---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 01 Apr 2002 12:05:54 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Debate? Dissent? Discussion? Oh, Don't Go There!
March 23, 2002
DEBATE? DISSENT? DISCUSSION? OH, DON'T GO THERE!
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
That familiar interjection "whatever" says a lot about the state of mind
of college students today. So do the catch phrases "no problem," "not
even" and "don't go there."
Noisy dorm and dining room debates are no longer de rigueur as they were
during earlier decades; quiet acceptance of differing views -- be they
political or aesthetic -- is increasingly the rule.
Neil Howe and William Strauss's book "Millennials Rising" -- a survey of
the post-Gen X generation -- suggests that the young people born in the
early 1980's and afterward are, as a group, less rebellious than their
predecessors, more practical-minded, less individualistic and more
inclined to value "team over self, duties over rights, honor over
feeling, action over words."
"Much the opposite of boomers at the same age," the authors write,
"millennials feel more of an urge to homogenize, to celebrate ties that
bind rather than differences that splinter."
These are gross generalizations, of course, but a student's article
titled "The Silent Classroom," which appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of
Amherst magazine, suggested that upperclassmen at that college tend to be
guarded and private about their intellectual beliefs. And in this
writer's own completely unscientific survey, professors and
administrators observed that students today tend to be more respectful of
authority -- parental and professorial -- than they used to be, and more
reticent about public disputation.
"My sense from talking to students and other faculty is that out of
class, students are interested in hearing another person's point of view,
but not interested in engaging it, in challenging it or being
challenged," Joseph W. Gordon, dean of undergraduate education at Yale,
said. "So they'll be very accepting of other points of view very
different from their own. They live in a world that's very diverse, but
it's a diversity that's more parallel than cross-stitched."
The students' reticence about debate stems, in part, from the fact that
the great issues of the day -- the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war
in Afghanistan -- do not engender the sort of dissent that the Vietnam
War did in an earlier era. It also has roots in a disillusionment with
the vitriolic partisanship that held sway in Washington in the 1990's:
the often petty haggling between right and left, Republicans and
Democrats, during President Bill Clinton's impeachment hearings and the
disputed presidential election of 2000, and the spectacle of liberals and
conservatives screaming at each other on television programs like
"Debate has gotten a very bad name in our culture," Jeff Nunokawa, a
professor of English at Princeton University, said. "It's become
synonymous with some of the most nonintellectual forms of bullying,
rather than as an opportunity for deliberative democracy." He added that
while the events of Sept. 11 may well serve as a kind of wake-up call,
many of his students say that "it's not politic or polite to seem to care
too much about abstract issues."
"Many of them are intensely socially conscientious, caring and
committed," he said. "It's just not clear precisely what they wish to
commit themselves to."
In a much talked-about article in The Atlantic Monthly a year ago, the
writer David Brooks argued that elite college students today "don't shout
out their differences or declare them in political or social movements"
because they do not belong to a generation that is "fighting to
emancipate itself from the past," because most of them are "not trying to
buck the system; they're trying to climb it." And yet to suggest that the
archetypal student today is "the Organization Kid," as Mr. Brooks did,
seems too simplistic, ignoring the powerful effect that certain academic
modes of thinking -- from multiculturalism to deconstruction -- have had
in shaping contemporary college discourse.
Indeed, the reluctance of today's students to engage in impassioned
debate can be seen as a byproduct of a philosophical relativism, fostered
by theories that gained ascendance in academia in the last two decades
and that have seeped into the broader culture. While deconstruction
promoted the indeterminacy of texts, the broader principle of
subjectivity has been embraced by everyone from biographers (like Edmund
Morris, whose biography of President Ronald Reagan mixed fact and
fiction) to scholars (who have inserted personal testimony in their work
to underscore their own biases). Because subjectivity enshrines ideas
that are partial and fragmentary by definition, it tends to preclude
searches for larger, overarching truths, thereby undermining a strong
culture of contestation.
At the same time, multiculturalism and identity politics were questioning
the very existence of objective truths and a single historical reality.
As the historians Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob observed in
their book, "Telling the Truth About History," radical multiculturalists
celebrated "the virtues of fragmentation," arguing that "since all
history has a political -- often a propaganda -- function, it is time for
each group to rewrite history from its own perspective and thereby
reaffirm its own past."
During the height of the culture wars of the early 90's, such views led
to vociferous showdowns between academic radicals and traditionalists. It
also led to the politicization of subjects like history and literature,
and ideological posturing that could be reductive and doctrinaire in the
extreme. Thankfully, these excesses have begun to die down, as bipolar
dogmatism has started to give way to a scholarly eclecticism -- less
concerned with large paradigms, and more focused on narrower issues --
but the legacy of multiculturalism and identity politics remains potent
on college campuses.
On one hand, it has made students more accepting of individuals different
from themselves, more tolerant of other races, religions and sexual
orientations. But this tolerance of other people also seems to have
resulted in a reluctance to engage in the sort of impassioned
argumentation that many baby boomers remember from their college days.
"It's as though there's no distinction between the person and the
argument, as though to criticize an argument would be injurious to the
person," said Amanda Anderson, an English professor at Johns Hopkins
University and the author of a forthcoming book, "The Way We Argue Now."
"Because so many forms of scholarly inquiry today foreground people's
lived experience, there's this kind of odd overtactfulness. In many ways,
it's emanating from a good thing, but it's turned into a disabling
"A lot of professors complain about the way students make appeals to
relativism today," Professor Anderson added. "It's difficult because it's
coming out of genuinely pluralistic orientation and a desire to get
along, but it makes argument and rigorous analysis very difficult,
because people will stop and say, `I guess I just disagree.' "
Outside the classroom, it's a mindset ratified by the PLUR ("Peace, Love,
Unity and Respect") T-shirts worn by ravers (whose drug of choice is
Ecstasy, which induces warm, fuzzy feelings of communion). It is also a
mindset reinforced by television shows like "Oprah" that preach
self-esteem and the accommodation of others, and by the Internet, which
instead of leading to a global village, has created a multitude of
self-contained tribes -- niche cultures in which like-minded people can
talk to like-minded people and filter out information that might
undermine their views.
At the same time, the diminished debate syndrome mirrors the irony-
suffused sensibility of many millennial-era students. Irony, after all,
represents a form of detachment; like the knee-jerk acceptance of the
positions of others, it's a defensive mode that enables one to avoid
commitment and stand above the fray.
What are the consequences of students' growing reluctance to debate?
Though it represents a welcome departure from the polarized mudslinging
of the 90's culture wars, it also represents a failure to fully engage
with the world, a failure to test one's convictions against the logic and
passions of others. It suggests a closing off of the possibilities of
growth and transformation and a repudiation of the process of consensus
building. "It doesn't bode well for democratic practice in this country,"
Professor Anderson said. "To keep democracy vital, it's important that
students learn to integrate debate into their lives and see it modeled
for them, in a productive way, when they're in school."
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon Apr 01 2002 - 16:41:18 EST