Steven Volk, December 13, 2015
Much has been written, including in this space, about what I have called a “culture of safety” that seems to have taken root on college and university campuses. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in a much-cited New York Times article, “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” It has proven considerably easier for many in the media to ridicule students as “coddled” and “self-infantilizing” than to ponder why so many of their grievances are located in the discourse of “safety.”
I have suggested before that we shouldn’t be surprised at the rise of a “safety” narrative in a time of a recognized high-level of sexual violence on campus or at a moment when gun violence, terrorism, and police killing of blacks, among other acts of brutality, are endemic. A lot of triggers are, indeed, being pulled.
I’ve also become more aware, in conversations with students, about how social media, in its most addictive aspects, impacts their feelings of safety. Yik Yak may be the contemporary equivalent of graffiti on the bathroom wall in the 1990s (a practice that is still around, by the way), but now you don’t have to go to the bathroom to read the nastiness and threats; you can just pull out your phone, as students do in compulsive fashion, and this can increase a student’s sense of fear and isolation. Even if the vicious comments are a minority of the posts, the things people say on Yik Yak “are real thoughts,” according to Francesca Tripodi, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia who is completing a dissertation on this particular social media outlet. Students can feel more vulnerable because “[t]here are people on campus with those thoughts.” And one obvious remedy – don’t use the ap – is not a solution for those who either use it to stay “in the loop” or who, like most of us, can’t turn away from a car crash.
A Teacher’s Vulnerability
So perhaps it is not unusual that I would frame my own growing concerns as a teacher within this same discourse of safety. The fact of the matter is that I feel increasingly vulnerable in a country in which a large and vocal minority, many leaders of one of the two major political parties, and some critical media outlets, have all turned their back on history (a subject I deal in) and no longer believe that facts are a way to resolve debates or disagreements (a subject that all of us deal in).
Yes, I worry when some of our students get it wrong and overstep. To invoke a hunger strike to the death over an offensive tweet (as two students did at Claremont McKenna College) suggests a lack of nuance, to say the least. To call for the reestablishment of internment camps as the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, Donald Trump, and retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark did, is an act of stunning ignorance by those who (unlike our undergraduates) are actually in positions of power to act on their beliefs. To rebuff the humanitarian plight of refugees from Syria, a position taken by 34 governors, or to call for them to be placed in “camps” in order to stop “the potential Islamization of Missouri,” as did the Speaker of the House in that state, should be a cause for anxiety. It is deeply troubling for any student of history, not to mention anyone with a shred of compassion. that 53% of the U.S. population favor slamming the door on Syrian refugees, much as the United States previously refused any action to protect European Jews prior to 1944.
But it should be even more disturbing to those of us whose stock-in-trade is education that large parts of the discussions on these and other of our most troubling issues are taking place in a fact-free zone. This campaign season, probably more than any other in the past century, has seen a wholesale slippage from “spin” (casting your opponents’ positions in the worst possible light), to “untruths” (guilt-by-association assertions), to outright, pants-on-fire fabrications (claiming as fact something that simply never occurred). You are probably familiar with the many examples that seem to appear daily; Donald Trump is responsible for a large number of them, as in his assertion that “I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed. Nope, sorry, never happened. Carly Fiorina, when asked recently as to the difference between politics and business, replied, “Here’s the difference: Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.” And she should know, as her claims about what she saw on a Planned Parenthood sting video were not actually on the tape, as even the National Review was forced to admit. (“The exact scene, exactly as Fiorina describes it, is not on the videos,” Jonah Goldberg explains before going on to defend her argument anyway. It’s as if, by adding “exact” enough times, you absolve yourself of a need to be…exact.)
Stephen Colbert coined the expression “truthiness” in 2005 to refer to someone who will claim something is true because he or she just knows it is true; it feels right in their gut. (“I don’t trust books,” Colbert’s on-screen persona proclaims, “they’re all fact and no heart!”) As Colbert later expanded in an interview, “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” I just wish this were still funny rather than threatening.
According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. Most Americans now accept that the climate is changing, but majorities in almost 80% of U.S. counties deny that it is “caused mostly by human activities.” Majorities in 97% of the counties in the United States disagree with the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” whereas, in fact, 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.
Jenny McCarthy was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s massively popular show where she repeated (without any Oprah-pushback) the truthiness that vaccines and mercury cause autism. And where does she get her information? “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.” One in four parents believe that vaccines cause autism. (This past week, Ira Flatow, host of Science Friday, spoke with the neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, the author of Failure: Why Science is So Successful. Most people don’t have any idea how science works, Firestein argued, and think that since it is often revised, it is no better than any layperson’s opinions.)
At least one reason (and there are many) why the public via their elected state legislators has withdrawn its support of higher education, according to Randy Martin’s perceptive study, Under New Management: Universities, Administrative Labor, and the Professional Turn (Temple University Press, 2012), is that “experts” are now everywhere. Why pay for the hard-won knowledge that universities have always provided when Google can tell you what you need to know…right now…for nothing?
So why am I frightened? Why does this make me feel vulnerable and unsafe? To answer that, we have to reaffirm what it is that we do here and (hopefully, fingers crossed, please, please) at all institutions of higher education. At Oberlin we’ve just completed a process of identifying the outcomes we want all Arts & Sciences students to have achieved during their time here. Here are the first three in a list of nine:
We want our student to (1) deepen their understanding of specific fields while building their capacity to create new knowledge, approaches or creative work in those areas; (2) to broaden their knowledge of and appreciation for the variety of ways, including but not limited to the scientific, humanistic, aesthetic, and behavioral, that knowledge is, and has been, constructed; and (3) to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence and an understanding of the context in which evidence is produced.
At the root of all of these learning outcomes (and the others on the full list) is an understanding that, as an educational and intellectual community, we live by rational argument, we understand the value of serious investigation and the difficulties it holds, and we maintain the undeniable significance of evidence in analysis. We will disagree on many points and in many contexts, and those disputes can be painful and heated. But, at the heart of it all, we are committed to engaging in a process whose rules are known to us and which have mattered in intellectual disputes for hundreds of years because we can see their results. To use an example close to the moment, what the Black Lives Matter movement is telling us is not just that “you must recognize our pain,” but that their pain is the product of a history that can and must be examined. It has taken their anger to get many of us to investigate that history, but the history is there to be investigated, it is not made up out of whole cloth.
If I feel unmoored in the world we are entering, it is because I am defenseless, with no conceivable means of engaging those with whom I disagree, in a world where facts do not exist. I have no way to interact with those who say that we will all be safer if everyone carries a weapon even if the limited research shows the opposite. (Speaking of fact-free, the research is limited because the Centers for Disease Control has been prohibited by Congress since 1996 from engaging the topic.) How can I hope to dialogue with those who say that climate change isn’t happening, or isn’t a product of human action, or won’t affect us if no facts can enter the conversation? My replies to those who insist that vaccines cause autism, that all Mexicans are rapists and all Muslims are terrorists are like so much sand to the wind. I do not feel safe in that world.
If this is nothing new in the United States – the “Know Nothing Party” didn’t get its name for nothing – the moment nonetheless should be massively troubling for those of us charged with helping our students know something! As Martin argues, education is at once “central to the social enterprise” and degraded for what it offers; even as the world outside our campuses relies on the knowledge produced by those who have passed through our gates, the very basis of what we do is under attack.
So yes, I feel unsafe, vulnerable, and anxious. But the only way forward is not to abandon what has been core to our values, but to redouble our efforts, to be aware of the world in which we live, and never to lose sight of the critical role we can play in the shaping of the future. We will disagree on many things; hopefully we will agree on the importance of instilling in our students an appreciation for the work that is involved in reaching a complex understanding of a difficult issue, as well as the value that is inherent in compassion and empathetic engagement.
So, I’m anxious, but, as Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, recently observed, “You have to have anxiety to be courageous. Without anxiety there is no courage.”