Low Definition in Higher Education

When college students are told what to think and what not to say, who suffers in the end?

Sarah Browning/Flickr
Sarah Browning/Flickr


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.

Of course, reckless students and vulnerable students do exist, but the overwhelming number of them fit neither category. Nevertheless, they’re all getting “schooled”—both trained and grouped: trained by being told in advance what a particular question, statement, or image means, regardless of context or intention, and grouped by being implicitly instructed on how authentic members of a group react to that meaning—by being offended, outraged, even traumatized. Surely the name of the Black Lives Matter movement intends to suggest that black lives matter too and not only, but some critics of the movement seized on the latter interpretation because it could provoke the most outrage, and spawn the most opponents. Much the same strategy was at work in the attempt by some at Yale to reduce Erika Christakis’s searching and nuanced Halloween email (“Dressing Yourselves”) into an unalloyed, one-note dismissal of student concerns. Unambivalent responses to uncomplicated meanings: this is a Manichaean formula for polarization, and a blueprint for misunderstanding—both oneself, and others.

We rarely understand what people mean until we ask them. Moreover, they may not know themselves what they mean until they’re asked. This is why, on subjects of any depth and complexity, the dialogue, rather than the sermon, is the model for intellectual engagement. The sermon may preach humility, but only the dialogue puts it into practice. For only the dialogue embodies what Emerson called “the secret of the true scholar,” which is that “[e]very man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.” What the true scholar learns is not just “some point” on which he had been ignorant. He learns from that particular instruction the larger lesson of his own ongoing dependency on others, the limits of his own experience.

Why should a fantasy of uncomplicated meanings and unambivalent responses be especially attractive now? Part of the answer is that the more complex the problem, the more desperate our craving for simplification. And who wouldn’t be desperate at this moment in our nation’s history? Just this past summer, a black motorist, exercising his NRA-backed Second Amendment rights by carrying a licensed firearm, was shot and killed by a Hispanic policeman, and then mourned—along with the nation—by our two-term, biracial president. The recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency is, among other things, a crude and dangerous evasion of the complex reality that such a situation represents. Hardly less crude, however, is the corrosive suggestion—popular in the academy especially—that white supremacy is the secret code that would explain it all.

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 clichés 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.

A notorious incident at Harvard last fall epitomizes the way colleges and universities are often working for rather than against this tendency. Just before winter break, a handful of Harvard administrators distributed placemats in a dining hall on campus, instructing students who were going away for the break on how to respond to family members who might challenge them on issues such as race, student activism, and the refugee crisis. These politically correct “talking points” raised immediate concerns about academic freedom, and eventually the university was forced to apologize. Yet the so-called Holiday Placemat for Social Justice typifies the way colleges and universities are aligning themselves with some of the worst aspects of American culture. Combining the proselytizing confidence of a fundamentalist religious tract with the marketing opportunism of McDonald’s, those placemats suggested that you could bear witness to the truth about everything from the Halloween costume controversy at Yale to the Syrian refugee crisis, all without missing a bite.

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.

In a 2013 interview at the New York Public Library, Phillips suggested that frustration—in the sense of waiting, of not knowing—is something that should be taught in schools, “because children know a lot about frustration and they need languages about it that make it more alluring and interesting and intriguing rather than just terrible or frightening or whatever.” Presumably, teaching frustration to those who, after all, know a lot about it already means encouraging them to see their pauses, their hesitations, their apparent failures of facility, as signs of plenty rather than want. Often, the language that makes these states of uncertainty more alluring and interesting can arise spontaneously—as when, for example, a student of mine who’d been frustrated for weeks by my suggestion that thesis statements were probably not good things to have about works of literature began to recognize that her frustration was partly a fear of freedom. “You’re really just increasing my allowance,” she said.

Most students come to college with a language rich in allowance already in progress. To see it, you need only have a conversation with them about their home life, their parents, a troubled sibling or friend they’ve mentioned, and almost without exception—irrespective of skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or political affiliation—what will emerge is a tapestry of qualification and uncertainty, insight and ambivalence. Too often students discount this language—and are even taught to discount it—because the vocabulary seems so ordinary and the formulations so tentative, especially when compared to the abstract and seemingly refined language of the academy.

But what students experience as a lack of fluency about the things closest to them is better understood as a consequence of their moral aspirations, their attempt to do justice to the variety of things that matter and to the variety of ways they matter. Expanding and elaborating this language of allowance, rather than trying to curtail it, streamline it, or replace it, is the ongoing project of a genuinely democratic education, the aim of which is to multiply rather than narrow our sympathies, ideas, and eligibilities.

This ought to be, but seldom is, what’s implied by all the talk about diversity in higher education. It’s not that the talk about diversity goes too far, but that it never goes far enough. It’s long on the differences between groups, but short on the differences within them, and within each one of us. Yet these last differences—the “multitudes” and contradictions that Whitman found within himself—provide the surest route to human connection and regard, because only when we recognize and admit just how mysterious we are even to ourselves, can we begin to relate to one another with open attitudes of humility and uncertainty, rather than closed attitudes of judgment and fear.

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Lyell Asher is an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.


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