I have been trying for a while now, and in multiple locations, to articulate an argument about recent modes of student disaffection in American universities. I think there is a bright, strong thread linking the “trigger warning” debates of last year with the student protests of this year. In an ideal world I’d turn these thoughts into a short book, or at least a very long article, but for now I’m just going to have to link the posts together into a virtual unity.
I began by discussing the way the upbringing of today’s students may have encouraged them to think that the core function of adults, including their teachers and university administrators, is to protect them from discomfort.
I then argued that when these expectations are thwarted, or seem to be thwarted, students can become frustrated very quickly if they do not have good reason to trust their teachers; this is a primary cause of the demand for trigger warnings.
And that mistrust is exacerbated by the fact that, in general, American universities do not present themselves as places where one goes to seek wisdom, but as places where one goes to get credentials for future career success — a message students have received very clearly.
So when the universities seem not to be living up to their neoliberal promises, angry students don’t think of this as a situation that calls for political protests of the Sixties variety; rather, they are consumers upset about the product they have purchased, so they bypass the lower-level staff and complain to the managers.
And the managers (i.e. administrators) respond the way managers always respond when the customers complain.
But this is not an adequate response. Administrators and professors alike need to recall that one of their key tasks is to organize the university as a kind of mediating or transitional space between the Home and the Wide World that encourages students to develop a genuine public individuality.
This developmental process is not and cannot be perfectly safe: many of students’ core beliefs about self and world will come under challenge. But it can be done in a healthy way, as long as fears are properly acknowledged and dealt with; however, to return to an earlier theme, fear of harm can only be overcome when students have good reason to trust those who teach them.
As long as fear is greater than trust, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to convince students that disagreement about foundational social and moral issues is not only acceptable, it is invaluable to individual and society alike. But to insist on this truth is the sine qua non of the current academic moment.
For this task, this insistence that there is something more and better than policing disagreement and building walls of separation between us and those who don’t see things our way, the humanities are invaluable: but they must recover some of their old moral robustness and commitment to the sovereign virtue of compassion.
If we want to get past this impasse of hostility and suspicion, we must remind ourselves, and then teach our students, that together we can travel better paths than that of neoliberal contractualism, which leads inevitably to code fetishism. We need not be such Baconian rationalists, such Weberian bureaucrats; and if we insist on living like that, if we forget that “there’s got to be a better way for people to live,” then all we have to look forward to is the academic equivalent of the shootout at the end of High Noon. But here in the real world there’s no way to tell who might win — if anyone does.