students sent an email the other day expressing his "disappointment in [my] subtle inputs on [my] antiwar feelings." The email continued:

I understand everyone has their beliefs, and I respect that, but you are going against the most important idea taught to teachers like yourself. Your classroom behavior as a teacher is always supposed to be neutral regardless of you beliefs [sic]. You assumed this responsibility when you chose to become a teacher and you are breaking that critical rule. If you feel the need to offer such an opinion in the classroom setting, it is imperative you also explore the otherside. [sic]

My first reaction to this message was that my student must have confused the job of "teacher" with that of "journalist." My second reaction was to rush to my "Big Book of Critical Rules for Teachers," but I couldn't find it anywhere. I wonder where my student got his copy.

But all kidding aside, what bothers me is that this message came from an intelligent senior at a major American public university. [1] Worse, this student is expressing a commonly-held view: Teachers ought to be neutral; they ought not advocate for one position or another on a given issue, but especially on important social or political issues. This perspective is closely imbricated with the overall rightward-shift in U.S. educational policy over the past 20-30 years, culminating most recently in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) which dramatically reduces the authority and autonomy of teachers in the classroom. [2] Although the NCLBA does not govern college-level education, such policies are explicit expressions of our society's disrespect for and distrust of teachers at all levels, tightly proscribing what is and is not allowed within the classroom.

I understand the anxiety Americans feel about what happens within classrooms. Education is a powerful tool, and that tool can be used for good or ill. However, I am not Voltaire's Pangloss and this is not the best of all possible worlds. It would be irresponsible for teachers to pretend otherwise.

We've reached a very scary place as a culture if we're going to say that college teachers must pretend neutrality on all issues. For that's what "neutrality" or "objectivity" or whatever you choose to call it really is—a pretense. Asking teachers to be neutral is asking them to occupy a hypothetical ideal that does not exist. Even teaching "both sides" of an issue means taking a biased position that promotes the view that there are, in fact, two valid sides. The truth is more likely that there are dozens of valid sides, but what's important is that teachers who argue for "both sides" of an issue are taking a political stance on that issue.

This is probably the most pernicious aspect of this whole "pro-neutrality" attitude, because what this student seeks is not even some myth of neutrality, what he's demanding is to be protected from the discomfort of having to face or seriously consider arguments and ideas with which he disagrees. This is much like the phenomenon Sam Heldman has observed about people in the Deep South [link via Cooped Up]. Heldman writes:

There are many people down there -- a huge number, I would say, based on my experience -- who don't know when they're saying something that constitutes a position on a disputed issue of politics or morality. And when it is pointed out to them that they are in fact doing so, they get very uncomfortable and often get defensive. I think that it is attributable to the fact that they so rarely hear dissenting opinions. At otherwise perfectly lovely parties, even when everyone is on his or her best behavior, you will hear off-hand comments (for instance) about how the trial lawyers are ruining this or that aspect of society; and when I or someone like me will disagree, as affably as I know how, the response is as though I had (as the old saying goes) farted in church -- the dissenter has done the wholly inappropriate thing of bringing up politics in such a nice gathering, when those who merely voice the majority political view didn't even realize that they were bringing up politics at all. You see this sort of thing at Instapundit sometimes -- he acts shocked, from time to time, when people accuse him of making a political statement, when from his point of view he was just having a pleasant conversation about obvious truths. This is not a universal trait among Southerners, of course. Some people know full well that, by being in favor of the honoring of the Confederate cause, they are working to further an extreme political position. But others are simply unaware that, by joining in the "honoring", they are taking a position with which a reasonable person could disagree.

Heldman's observations perfectly describe the majority of the students I've taught—they're constantly taking political positions on things, but because they voice what they think is the majority opinion, they don't realize they're taking a political position at all. And when a teacher makes them aware of their politics by raising the "other side" of the issue, they act shocked, offended, even angry. Heldman is also correct that students react this way to new ideas because they so rarely hear dissenting opinions. This is especially true when the subject is war, since my students' knowledge of current events comes mostly from 5-minute encounters with CNN and/or the 1-minute news briefs that occasionally interrupt the music and advertising on their favorite radio station. In other words, all they hear about the war are endless loops of Bush bellicosity and great sentimental pieces about the courage and "staying power" of American troops.

Is this what a "free" society looks like? Is censorship better when it comes from the people rather than from their government? And if war doesn't wake Generation Y from its "trusting" stupor, what will? [3]

[1] It's probably neither here nor there, but this particular student also happens to be going to law school next fall.

[2] The NCLBA was the product of a republican administration, contradicting the republican party's traditional advocacy of smaller federal government and increased state and local autonomy. However, it's perfectly in keeping with the push by this administration's Justice Department and DEA to override California state law with regard to medical marijuana. I'm sure this case will provide some good discussion in future Constitutional Law classes covering the separation of powers. At any rate, republican education policies are just one are in which the parties traditional rhetoric contradicts its actions. For more on this, I highly recommend Educating the "Right" Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality by Michael W. Apple. (As a footnote to a footnote, I recently completed a brief review of this book for an online journal. I'll post a link if and when the review goes public.)

[3] "Trust" is probably not the best word for Generation Y's attitude toward the government and the world. Better words might be "fear" or "laziness." Students may be afraid to challenge or criticize their government because to do so would be to acknowledge that they may not, in fact, live in the best of all possible worlds. Criticism implies problems, flaws, imperfections, and these are things my students actively deny. This might also be laziness because it's simply easier to trust that everything will work out for the best. Yet, the cost of this laziness can be great in the end. See Candide.

Posted April 1, 2003 09:27 AM | general politics

Let me offer a couple of thoughts to try to expand upon what the student may have been trying to say. Certainly, his note does sound a bit childish and was not terribly articulate, but there may be a few points that can be drawn from it and from your post.

Consider the reference to "subtle inputs." It may be that what is bothering this student has to do with presentation more than content. He may feel that you are introducing your views on the war in conversational asides, insinuations, or innuendo, rather than as a subject for forthright discussion. Alternatively, he may have felt that you were blurring your role as a teacher by speaking authoritatively (i.e., as a teacher) on a subject that is off-topic and highly controversial (if memory serves, you're in an English Department; I'm making an assumption that the war is at least nominally "off-topic" to your class, and I apologize if that's incorrect).

Also, from your post, I read a significant level of frustration and even hostility toward your students. It's not my intention to pass any personal judgment on your views of your students, particularly since i have no personal knowledge. Certainly, I could never be an effective teacher, and I have great admiration for those who do bceome teachers. It may be, though, that what your student is trying to express is not really an expectation that you should be neutral (which I agree is a difficult and possibly unattainable position), but rather a concern that you don't respect his views. It may be that he believes that he has put worthy, individual mental effort (beyond just short snippets of TV-watching) into arriving at those views, adn that you may be unfairly lumping him into a generalized assessment of his peer group.

Again, I recognize that I have no personal knowledge of the situation. Also, I freely admit that I may be giving the student way too much credit in trying to extrapolate reasonable arguments from his note; you know him personally, and he may just be a lunk.

All of that said, please let me again offer my best wishes for you in law school, and my congratulations at having gotten into several good schools. I suspect that you may find advocacy to be more rewarding than teaching, and I expect that you'll be quite good at it.

Posted by: Tom T. at April 2, 2003 02:46 PM

I'm really curious as to what you said in response (if anything). As well you know, I am all too familiar with this. And I also seem to have missed the neutrality lecture in the prosem...

"Your classroom behavior as a teacher is always supposed to be neutral regardless of you beliefs [sic]. You assumed this responsibility when you chose to become a teacher and you are breaking that critical rule."

Wow. Next thing you know, the students will be telling the teachers how to evaluate student work as well as how to teach. Oh, wait...

Now, I don't mean to diminish the student's concerns, as if the student feels that your opposing views directly affect your evaluation of the student's work ("He gave me a B-minus just because I'm pro-war!") or the student's ability to contribute to the class...then that should certainly be addressed. But if, as I suspect, it's more a case of the student expecting to be fed factual knowledge and not have to consider it in any way, then, well...everything you said in your post. :)

Nothing we do in the classroom, especially at the college level, is neutral. We're human. It can't possibly be. No matter what subject we teach, we pick material, we pick approaches, we pick what theories or interpretations to present and ignore, we pick types of evaluation. We work to give them tools and demonstrate the process, so that they can run with it (one point of education, after all)...and all too often, when it comes for them to run with it, they stop instead and wait for us to point out the "right" route.

I do also think it's an aspect of the subject though, too, as well as the whole power dynamic of the classroom (now that I do remember from the prosem!). (Literature's not supposed to be political, remember?) Funny how some students all too often think that the teacher has no business mixing literature and the real world (even in an offhand comment or chat before/after class), but an analysis that effectively states "This character is a lot like my cousin Bob, but having the character do X in the story is completely unrealistic! Bob would never do that! Therefore, this story is crap." is perfectly acceptable.

This particular battle is long and uphill. I know it was one of the things that wore me out.

Posted by: Rachel at April 3, 2003 11:41 PM

Tom T: Thanks for your comments. You're right that I feel a significant level of frustration with and hostility toward my students -- that's why I'm getting out of this gig. It's hard to be an effective teacher when you keep forgetting that your students are actually good, intelligent people. Then again, when I remember that my students are good, intelligent people, that sometimes only makes me more sad and frustrated because their intelligence and goodness makes their social and political apathy all the more tragic and difficult to understand.

So you're probably correct that the student who complained about my anti-war views might have been more bothered by presentation than content. (And he's not just a lunk; if he wasn't a smart guy, his email would not have been worth the thought I put into it.) Also, regardless of whether he objects to the form or content of what I say, his desire to start a conversation about it is laudable. That means he's at least considering some new ideas, even if his impulse is to ask that those ideas be made more palatable by being more "balanced" or "neutral."

Yet, there's still the issue of the war being "off-topic" in a particular class. Why should teachers have to justify talking about current events, regardless of the title of the class? And how can we consider an ongoing war "off-topic" at all? To what does the war not clearly relate? We're all citizens of this world, and right now some of us are killing others. That seems pretty "on-topic" regardless of who you are, what you do, or where you happen to be (in a class, at work, etc). Sure, it would be nice if we could draw neat little boxes around the different parts of our lives (now I'm in the school box, now I'm in the work box, now I'm in the social box, now I'm in the politics and news box), but the world doesn't work that way. I saw a great slogan the other day: "The Iraqis can't turn off their televisions to turn off the war."

Anyhoo, thanks again for giving me more to think about on this topic and for reminding me to give my students more credit. Although doing so can be frustrating, I've often found that students really rise to higher expectations.

Posted by: ambimb at April 4, 2003 02:46 PM

Hey Raquel! All I can say is "Yeah, exactly." You've been there, I know. This happened in a BTW class, so the battle might be even longer and steeper, in some respects. But you asked what I told the guy, which was basically, thanks, please raise these issues in class so we can all talk about them together. I tried to make it a "teaching moment," but no one was too talky about it. We'll see if it comes back up later. We're starting group reports next week. Don't you just miss it!? Not. ;-)

Posted by: ambimb at April 4, 2003 02:52 PM

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