Sunday, April 14, 2013

Remarks on Receiving the Penn State University Council of Commonwealth Student Governments’ Friend of the Commonwealth Award 2012-2013

I was privileged to receive from the Penn State University Council of Commonwealth Student Governments the annual Friend of the Commonwealth Award for 2012-2013 at a lovely banquet given at the University Park campus this past Saturday.  I was especially proud to receive this recognition from students whose good opinion I value highly, and especially to Ben Clark, the outgoing CCSG President, who did an excellent job this year under conditions of unusual stress. 

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer)

What follows is a slightly edited version of my remarks on accepting this award.

Remarks on Receiving the Penn State University Council of Commonwealth Student Governments’ Friend of the Commonwealth Award 2012-2013, April 13, 2013

I want to take just a moment of your time to thank you very much for this recognition. Usually I cringe at the thought of awards and awards ceremonies. I am always afraid that they tend to say signal “goodbye” instead of “good job.” I always have the image in my head of some geriatric receiving some sort of “life time achievement award” -- with thanks for living long enough to receive it and managing to be a good boy or girl, conforming to the social expectations of the donor. I hope I am just a little too young for the former and I know I am a bit too unwilling to be managed for the latter. And so I tend to avoid awards—especially among my peers. But this award is different; this group is different. I am proud to accept this award not so much as a reflection of what I have done, but as an indication of who you are and what you aspire to be. And none of that has anything to do with what other older and more powerful people tell you what you must or ought to be, how you ought to act, or what you ought to do to be the good little boys or girls you are being trained to become. I can only hope to be able to live up to the expectations embedded in this award, at least a little bit.

And that is the only and simple point I want to drive home tonight: No one has ever prospered, grown or been successful, no one has ever come to peace with him or herself by asking others for permission or waiting for others to supply these things, goals, objects and states of being to them. Good individuals, ethical individuals, moral individuals are not made and managed by others; they make themselves. Yet institutions, including universities, are increasingly focusing on the social management of the individual and the construction of the social environment in which he or she is permitted to develop, no longer only as an autonomous and moral being, as a passive and obedient one, one managed by the manipulation of rules of good behavior. Good behavior is rewarded and; people accepting and doing what they are told, and without question, makes for a smoothly run institution and for excellent relations between the university institution and those with which the university deals. Cultivating individual passivity and dependence—waiting for others to supply instructions, directions and solutions—substitutes institutional for individual dignity and the management of people as the highest ideal of university education, more and more like cattle lead from birth to slaughter for the benefit of some one or thing beyond themselves.

In place of engagement and personal growth, students are offered the choice between compliance with social norms or the consequences of anti-social deviance. But the road to personal growth, to the emancipation of the spirit, is not given by someone with strong attached; it is taken. It does not come because some one else declares that you are ready for it or because you are willing to accept what you are given, but because you yourselves reach out and take it for yourselves. Our social order increasingly seeks to turn our youth into well behaved and easy to manage cogs in the production of a variety of things that tend to benefit someone other than the person being managed. The price of resistance is no longer the penalty of disobedience but now serves as a symptom of mental disease. Behavior and expectations have become therapeutic devices—disagreement and personal autonomy in thought and behavior is increasingly understood as symptoms of mental disorders. You are increasingly medicated, counseled, and managed into the sports of behaviors that make for compliance, conformity and cupidity with systems that though you may like to think you confront, you actually serve as an important element of complicity. Non conformity has become an aesthetic device—something that may be safely deployed, within boundaries and can then become the stuff of bragging rights at cocktail parties.

How does this affect CCSG? What does this have to do with you and the work you do as students in your efforts to engage with the life of the university and your own engagement with your education? You have been dealing with a number of issues with respect to which you can either speak your own mind and move your own position or serve the interests of others for the advancement of ends that may not be yours. This includes everything from the relationship of campus student organizations to those based at University Park, to issues relating to the nitty gritty of student life—lifestyle choices, scheduling, add-drop and now more importantly—the shape of general education. These are issues that affect you directly, with which you have more direct experience than most of us, and whose consequences you understand better than most. On the campuses issues of the availability of student services and of courses and programs tend to be subsumed under the commanding rubric of budgets and bureaucracy. The issue of faculty availability and quality, and of the availability of research and enrichment remains uneven and unchallenged. Have you done much to test those boundaries?

You are not alone. We in the Senate are your brothers and sisters in our related efforts to shoulder shared governance. We can support you; but you should ask more of us. You should not be our little brothers and sisters but our partners in contributing to the greatness of this institution. Hold our feet to the fire as energetically as you do to our administrative and board colleagues. We will listen, and some of us will help. I applaud both your collective courage and your willingness to tackle some of the most difficult issues that face university education today.

OK, so I am not here to accept this award and reciprocate by slinging enough cow manure your way to grow your summer gardens. And my purpose is not to pretend to be some sort of 1970s through back to that charming if somewhat naïve age. Institutional realities are powerful, and your ability to engage successfully with those realities will serve as a critical learning experience both institutionally as members of CCSG and as individuals. Realism and pragmatism in individual and institutional life is critically important as a value and as a guide to living honestly in a community. But engagement founded on principles of passivity and dependence, on control and the use of the threat of deviance as a means of controlling the rules of engagement are vey real dangers today and ones that ought to be resisted. So I want to leave you with a thought that you can work over in your heads as you like. And the thought is this: Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to think or act or opine—do it, think it, say it—as individuals and as an important an engaged institutional voice here at Penn State. Disagreement can be a form fo respect for yourself and to others. Act out to advance your goals, do not conform to the expectation especially of older people seeking to guide you to appropriate action (including me), be skeptical when you are asked to sacrifice for others whose interest you advance without any benefit, and do not be fooled into thinking you are crazy or socially pathological because you disagree; as Nancy Reagan once said in another context, you must be willing sometimes to “just say no”.

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