Learning is about rethinking our views. Censoring my students’ education before they obtain it will do the opposite
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Every semester on the first day of my classes, I explain to students that at some point during the semester, the material that we cover will fundamentally challenge their thinking in some area that they hold dear, particularly their beliefs about race, gender and sexuality. I also explain to them that these challenges are less about making them change their minds, although I do hope that they will discard some particularly retrograde and unhelpful beliefs, and more about making them refine their opinions, while becoming clear and informed about what they think. If a student has not been challenged to fundamentally rethink the beliefs they hold dear, they have not been to college.
Therefore the growing national conversation, buttressed by demands from students, that college professors place trigger warnings on their syllabi to alert students to uncomfortable and traumatic material gives me great concern. While I care about my own academic freedom and the ways that trigger warnings impede my ability to teach course materials in the ways I deem most appropriate, I care far more about educating students who can entertain a range of competing views, wade through those beliefs, and come out on the other side with clarity and the capacity to articulate their position.
Yet, those of us in the academy are now encountering the generation of students educated under the high-stakes testing model of both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They are a generation of students who are uncomfortable with being made uncomfortable. They are a generation of students who want the right answers, and the assured A, rather than the challenge of thinking and writing their way through material that is more complex than the multiple choice answer requires. To me, such an orientation to the world – the desire for endless comfort – is an untenable educational proposition. Encountering material that you have never encountered before, being challenged and learning strategies for both understanding and engaging the material is what it means to get an education.
But in this era of the corporate university, the belief in educating students to be something other than laborers in the capitalist machine is increasingly obsolete. In many respects I understand this position: In a time when good public education is increasingly difficult to access at reasonable prices, creating strategies for making university education economically feasible guides policymaking at many universities. The reality is that parents want their children to be able to get out of school and get jobs that will offer them an economic livelihood. In that kind of environment it becomes harder to justify a robust humanities education focused on thinking about questions of power, the nature of human relationships, literature, history and politics.