Make your own bed! Faux helplessness and student passivity

I remember tv sit coms and commercials in which otherwise authoritative white men would be reduced to bumbling idiots when briefly called upon to do laundry, cook, or care for their own children. Eventually, the woman (their wife, the maid, Aunt Bea, etc.) would sweep in (literally), efficiently restoring both the domestic and natural order. It’s a scenario I often recall during interactions with students whose apparent helplessness arises in the most scripted fashion and opportune moments.

Some such instances are especially relevant to online education, for example, when tech savvy millennials morph into butterfingered Luddites just before a drop box deadline. But I’m especially fascinated by the more subtle helplessness students demonstrate in relational, communicative contexts, say, when they reach out to me to “discuss my grade.” What dawned on me only after decades of innocently responding according to script, is that these exchanges can be leveraged to help nurture a more mature, robust sense of student agency, instead of unwittingly enabling or reinforcing a learned, but ultimately faux, helplessness.

Here’s how a typical dialogue might proceed with a previously incommunicado, failing student who emails me between the midterm and final exam periods:

Student: “I need to discuss my grade with you. When’s a good time?”

Me: “Good to hear from you, Andy. First, please help me better understand your goals for the meeting so we can make the best possible use of our time. As you know, your detailed grade information is all readily available to you online, as is all information about the weights of each assignment. What is it about this that you wish to discuss?”

Student: “I have no idea why I’m doing so bad. I don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Me: “Again, please review the detailed breakdown of your grade so far. You will see, for example, that you have failed to submit one-third of the assignments. What other patterns do you find that would help you better understand the grade you are earning? On other assignments in which you scored very low, you either skipped whole sections, or responded only partially to questions. Please find an example of an assignment that you believe you did well, compare it to the instructions for completing it, and then share your remaining questions with me.”

Student: “I’m graduating in May and I just really need to pass this class.”

In other words, almost always, that failing student who wants to “discuss my grade” or has “no idea why I’m getting such a low grade” really means something else. And so I often simply ask: “Is it that you don’t understand your grade or that you do not like it? Please clarify.” As it happens, “Let’s discuss my grade” is a vague catch-all like “Let’s have coffee.” These days, then, I call the student’s bluff to get her to take some responsibility in advance for the conversation she actually wishes to have with me, including some of its expected outcomes. Often students must be encouraged repeatedly to respond to my questions, so eager are they to hand the screaming baby back to me.

I nudge them into claiming some ownership of the scenario, writing: “your grade,” “the grade you’re earning.” And I give them little jobs to do — Why should the entire burden fall on me?: “review the information,” analyze the situation and then provide me with more specific questions. Often, the student’s apparently earnest attempt to set up a meeting — and aren’t they often self-satisfied when they finally take this step!? — is actually a desperate, and sometimes smarmy, attempt to establish and dramatize their own helplessness. Like the apron-clad Mad Man husband surveying a pile of dirty dishes next to a charred pot roast, they are desperate to pass off their mess. “Fix it. Make it better. You’re the professor!”


And, of course, it’s a disservice to students to make it too easy for them shift their burden onto us. They wish to “discuss my grade” and we diligently make calculations and offer more “feedback” that is already in front of their faces. And we are especially susceptible to this trap partly because, like cleaning a small child’s room, it’s just easier to just do it oneself. But it’s also because we are under great pressure to be “available” and “responsive” to students. They, correspondingly, are encouraged by advisors and others “to connect with professors in person” and too often see setting up THE MEETING as a magic eraser. Not surprisingly, then, some students exhibit far more tenacity and follow through in planning THE MEETING — though they may not actually show up — than is ever apparent in their class work.

And like June Cleaver reveling in her competence as she rushes in to save Ward and the boys from themselves, this is a performance with casualties beyond the warping of the rescuer’s character. Just as June’s “guys” never learn to work the stove, our students may not learn to gauge their own progress or consult criteria to provide feedback to themselves. Worse, they may not even understand that it’s their responsibility and within their power to do so. The university — like the city or the government or the church — looms paternalistically such that they learn to see themselves less as thoughtful agents than as passively entitled consumers. Is it any wonder so many are more likely to stamp their feet than to reflect upon, analyze and proactively seek solutions to problems they’ve helped create?

Is class Discussion Overrated?

It’s a near-truism of education that giving students ample opportunity to discuss, primarily with each other, is important. This sharing of perspectives is supposed to both solidify their understanding and develop a sense of community. I confess, though, that I’ve long been skeptical about the boosterism for discussion. From what I can tell, many discussions are so poor that the time might be better spent being lectured to, reading, or just napping.

Most of what I hear from colleagues who are discussion fans is based on students’ enthusiasm. “They really get into it!. Everyone talks!” What I usually think, but don’t often say, is “but what were they talking about? How, if at all, did that talking facilitate real learning?” In other words, I’ve long suspected that ebullient classroom chatter, such a feel-good boon to both students and teachers, gets confused with genuine, pedagogically valuable dialogue. Though my worry is about discussion in general, I think its problems are amplified in the online environment for reasons I explore in an upcoming post.


It’s worth pausing to consider what’s supposed to make discussion so important to learning in the first place. Because I’m a philosopher by training, I have been more conditioned to think of dialogue as pedagogically sacred than most. And though I am a recovering philosopher, I think there are good reasons why the Socratic method is the paradigmatic dialectical learning process. A skilled, passionate, knowledgeable interlocutor can nurture students’ intellectual development. Disciplined, professor-led discussions are often effective precisely because the teacher has traveled this road many times. She has a map and a destination in mind. Although there are lots of legitimate critiques of this approach — the hierarchical power relationship comes to mind — lots of students become better thinkers by way of it.

There’s another, more common, sort of discussion that gets confused with the Socratic version. It is more flexible and open-ended, and more closely related to consciousness-raising practices than to Socrates, even though many teachers who practice it almost exclusively claim that their method is “Socratic.” This looser sort of discussion prioritizes students’ experience, aiming to empower them personally and intellectually. It’s an especially good practice for teachers who value, as I do, the development of marginalized voices. For some of our students (though not at all for others), a barely-bounded classroom discussion becomes a precious opportunity to give voice to fears about sexuality or experiences of persecution. Because education is both personal and political, such discussions are important.


That said, I think we do damage when we lazily conflate these two kinds of discussion. When we speak of discussion — people talking at and to one another — as an unqualified good, we forget that only some kinds of discussion work for some purposes. It is all too easy to be fooled by the volume of students’ chatter into believing that something meaningful is occurring. We are probably especially susceptible to this delusion because of how hard it can sometimes be to get students to pipe up at all.

There are, of course, lots of strategies to facilitate effective discussion of all sorts, both face-to-face and online, but my focus here is much more basic: What if, in brutally honest fashion, we question the value of discussion as we have been practicing it? Though students would often prefer to talk to each other than to us — and we would often prefer that they do so as well — how much of it has really mattered?

One thing I know for sure: The fact that I and my students may feel great when they proclaim their feelings, experiences and preferences — and this is usually what they are most passionate about sharing — doesn’t mean I haven’t just wasted their time.

Fool’s empathy, spiritual posturing, and biting dogs

A new provost making the rounds once asked me to name what I might most hope to instill in students. My quick response was “empathy,” though I recognized just as quickly how cuddly and flaky that might sound. I knew I risked confirming biases about women professors, that we are more like mothers or counselors to our students than serious educators. What I failed to explain well was my sense that real understanding and critical thinking might ultimately boil down to something like empathy, which, as it turns out, is as razor sharp as it is soft and squishy.

In the debilitating wake of the presidential election, though, my confidence in empathy has been shaken. A steady barrage of scolding articles focused on the supposed liberal failure to empathize with the “working class” — which seems to mean small town white people — has nudged my relationship with empathy to the breaking point. After all, empathy’s kindred “feeling with” is a bitter pill when faced with folks who seem openly to want us, or our loved ones, dead, deported, jailed, or pregnant against out wills. Never mind the mundane narcissists and blowhards for whom we serve as mere ego fodder and whose abuse, though less dramatic, is cumulatively corrosive. Sadly, empathy has begun to sound like the self-satisfied, pseudo-spiritual aspirations of the pie-in-the-sky liberal, you know, the guy who doesn’t really have to worry about affordable birth control, being harassed by police, detained at the airport, or run over in a parking lot because he “looks gay.” This is the same guy whose privilege permits a life obsessed with his own comfort and petty grievances while the subjectivities of others never really come into view.


Because I won’t abandon empathy, either in the classroom or life in general, I’ve been in couples therapy with it for some months now. And I’m beginning to see that this latest wave of willful, brutal, embarrassing national ignorance is another call to grow up. Though I thought I had already learned this, I newly see that there must be a yet more mature, less naive vision of empathy to guide and motivate dealings with difficult others. And it must be a species of empathy that does not assume that either they or I are more evolved than we actually are. It must not, then, be a fool’s empathy, but, rather, one that can flourish even in the harsh light and arid soil of the proudly stupid and unabashedly mean.

Because, of course, sometimes people are nasty, greedy, shortsighted and self-centered, some people chronically so. If we get too caught up in feel-good, kumbaya empathy we may well fast-forward right past our responsibility to hold others accountable. The quest to feel like, and show ourselves to be, compassionate, spiritually evolved beings can overpower our responsibility to discourage assholery. This is clearly a disastrous self-indulgence with respect to students, when, for example, we grant deadline extensions they will never fulfill or are more focused on providing a friendly ear than on being clear about the consequences of poor performance. But it is just as disastrous when we bend over backwards to prove our empathy to people who might actually benefit most from being reminded of the natural consequences of their appalling behavior.

At bottom, if we are too eager to cultivate the image of ourselves as kind, empathetic people, then we are likely to fail others and ourselves. The result may well be not only that we are victimized by rude, or even cruel behavior, but that we become martyrs to it. It’s a faux empathy that has us ceding ground to bullies and tolerating shirkers. Certainly, leaving my front door unlocked does nothing good for the opportunistic thief or for me, even if I persuade myself that I’m not really attached to my possessions after all because, you know, I’m more spiritually advanced than that.


Similarly, if we see empathy mainly as an instrument for getting others to do as we wish — to follow our lead and be nicer, for example — then we will often be disillusioned. Almost no one admits they are being so manipulative — much of it is probably unconscious — but I’ve certainly found myself surprised and irritated when, instead of following my supposedly magnanimous or equanimous lead, a nasty acquaintance has continued to be nasty. Only my surprise taught me that I had been implicitly trying to manipulate her into better behavior. While it may not be an abuse of empathy to employ it so instrumentally, it’s often a recipe for disappointment.

One of my great teachers warns of how the desire to be and be seen as “spiritual” people can lead us to tolerate and enable harmful others who seek mainly to satisfy the desires of their smallest, pettiest selves. These are the narcissists and bullies who bluster and steamroll, blithely, vengefully unaware of their own key role in the hideous dramas they create. Sure, we can understand that the damage they inflict arises from pain and ignorance, just as an injured dog’s pain may drive her to viciousness. But sometimes we still owe it to one another — and to our institutions, nation, and world — to reach into the deepest, most empathetic part of ourselves and say, “No. Absolutely not. You may not cross this line.” I mean, there’s nothing noble or spiritual in letting the dog bite me. And there’s nothing in it for the dog either.

Small town professors…..Zoo animals in the heartland?

Recent Republican money-grabs, which take such brutal aim at public K-12 schools and universities, are surely rooted in anti-intellectualism as well as greed. That this faux-populist fury, propagated by an extremist conservative minority against smarty-pants professor-types, also reeks of racism, sexism and xenophobia, is impossible to overlook. But at the same time, the college experience continues to be enshrined in the popular imagination — from movies to the dorm supply aisles at Walmart — as a proud rite of passage and rollicking good time.

Such mixed messages must, I think, shape how my students and I feel about college. What does higher education mean to a first-year student who has been steeped to believe both that college is a corrupt waste of money and a precious milestone of life? What should professors make of the contradictory messages of respect and ridicule we receive, assured that we’re noble preservers of truth and beauty, but also dismissed as smug parasites munching away on the ass of productive society?

The professor’s standard lament is that students and their families now relate to college as consumers, but this is only partly true. Rather, many students seem simultaneously to see themselves as entitled customers and as blessedly chosen to drink the sacred nectar of college. So-called elites are denigrated, sure, but envied and emulated too. Crass educational consumerism and ivy wall fantasies collide, creating a mash-up in which the professor emerges as both villain and hero. And aren’t many of us ambivalent too? Don’t we feel like proud stewards of timeless pomp and circumstance, but also tainted by our association with these increasingly corporatized behemoths?

A few months ago, I got a painstakingly detailed, self-flagellating email from a student about her absences. In that moment at least, she seemed to buy the notion that college included a special commitment to learning, and a respectful relationship to one’s professor. The very next week, though, she sent me a list of demands for special considerations that, as a paying customer, she made clear, she damn well expected. While her original mea culpa may have been a mere ploy, I think it’s just as likely that she felt the tug of both the consumerist, and the traditional, romantic narratives about college.

To be sure, I’m not endorsing the traditional patriarchal mythology in which professors are seen as gods or daddies. Such hierarchy gives rise to creepy authoritarianism and cults of personality that can reinforce arbitrary inequality and invite abuse. Would the horrific longterm sexual attacks on girls and young women at Michigan State have been possible without such sexist, elitist, patriarchal myths? Nor, of course, am I in favor of some crassly consumerist reversal in which professors are expected to placate petty students as if we were managers at Starbucks.

We are aware of the double-binds that both elevate and scapegoat K-12 teachers. They are, so often, like mothers, simultaneously revered and reviled. And while professors generally enjoy higher status and remuneration, we are similarly adored and despised, especially in the heartland where so many of us make our livelihoods. Many of us come to love the small college towns where we create our lives; we work and play with the vast majority of the locals in harmonies of shared purpose. But in a cowboy society in thrall to anti-intellectualist fantasies of waspy hyper-masculinity — real men aren’t gay, foreign, or Jewish, and they don’t read poetry or philosophy — the professoriate itself is othered. Certainly, the recent attacks by radical conservatives on departments of women’s and LGBT studies fit unremarkably into this broader narrative of hate and intolerance.

In the pragmatic plains and rolling hills of middle America, we may be noticed and admired, but too often it will be as if we were expensive zoo animals: odd, interesting, and expendable. This is especially true if our accents, skin tones, or gender presentations ensure that we will be noticed at the grocery store, movie theater or gas station. When times feel tough, won’t some folks begin to seethe in fury at the resources this exotic animal requires? And if the mob’s rage is stoked and directed by just the right petty tyrant, can we be surprised when, one day someone attacks this strange, transplanted creature? It is frighteningly easy for me to imagine: They will shoot and skin and roast it, and then complain loudly about what a pathetic, skin-and-bones meal it made.

Dear students: We are not the wind beneath your wings

In the story I’ve often told about myself, teachers rescued me. It’s a poignant narrative that includes strains of Mister Rogers, Judy Blume, and To Sir With Love. There I am as a grubby youngster, shy as a sore tooth, and later as a brooding teen and dilettante undergrad, struggling to find safe landing spots. Teachers and professors saved me, I’ve often said, but as a professor myself who has worked for decades with both slickly prepared and teetering students, I know it isn’t true. No one saved me. No one could have.

It is not surprising that my narrative depends on the intervention of someone else’s enthusiasm and apparent enlightenment, for these are the models I’ve been steeped in: the idealistic white music teacher who braves urban chaos to save the local youth with tubas and flutes, and plucky Christy who disappears into the hills of Appalachia, wielding only soap, reading primers and good cheer. The fact that movies and tv shows based on such tropes are so enduring is a reminder of how desperately we cling to these narratives of pedagogical redemption. Paradoxically, though, such tales can also undermine agency, create false reassurance about personal tragedy, and inure us to gross social inequity.



When we indulge in the image of the almost supernaturally charismatic, energetic teacher, we nourish hope of the magically happy ending, a fable in which an angel touches one’s cheek in the bleakest moment of the darkest night of the soul. In a flash of insight, one is born anew, with fresh purpose and passion. It is romantic, quick and clean, like being baptized or unlocking a secret code. It’s nothing at all like picketing damn Betsy DeVos, dreary day after dreary day. And it is a much more uplifting story than the one about Shakespeare’s sister or Einstein’s first wife.

On her way out of my office last week, a former student paused as she shifted her backpack, “You have changed my life,” she said, eyes shining. I thanked her for her kind words and told her, just as sincerely, how working with her had been meaningful to me. But I also found myself recalling that, to a marathon runner in late August, the guy handing out waxy paper cups of tap water is a savior. I know because I have been that runner. And I also know that grateful, meaning-starved people have built elaborate religions over lesser gestures. I get it. Isn’t it delicious to believe that when things fall apart, someone — a very special someone — might come along and save the day?


If we want to believe in pedagogical salvation, then fine. Let us strive to be like Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society, or Dumbledore with his piercing eyes and immortal phoenix.* We can certainly leverage the trope of redemption or enlightenment to nudge our students into accessing their own resources. But I think we should be careful how, in our most self-scrutinizing, honest moments, we actually conceive of what we are doing. It is my job to challenge, encourage, and support students, and to do so in a way that is caring, consistent, and reflective of my commitment to social justice. At my very best, this is all I have ever had to offer.

I want students to be aware of whatever social support they have, to be sure, but I never want them to forget that their success is largely due to their own motive power. Being legitimately appreciative of help from others certainly does not require imposing a mystical, romantic salvation narrative that may cheapen their own sense of agency. And the sheer fact that so many teachers and professors become addicted to the savior/guru schtick should give us all pause. Haven’t we all known professors who cultivate loyal mini-herds of rapt students who traipse after them year after year? These are small cults, yes, and they sometimes have positive results, but they are still cults, with much of the creepiness that that entails.

It is not, then, mere humility that has me deflecting over-the-top praise. It’s nice to know that I have sometimes been assigned a powerfully symbolic role in others’ stories. But I also know what can happen when the aura dims and they see that I am, like them, nothing more than an utterly regular person. That’s when our fans and acolytes will blame us for their disappointment and disillusionment, and why not? If they see us as the wind beneath their wings, then it becomes our fault when they crash land, just as K-12 teachers are blamed for the systemic failures of public education. And then what? I guess I will be replaced by another savior, a fire-eyed guru with the power to entertain and inspire, the real deal this time, someone who will never ever let them down.

*And then there’s the dearth of examples featuring women and people of color; a white male teacher might be seen as a savior, while others’ teaching work is made invisible by sexist and racist stereotypes about mothering and emotional labor. How many talented, engaging teachers are overlooked entirely because certain qualities are simply expected and devalued in women and people of color?

Pedagogy decluttered: On becoming a more minimalist teacher

I’ve decluttered the hell out of my house. Those ratty socks, unloved shirts, and broken lawn chairs are gone, gone, and gone. Though my simplifying journey is still underway, the benefits of doing more with less, of streamlining both the stuff and processes of my life couldn’t be clearer. Naturally, then, I’ve turned my minimalist eye to teaching, creating, I hope, more air and space for what is most essential in my work with students.

The actual practices I describe here aren’t new or innovative, but I hadn’t previous framed them in minimalist terms. Considering them this way — as a sort of pedagogical application of the Kon Mari method — helps me to make sense of, and better integrate, my teaching values with those shaping the rest of my life. As a North American woman in her fifth decade, I am perhaps typical of my demographic in my desire to free up space — both literally and figuratively — rather than to fill it, to seek experiences rather than stuff, and to do more with less. It is an impulse that, for me, at any rate, is ethical and spiritual, as well as aesthetic and practical, and so it’s no surprise that it has leaked into my thinking about teaching.


I notice, for example, that I’m increasingly eager to impose an order and structure on coursework and course design up front that severely reduces the need for daily decision-making along the way. Like wearing a sort of uniform each day — which I also do — having the class details laid out in advance saves me from having to fuss, dither, and scramble on a daily basis. My online class, in particular, is set up to run like clockwork, so that, barring catastrophes, I know precisely what I and my students should be doing each day. And our work occurs in a repetitive cycle that creates a breath-like rhythm that (I hope) allows us to focus on substance rather than the minutiae of instructions for clever, new assignments or changes in the order of readings.

I also see that I spend less and less time churning out expansive written feedback on individual student work. Rather than scribbling out detailed paragraphs on exams or essays, my process is increasingly spare and stylized. So, for example, I rely more on thoughtful rubrics or grading worksheets that include specific criteria, forcing me to be clearer about expectations up front. And, of course, thought it requires work in advance, it saves me time and grief during the busy flow of the semester. Though I’ve used rubrics for a while, aware of both their limitations and perks, I now see them as analogous to a capsule wardrobe. This practice of creating a painstakingly curated small collection of clothes, rather than limiting our choices, can, it seems, help free us up to focus on higher priority matters.

My final observation arises as I continue to minimize paper usage in terms of the number of handouts I supply, work to be submitted, and physical texts I assign. This is partly an influence of my online teaching, in which physical paper plays almost no role, and also resonates with my efforts at home to eliminate messy paper subscriptions, bills, receipts, etc. Some of my satisfaction results from the supposed environmental and money-saving aspects, of course, but minimizing paper also fits better with an aesthetic in which unnecessary props and accessories are cleared away. And, of course, the practical benefit of being able to access class texts or student assignments without schlepping a heavy backpack, is magical.


I know that such streamlining practices come with a cost. Adhering to a cyclical schedule of assignments entails a loss of spontaneity, and relying on stylized feedback structures like rubrics can feel impersonal. Having a structured, planned living situation, too, has its disadvantages. I find myself eating a lot of boiled eggs and wearing just a couple of black shirts because of my commitment to routine. Though it’s not for everyone, for me, adding such bits of structure creates flexibility in other areas. As the famously routinized Kant argued, imposing form and discipline can, paradoxically, increase the quality of one’s freedom. In the time I’m not fiddling with my clothes, I can walk, rather than drive, to work. Because I wasn’t up half the night scrawling comments on term papers, I am well rested when I connect with students, rather than resentful and grumpy.

Still, I am not proselytizing — I don’t think minimalism offers the best framework for teaching (or living) — nor do I think there’s one right way to be minimalist. Some of my fondest memories as a college student include explosively spontaneous professors who seemed barely affected by clocks, calendars, and no smoking signs. What I can report with confidence, though, is that minimalism is doing for my teaching what it does for my life. As my hiding places are cleared away, I am encouraged to be more honest with myself about how I spend my time and energy. With fewer opportunities for the seductive, distracting busywork that claims our hours, our days, and our lives, I occasionally get a glimpse of something that might really and truly matter.

Let’s take those anti-college Republicans at their word

Maverick educator though he was, Plato’s Socrates fretted about a new fangled technology known as writing. Relying on quill and papyrus, he worried, could wreck men’s memories and send his beloved Athens into a spiral of dull-witted decline. His concerns seem quaint, even silly, until we consider the recent Pew Center Report suggesting that most Republicans now think that college is bad for society. Certainly, it captures something about the red-blue divide since, at the same time, 70ish percent of “liberals” still think higher ed is pretty nifty.

On the one hand, there’s nothing to see here. Conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, have long made a hobby of vilifying education, aware enough of its radicalizing potential to pursue radical means to control it. After all, Socrates died for his supposed heresies, to say nothing of poor Tycho Brahe, the long house arrest of Galileo, and the beatings inflicted on enslaved Africans learning to read. There are, unfortunately, endless examples of outraged conservatives silencing intellectuals and creatives in the name of God and country. The current anti-intellectualism in the U.S. too is grounded in a values divide with unbearably high stakes, including attitudes and policies about climate change, the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants, and what it means to be a free citizen.

If this weighs especially heavy on my mind, it is partly because I am a professor from a red town in a red state in a flamingly red region. I am, ostensibly, a veritable case study of the kid who went off to college and emerged unrepentantly and permanently dangerous to society. For anyone who thought I should have married a local boy, become a P.E. teacher (my mother’s early vision for me), and raised a few blond kids, college did, in fact wreck me. From the moment I arrived on campus — supported and encouraged by my father and step mother — worlds opened, intellectually, creatively and socially. Although I avoided the freshman weight gain, college helped me expand in every other respect. New paths led to new roads of experience and perspective that made me and my hometown ever stranger to one another. There was never much chance I would return to it or that it would welcome me if I did.


The narrative of the Republican far right — with much help from the kajillionairre Koch brothers and their ilk — is that colleges are left-wing cults, inculcating young people into extreme political liberalism and libertine lifestyles. And I guess the supposed divide between the values of small town America and the dangerous “college type” is perfectly realized in me, a lesbian in a Subaru who eats organic, reads a ton — I am a philosopher — and hasn’t set foot in a church since MC Hammer rocked those iconic pants. As a professor who teaches such “politically charged” courses as LGBT Studies and Queer Theory, I am the poster child of what conservatives object to about higher ed today, a threat to their very way of life.

Except that, as an independent-minded critic of unearned social and economic privilege, my hard working father helped radicalize me long before I went off to college. And my uneducated mother’s eclectic and open-minded approach to friends, food and books set me up to embrace the ideological and aesthetic challenges I encountered on campus. Anyone who blames college for ruining me has no idea how annoyingly philosophical and incipiently political I already was before college had its way with me. It’s probably just as fair to say that college made me a more mature version of myself than that it fundamentally changed me. I suspect this is true for most college students though, of course, I can’t say. But it does seem that those extreme, anti-college Republicans both underestimate and overestimate the influence that the experience has on actual young people.

Anyone truly surprised by this “new” anti-college stance underestimates the power and tenacity of America’s grand tradition of anti-intellectualism, its ties to religious fundamentalism, and the impact of economic disparity and the public disinvestment in higher ed (which is, of course, partly a product of anti-intellectualism). When one adds in the concerted anti-college media campaigns of college-educated fat cats, it is a miracle that all of red America is not disgusted by professors like me. And, no surprise, it turns out that it’s mostly the non-college educated Republicans who are so vehemently against it, like those home-bound Americans who insist with great authority that Europe is overrated. The way to get more popular support for college, as for most worthwhile experiences, is almost certainly to make it more available which is, perhaps, partly why so many Republican fundamentalists fight to make it inaccessible.


At any rate, this current flare of anti-intellectualist religious fundamentalism does us professors and society great harm. It can result in our being harassed, fired, and much, much worse. But what it cannot do is compel us to reason with it, or, in hand-wringing fashion, to psychologize it in some pseudo compassionate attempt to understand those benighted red-staters. We need not debase ourselves or our critics by second guessing or applying deeper motives to such proud ignorance. There is nothing shameful about ignorance, of course, but I can say with perfect ease that the proudly ignorant should damn well be ashamed of themselves. Though I can strive to understand the climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and the new crop of flat-earthers as a sort of sociologist or anthropologist might, it is not as one citizen respectfully engaging with another in healthy, authentic dialogue.

The fundamentalists burned Tycho Brahe at the stake, but they could not compel him to make apologies for their murderous behavior. If the Republican fundamentalists wish to scapegoat higher ed, then let’s college types respect them enough to take them at their word. We do them no favors by talking about them or to them as if they were children or fools to be placated. Such pious “understanding,” of course, is the very bleeding heart liberal strategy that they despise. Instead of trying to argue with them about how awesome we are, we should continue to do our jobs well and focus on higher ed accessibility. Those who go to college may not fall in love with the ivory towers and ivy-covered walls, but very few will leave concluding it is professors, or knowledge itself, that is responsible for the rising tide of greed, nastiness and national insecurity.