Deeply Aggrieved

Last week, I was told a story about a computer science student who is dyslexic. She has found that taking notes in class using an app on her tablet helps immensely with her comprehension. At the start of this term, sitting down on the first day of a new computer science class, she placed the tablet on her desk and prepared for the lecture. Instead, the instructor told her, “There are no devices allowed in this class.”

Writing in The New York Times about the recent student protest at Middlebury College, Frank Bruni doesn’t make it through his first paragraph before he invokes the “emotional coddling” of students.

“Somewhere along the way, those young men and women—our future leaders, perhaps—got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.”

What he doesn’t opine about, however, is the feeling that now pervades that campus. One student described the emotional environment at Middlebury as akin to that following a student suicide a few years ago, “except everyone hates each other.”

It’s been strange and alienating to experience the drama of the Middlebury protest from a distance. I work from Portand, Oregon, three time zones separated from the social action, violence, and shock that took over my school’s tiny campus in Vermont. I have read about the protest, I have seen the shock on my colleagues’ faces in our video conferences. But I wasn’t there. More, I am not integrated into the complex culture of the school. I have been on the campus only three times since my hire more than a year ago; and Middlebury is, as many New England colleges and universities are wont to be, a community deeply embedded in its own philosophy and history.

I can iterate the facts just as calmly as Bruni does:

A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it. Although his latest writings about class divisions in America have been perceptive, even prescient, his 1994 book “The Bell Curve” trafficked in race-based theories of intelligence and was broadly (and, in my opinion, correctly) denounced...
Chanting that Murray was “racist, sexist, anti-gay,” the students wouldn’t let him talk. And when he and the professor moved their planned interchange to a private room where it could be recorded on camera, protesters disrupted that, too, by pulling fire alarms and banging on windows.

And this was followed shortly on by rock throwing, and a concussion suffered by the liberal professor who was meant to interview Murray.

However, I don’t draw the same conclusions that Bruni draws. Where he believes that this protest is cause for alarm, and that it is “the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education”, I see that the protest against Murray might have been prevented if the level of rage and despair in student lives had been accurately assessed. We do not live in a world today where peaceful protest has shaped policy. The exchange of ideas has not preserved us. Our best selves cannot sit down to tea with the opposition’s best selves and talk it out. White Christian nationalism runs our country now. Will it sit down and reason with a Black woman, a trans man, a single Latina mother?

Only a few weeks ago, students at Middlebury woke up to discover some of their colleagues could not return home from vacation or from travel abroad, due to the restrictions created by the Executive Order banning immigration. Shortly thereafter, transgender student rights were stripped from children and teens in elementary and secondary school. A climate change denier is now in charge of the environment. Is it any wonder these students didn’t want to sit down for a chat with a (at least theoretically) eugenics enthusiast?

Van Jones, whom Bruni quotes, offers to students that “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back.” And I wonder: Does Jones, does Bruni, think that students aren’t offended—deeply aggrieved and offended and upset—everywhere every single day? How dare we presume that students live idle lives when we’re not watching? How dare we believe it is our responsibility to forge their character through intellectual adversity?

C’mon, really? Among undergraduate women, 23.4% will be or have been raped. Upwards of 24% of students are food insecure, even though 63% of them are working. And that’s just for starters. Hate crime, domestic abuse, fears about the stability and reliability of health care, concerns about the environment—all the things that plague working adults with advanced degrees also plague students. The difference is that those “working adults” don’t have professors telling them to “put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity.”

But what does all of this have to do with a dyslexic student who found herself unable to use the device on which she relied in—ahem—a computer science class?

Academia has long touted its own brand without paying attention to whether or not its product works. Universities and colleges not only stand on tradition, they promote a propaganda of tradition, a dogged effort to raise the quality of human character through intellectualism, rationality, and expertise supported by relentless surveillance and punishment of plagiarism, sloth, and student agency, and a tireless resistance to cultural change, technology, and diversity. The Student is the weak link in the academy, the wild horse that needs breaking, or the lazy scissorbill who must be taught discipline and integrity...and more recently, the privileged Millennial whose character can only be built through an unforgiving exposure to adversity.

But the academy and its students see the world very differently. Devices are not distractions. And adversity is something carried on the back into class. While academics enact social justice through diatribes, literary analysis, and social get-togethers, students are finding themselves on the front lines. They are dealing with their disabilities, they are confronting racism, they are walking out of classrooms to join protests, they are standing up for their undocumented colleagues. They are taking risks. And even if the only thing they’re doing is attending our classes, that is risk enough.

Your students have fought, your students have hidden from bullies, your students have been hungry, they have passed for straight, they have held their tongues, and they have been broken.
In many cases, the students you work with have had to subvert a system that sought to oppress them in order to make it to your classroom.

Institutions that refuse to move—not into the future, but into the present—are enacting a masochistic nostalgia. Things are not the way they were, and to isolate our philosophies in an historic moment is to condemn their practicality. Just as perilous is to assume the academy exists in a safe vacuum, where political tensions that light the nation on fire will not penetrate the halls of ivy-grown intellectualism and rationality. Universities hope to be environments for stable inquiry, where research and dialogue trump matters more visceral. But the students are restless y'all. These upon whose shoulders our futures will be built are staring down an apocalypse—of government, of environment, of justice, and of common sense.

In a world run by people who take the low road, taking the high road is not practical. We need people who will meet others on the low road if we are to cease this downward spiral. I am not advocating for violence—that the Middlebury protest ended in violence muted its usefulness. Instead, I am advocating for a Zen-like honesty about the state of things. The academy will not solve the crises its students face. But the students themselves may.

We do not do what we do so that students can be like us. We do what we do precisely because they can't be. We cannot afford for them to carry on our traditions. And for that reason, I encourage the academy, and all of those who advocate for its primacy, to consider the ways in which it has sheltered itself from the world, and to put on some boots, become deeply aggrieved, and be strong.