Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Low Definition in Higher Education

Every year for nearly a decade, I’ve assigned Anna Karenina to students enrolled in my course on the novel. At more than 800 pages, Tolstoy’s saga can invite hurried reading, so a lot of class time is spent applying the brakes: “Not so fast.” “How do you know that?” “What’s it look like from her point of view?” There’s a useful speed bump in that famous first line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In its own way. Don’t assume you know who these people are, Tolstoy cautions, however familiar they may seem.

The book then proceeds to earn that caution, for what follows is a fantastic braid of self-deceptions, mistakes, and misunderstandings, all of which we see (as the characters themselves never can) from Tolstoy’s skybox of omniscience. The knowledge we’re exposed to can often seem too much—not just to take in, but to bear. Karenin’s solemn, impassive reaction to Anna’s tearful declaration of love for Vronsky, for example, seems initially to confirm Anna’s description of her husband as a mechanical functionary for whom time is a schedule and life a series of kept appointments. Only later do we learn that the dead look on Karenin’s face conceals a man so fully alive to his wife’s tears that he had to will himself inert so as not to fall apart. As happens so often in the book, just when we think we finally understand someone, Tolstoy drops a more powerful lens into the scope, or shifts its viewing angle, and we’re bewildered all over again.

I didn’t like bewilderment when I was in college, and my students don’t either. Their lives are chaotic enough without any help from books. So they’re just as inclined as I was to bypass complication as a way of preserving the clarity of their judgments, which is precisely what Tolstoy’s characters do. Anna needs to construe her husband as an unfeeling machine in order to withstand her own guilt, just as her husband needs to construe Anna as a thoroughly depraved woman so as to sharpen his own hatred. It’s one of the book’s many indelible patterns: the easiest way to streamline your feelings is to simplify the people who provoke them.

A college ought to be the ideal place to help students learn to resist such simplifications—to resist them not just inside the classroom, in the books they read, but outside in the lives they lead. Rightly understood, the campus beyond the classroom is the laboratory component of college itself. It’s where ideas and experience should meet and refine one another, where things should get more complicated, not less.

But what happens when the administrators who supervise this lab—sometimes in tandem with professors who teach the courses—pretend to have so mastered the difficult questions of race, of social justice, of meaning and intention, that they feel entitled to dictate to others? What happens when they so pixelate the subject matter that what emerges is a CliffsNotes version of human experience, the very thing that a college curriculum should be working against?

What happens is that many students will accept these simplifications. Some will even cling to them for dear life. Finally a map—with shortcuts!—and a way out of bewilderment. Feeling offended implies an offense, and where there’s an offense there must be a culprit guilty of having committed it. No need to bother with the complexities of context and intention—it says here that “impact” is what matters, that how I feel is what counts. No need to wonder whether an expression of hatred is real or a ruse, isolated or endemic—assume the worst and take the part for the whole.

But of course that’s the problem with homophobia, racism, sexism, religious extremism, and any other “ism” you care to mention. They’re shortcuts. Tell me your skin color, or your gender, whom you want to sleep with or marry, what god you worship or deny, and I’ll fill in the rest.

The epitome of shortcuts, the one to which all others aspire, is the straight line. It’s the simplest of moral geometries and the most seductive. When George Orwell was working as a policeman in Burma, he saw a man being led down just such a line on the way to the gallows. Held tightly between his two Indian guards, and with only minutes to live, the man did something extraordinary. Or rather, he did the most ordinary thing in the world. “[H]e stepped slightly aside,” Orwell tells us in “The Hanging,” “to avoid a puddle on the path.”

Did any of Orwell’s fellow officers see that swerve? Maybe. But as the efficient managers of an execution, they had reason not to see it. Their job required them to see only the condemned criminal, not the human being who didn’t want to get his feet wet. His swerve was not on the map.

There are no rules for noticing swerves. There are no lines—whether drawn in the sand or in a speech code—that will help students grasp the complexity of another person’s experience or their own. On the contrary, such lines often profile the groups they mean to describe, and deepen the mistrust they pretend to diminish. Draw up a list of microaggressions, for example, and you implicitly divide a campus into two macro-aggregates: on the one side, recklessly aggressive students who need to be constrained, and on the other, vulnerable students who need to be protected. Then, reality yields to that representation, as students start listening for rather than to: they become fearful of what they might say or hear, rather than interested in what they might say or hear. (...)

Another aspect of current undergraduate experience is at play here too—speed. It’s often said that the lives of young people today are more complicated than those of preceding generations. It’s possible, but I doubt it. In my experience, “complicated” is a consoling euphemism for “distracted.” With every acquaintance they’ve ever made, every song they’ve ever heard, and every consumer good they’ve ever imagined just a touchscreen away, students today live more distracted lives, in relation to which complexity can be an unwelcome guest, requiring as it does both focus and time. Most millennial students readily acknowledge this, even the ones rightly suspicious of other clich├ęs about their generation. It’s hardly their fault, after all, though it is their problem, since the pressures of triage—pressures increased by the compulsory communication of social media—make them more susceptible to snap judgments and sloganeering, in the way that people on the go are more susceptible to fast food and people in crisis are more susceptible to religious dogma. (...)

Whatever its pretensions to an enlightened, progressive politics, the overarching spirit of the placemat is consumer society’s emphasis on speed and convenience. No need to think through these issues yourselves—we’ve done the thinking for you. Besides, it’s what everyone else will be thinking this fall. This covert consumerist ethos helps explain what otherwise seems especially incongruous about higher education in America today: how to square the putatively “progressive”—but in fact retrograde—imposition of speech codes, safe spaces, bias response teams, and the like on college campuses, with the simultaneous emphasis on commerce and entrepreneurship, an emphasis especially favored by the business-oriented boards of trustees. The answer is that they’re both interested in the same thing: smooth operations at any cost. Often that cost is the mission of the university itself.

It’s higher education’s version of what the British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has called the phobia of frustration in a capitalist culture: a manic tendency to direct our states of uncertainty—moments when we might be genuinely puzzled by our desires, when we don’t know what we want or think—to an immediate source of satisfaction. Such a culture is like a conversational partner who constantly finishes your sentences for you—or rather, finishes your questions by turning them into positive declarations of beliefs and desires.

by Lyell Asher, The American Scholar | Read more:
Image: Sarah Browning/Flickr