[sixties-l] Debate? Dissent? Discussion? Oh, Don't Go There! (fwd)

From: sixties@lists.village.virginia.edu
Date: Mon Apr 01 2002 - 16:27:40 EST

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    Date: Mon, 01 Apr 2002 12:05:54 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Debate? Dissent? Discussion? Oh, Don't Go There!


      March 23, 2002



      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."

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