Challenging Our Students and Ourselves

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By Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, in class, I showed my students an old clip of Jon Stewart with Tucker Carlson on Crossfire. It’s from 2004, but it has relevancy now. That CNN show, as Stewart points out, was theater though it posed as being relevant to news. Hosts Paul Begala and Carlson, and pairs of guests chosen for their opposition to each other, railed against each other. Lots of fun, but it accomplished nothing.

Worse: it shepherded us down the path to division where we live today.

Begala tried to style what they did as debate, but Stewart wasn’t buying: debate requires listening to the other side and positing the possibility of being wrong and changing one’s mind–an action that would undermine the premise of the show and the expectations of the audience. Here’s the clip:

After viewing the clip, I asked the students to think of something someone in their family believes, or that a friend believes, that they think is absolute rot. They came up with quite a number. One said her grandmother cannot accept LGBT inclusion, another that she, herself, cannot believe that humans are related to apes. We talked about religion, belief in a flat earth, aliens and life after death. We talked about generation gaps. The list, as I had expected it would be, was extensive.

These are students in their first year of college taking one of the few courses common to all New York City College of Technology (and all CUNY) students, First Year Composition. They are learning how to marshal their thoughts and to express them, along with the fundamentals of research. They are also learning how to listen and respond intelligently, and not simply through the knee-jerk of emotion.

We’ve been working on truth and logic this semester, going back to Plato’s allegory of the cave and to Aristotle. The students now have to apply some of what they have learned by presenting, honestly and fairly, a viewpoint that they do not share. One, in fact, that they may loathe.

“Take a position that you hate and learn to understand it. What are its assumptions, its premises? What is the logic of the arguments it builds? Explain this view fairly and with as much compassion and understanding as you can muster. Do not attack it.”

Fortunately for me, my students come from an environment where isolating oneself from beliefs and people one may detest is nigh on impossible. New York City forces most of us (the rich 1% aside) into daily communion. At City Tech, it is even more so, for the student body is remarkably diverse.

Fortunately for me, the idea that these students need protecting from anyone’s ideas or even hateful spouting is ridiculous–and that has nothing to do with freedom of speech but with the realities of their lives. They work, they ride the buses and subways; they interact with the incredible variety of Brooklyn and Queens daily. It’s not that other students elsewhere can’t handle threatening ideas, just that these kids are extremely hard to threaten. They know what the world is–and how to deal with it.

What they don’t know is how to deal with college or with what should be the adult world of discourse. That’s where we professors come in; that’s why, I believe, assignments like this one are so important.

But we professors have become fearful. If anyone has become ‘snowflakes,’ it is the teachers–most college students in America today have more in common with my City Tech students than they do with the ‘coddled’ students at elite schools and the popular imagination. Almost half of students earning Bachelor degrees at some point attended a community college. Almost three-quarters of all students attend public colleges and universities, and almost a quarter of them work half-time. These are not the children of privilege who are still the common image of college students everywhere in the country.

These are people who deserve the full and effective effort our expertise can provide. We cannot pull back from controversy, not in the face of Twitter scandals, David Horowitz or The Professor Watchlist, that explicit attempt at intimidating us into silence. We need to push what we believe.

At the same time, we cannot turn away from ideas we loathe, not and be honest instructors. We have to live up to an obligation both to a society that has come to the point of fighting against understanding anyone with an opposing viewpoint and to our students who, as fledgling citizens and intellectuals, need to learn to fly (understand) on their own.

One of my students had heard a little about Georgetown University Professor Christine Fair’s recent tweets, ones that so upset Tucker Carlson that he responded to them as examples of calls for ‘white genocide.’ The student, who had gathered his information in the course of other activities, wasn’t sure who had said what, but was sure he didn’t like what he called ‘third-wave feminism.’ His paper, now, will be an attempt to explain it and honestly–from the viewpoint of a supporter. I don’t really care if he changes his mind or not (though I do believe he doesn’t yet understand what either Fair or Carlson was trying to do), but I want him to learn that he needs to look a little more deeply, and for two reasons. First, for his own sake, he needs to know the stories behind his belief. Second, he needs to learn that it is possible to be wrong without any loss of integrity.

We’ll see if he does.

I’m looking forward to these papers. I hope the students manage to write them with the same enthusiasm I will bring to reading them.

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