Sunday, August 28, 2016

On Figuring Out What to Say to That Chicago Dean and What to Say to Kevin Gannon

I read that letter from the University of Chicago dean. I think this is the summary: the dean believes a university is a place for intellectual inquiry, rigorous debate, and a commitment to developing human knowledge. It is not committed to protecting your precious feelings. If you have a problem with that, there are many other schools you could attend. I am sympathetic, because I hate the point where debates become about personal feelings, the point where intellectual debates become about "you." And hell, I even like the dean's jerk tone, because, yeah, I've felt that way too.

But I also want to respond to Kevin Gannon's response in Vox, to which, after a couple of reads and a short email exchange with a friend who teaches middle school students in a private school, I'm sympathetic as well. Gannon calls for more complexity and nuance in considering the role of education. Of course you should offer "content advisories" -- a phrase Gannon prefers to "trigger warnings" -- if you're teaching material that depicts a rape scene. You never know where your students are coming from. And why the hell wouldn't students protest a visit from Charles Murray, whom Gannon calls a "racist charlatan"? I can say that I have worked through some issues with students in the past, and I haven't always done the work I should have done to prepare them for particularly difficult material. I've tried to correct for these shortcomings, which I mostly attribute to a complete and total desensitization to film violence that I had acquired by the time I was 18 and a general tolerance for casual bigotry that I had acquired as a means of maintaining my sanity during my years in Eastern Europe.

The problem here is that the Chicago dean doesn't recognize the many intelligent, thoughtful, and considered students of various backgrounds that Gannon and I know. I would describe most of my students as relatively open-minded, at least within the confines of my classroom. I would say they're not precious little flowers whose feelings I have to nurture.

The problem is also that Gannon doesn't quite acknowledge that the student the Chicago dean describes exists too. I've met that student.

That's the student at Columbia who claimed the Core Curriculum was essentially white supremacist, without noticing or accepting any changes or reforms. Never mind the fact that the Core Curriculum at Columbia has been constantly changing for decades. When I went, the syllabus included W.E.B. Dubois and the Koran. Neither were leaving anytime soon. Never mind that the Core Curriculum, by emphasizing the Greeks, was really LGBTQ-friendly. Never mind that Columbia had actually added other course requirements to the Core so that students would also know about the rest of the world. I remember taking two great books equivalents of Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and Indian literature, which, yeah, were every bit as rewarding as what I got from the dead white males. Now, I would have wished those non-dead-white-male courses were as well-funded and had the small class sizes as those on the dead white males. And I wouldn't mind if the dead-white-male course replaced Thomas Aquinas and Herodotus with James Baldwin or, to be a little more provocative, Louis Armstrong. But these changes are matters of reform not revolution.

Now those changes did occur at Columbia and elsewhere because of a lot of shouting as well as a hunger strike, but also because of a lot of intelligent writing from the likes of Edward Said and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., both of whom had read their Henry James and their Shakespeare with far more diligence than some of these shouters ever had or ever will. I don't think the issue is that students are coddled and demand that their feelings not be hurt. I think there are a small group of fundamentalists of a certain stripe, who like all fundamentalists, can never be appeased and who will never accept compromise, and who don't know how to take yes for an answer.

I would happily live in a world in which all campuses refused to invite Charles Murray, as well as professional hate mongers like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos. I'm not sure if I'm totally in line with Gannon's first point, that inviting Murray tells minority students they don't belong there. But I do agree that keeping those jerks away effectively contributes to the spirit of intelligent scholarship, that it acknowledges that certain ideologies are wrong and toxic, and that they don't belong in a community committed to honest, intellectual inquiry. But I have another question for Gannon: Would he be just as willing to refuse invitations to William J. Bratton and Condoleeza Rice?

Well, Gannon is calling for more complexity and more nuance. I'm sure he'd disagree with some of what I've written, but I'm not sure he would disagree with all of it.

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