Saturday, October 28, 2017

Thoughts on Lucía Marttínez Valdivia: "Professors Like Me Can't Stay Silent About this Extremist Movement on Campuses."

The culture wars (although better understood as political battles deploying culture as an instrument) that have brought the West to crisis, and imperiled the great Enlightenment project of liberal governance--and in the name of liberal governance or its successor stage--has been playing out with some ferocity on the campuses of Western universities. Perhaps it is just as well.  In the hands of students, ideas half absorbed and reconstituted to suit the times and objectives of the rising demographic cohort has been the staple of university education at least since the end of the Second World War.  It exploded famously in the 1960s among students, many of whom, are the targets of this next wave of student agitation.  

There is nothing particularly odd, then, about student agitation. Perhaps, it is the best way the university can gauge whether anyone has been paying attention in class.  More importantly, it might provide a good marker about just what it is that students with the will and skills to agitate, are absorbing. Yet beyond the violence, whether in 1968 in European Universities, or during the 1960s and thereafter in the United States and elsewhere, which, if the state has the countervailing will, is always subject to criminal process, there is the always more insidious effects of such agitation on the fundamental ordering norms of society. 

For those who view this as a good then, then the cultivation of violence and agitation can produce results, even if it requires the sacrifice of those students (and others) induced to serve as the shock troops of agitation. But individuals have always gladly served as the instruments of vanguard groups.  They are the collateral damage (and cause collateral damage among the "enemy") necessarily incurred to produce martyrs and the instability necessary to force the fundamental changes at the core of the vanguard's agenda. . . . unless of course societal forces can meet the threat and suppress it.  In the process the values protected might also suffer collaterally.   

And that is the great pity.  For in the process it is the university itself that will be destabilized.  That institution is already subject to the profound transformational pressure of serving more directly as the conduit for wage labor markets which has been challenging and supplanting the old narratives of the university (see, e.g., here) from those in control of its institutions and its finances.  Now, it seems, that its stakeholder students have sought to pressure the university from the other end--enforcing an orthodoxy that is as deadening as the corporatization and deprofessionalization trends from the managers. 

All of these people mean well--at least in their own minds  And each is fighting the good fight for a marvelous cause--at least as it appears to them.  But like Martin Luther faced with the unwillingness of the Jews to convert to Christianity in light of his reforms of the Christian faith (e.g., here), both these zealots (on either end of the destabilization and transformation agendas) have sought to enforce change among the unwilling and now seek to police their respective orthodoxies.  And oddly enough, student agitators and university managers appear to be each other's best allies against an autonomous and vigorous professional faculty.  That unspoken alliance--consisting of administrative acquiescence in agitation and aided by allies on the faculties--continues to erode the role of the faculty and reshape the university. In the face of that alliance, faculty, and those still committed to older notions of a free university, will find their cause much imperiled and unlikely to endure.

These are the thoughts that came to mind as I read Lucía Marttínez Valdivia: "Professors Like Me Can't Stay Silent About this Extremist Movement on Campuses," Washington Post 27 Oct. 2017. Her essay follows.

Professors like me can’t stay silent about this extremist moment on campuses
By Lucía Martínez Valdivia October 27 at 8:20 PM

Lucía Martínez Valdivia is an assistant professor of English and humanities at Reed College.

At Reed College in Oregon, where I work, a group of students began protesting the required first-year humanities course a year ago. Three times a week, students sat in the lecture space holding signs — many too obscene to be printed here — condemning the course and its faculty as white supremacists, as anti-black, as not open to dialogue and criticism, on the grounds that we continue to teach, among many other things, Aristotle and Plato.

In the interest of supporting dissent and the free exchange of ideas, the faculty and administration allowed this. Those who felt able to do so lectured surrounded by those signs for the better part of a year. I lectured, but dealt with physical anxiety — lack of sleep, nausea, loss of appetite, inability to focus — in the weeks leading up to my lecture. Instead of walking around or standing at the lectern, as I typically do, I sat as I tried to teach students how to read the poetry of Sappho. Inadvertently, I spoke more quietly, more timidly.

Some colleagues, including people of color, immigrants and those without tenure, found it impossible to work under these conditions. The signs intimidated faculty into silence, just as intended, and these silenced professors’ lectures were quietly replaced by talks from people willing and able to carry on teaching in the face of these demonstrations.

I think obscuring these acts of silencing was a mistake that resulted in an escalation of the protesters’ tactics. This academic year, the first lecture was to be a panel introduction of the course: Along with two colleagues, I was going to offer my thoughts on the course, the study of the humanities and the importance of students’ knowing the history of the education they were beginning.

We introduced ourselves and took our seats. But as we were about to begin, the protesters seized our microphones, stood in front of us and shut down the lecture.

The right to speak freely is not the same as the right to rob others of their voices.

Understanding this argument requires an ability to detect and follow nuance, but nuance has largely been dismissed from the debates about speech raging on college campuses. Absolutist postures and the binary reign supreme. You are pro- or anti-, radical or fascist, angel or demon. Even small differences of opinion are seized on and characterized as moral and intellectual failures, unacceptable thought crimes that cancel out anything else you might say.

No one should have to pass someone else’s ideological purity test to be allowed to speak. University life — along with civic life — dies without the free exchange of ideas.

In the face of intimidation, educators must speak up, not shut down. Ours is a position of unique responsibility: We teach people not what to think, but how to think.

Realizing and accepting this has made me — an eminently replaceable, untenured, gay, mixed-race woman with PTSD — realize that no matter the precariousness of my situation, I have a responsibility to model the appreciation of difference and care of thought I try to foster in my students.

If I, like so many colleagues nationwide, am afraid to say what I think, am I not complicit in the problem?

At Reed and nationwide, we have largely stayed silent, probably hoping that this extremist moment in campus politics eventually peters out. But it is wishful thinking to imagine that the conversation will change on its own. It certainly won’t change if more voices representing more positions aren’t added to it.

Nuance and careful reasoning are not the tools of the oppressor, meant to deceive and gaslight and undermine and distract. On the contrary: These tools can help prove what those who use them think — or even what they feel — to be true. They make arguments more, not less, convincing, using objective evidence to make a point rather than relying on the persuasive power of a subjective feeling.

I ask one thing of all my first-year students: that they say yes to the text. This doesn’t mean they have to agree with or endorse anything and everything they read. It means students should read in good faith and try to understand the texts’ distance, their strangeness, from our historical moment. Ultimately, this is a call for empathy, for stretching our imaginations to try to inhabit and understand positions that aren’t ours and the points of view of people who aren’t us.

A grounding in the study of the humanities can help students encounter ideas with care and learn that everything — including this column — is open to critical interrogation. The trick is realizing — and accepting — that no person, no text, no class, is without flaws. The things we study are, after all, products of human hands.

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