Are students pampered louts?

tags: education, student protests

Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). More of his articles and commentary are available at  Rosemary Bechler is the mainsite Editor of openDemocracy. Thumbnail Image - Alex Zhang, Yale Daily News

Rosemary Bechler (RB): In a discussion with Todd Gitlin about some of the factors informing the recent wave of campus protests at US colleges over race and discrimination issues, he raised the blunt question of what to do with ‘hate’? Distinguishing between the Black activists of yesteryear and the student protesters we are talking about, he asks: “ How do you patrol the propriety of looks? How do you regulate the approved decorum of the students representing the majority, confronted with students of whom they may be suspicious or even, at times, hostile? This is a dangerous game…”

Having taught a broad range of American undergraduates--in writing composition at Harvard and at New York City’s Queens College, and then for 15 years as a lecturer in political science at Yale University--and having spent as many years tracking and criticizing black protest strategies in New York and nationally - how do you assess this concern? Do you agree that there is a danger of illiberal reaction on the part of students in liberal arts colleges?  

Jim Sleeper(JS): I think that Todd is right to note that today’s student protests aren’t nearly as exemplary or effective as the best American civil-rights demonstrators of 60 years ago, but today’s students are younger than most demonstrators were, and--owing to significant upheavals in American society, some thanks to the civil rights movement, but more owing to economic and technological sea-changes--the students haven’t enough of the communally grounded and quasi-spiritual courage or the tactical brilliance and training that demonstrators of the 1960s were able to summon to engage armed sheriffs’ deputies and segregationist whites generally. The civil-rights demonstrators pointedly credited their oppressors with integrity, Christian faith, and love, precisely in order to expose their lapses and thereby shame them. It worked when demonstrators were well-primed and well-led and when their opponents and many other white Americans considered themselves honest Christians. That made the violence against peaceful, disciplined citizens deeply disturbing, even electrifying. I worry that fewer of today’s students or their opponents can even claim such moral coordinates. 

It is an irony that when society was more oppressive and polarized along firm lines in the 1950s, people had clearer ideas about what they were for and against. I’m not applauding that, but I’m suggesting that it gave them firm points of departure. Today, individuals are more atomized, lacking narratives and relationships that assure them they’re rooted and loved. A sauve qui peut, “every man for himself” society can’t generate the necessary coordinates, dialogue, and, when necessary, resistance. The casino-like financing and consumer defrauding of unrestrained “free markets” are substantially to blame. 

So, yes, when students without such grounding and coordinates demand administrative solutions to their insecurities and others’ insensitivity, it’s a dangerous game, as Todd says. And I consider it quite as disturbing that students who are supposedly engaged in liberal education would demand such regulations as I do that some institutions actually establish them to “keep the customers happy.” But I can’t blame these 19-year-old “customers” for feeling anomic and adrift.

There has been effective push-back against gratuitous ‘hate-speech’ codes in the 1990s and, more recently, rules for tribunals assessing rape charges that imply prejudgments of the cases. Illiberal demands are more disturbing if they’re made by very many students, not just a few hotheads who may dominate movements for a while until other students and administrators deflect them. 

In my experience, the number of students who actually insist on illiberal procedures has been exaggerated by propaganda driven by ideology. They may dominate discourse and institutional policy at some small, self-contained undergraduate colleges, but less often at colleges that are part of even larger research universities.

RB: But if I understand the burden of your piece in Salon, there is a part of the picture missing here which is simply what you call in one section, ‘Black Afflictions’. I was particularly struck by your searing accounts of  ‘the pressure of white fear’… let alone open confrontation. 

Part of your argument is that the critics of these protests are completely hampered by their incomprehension of what the actual experience of students of color is and the serious injustices endured in a political-economic climate very different from that of the 60’s?

 JS: Yes, and there are a couple of ironies in this. First – and it’s almost embarrassing to say this – the only report or commentary I’ve seen that gives any evidence of its author’s having sat down and listened to black students about their experience is the “Black Afflictions” section of my own long essay in Salon and AlterNet

It grew out of long talks with students of all colors. I’d be glad to learn of other such accounts, but, from Niall Ferguson’s pronouncement, in The Boston Globe, that today’s student demonstrators are odiously puritanical because they’re so repressive, to David Cole’s far-more empathetic, discerning assessment in The New York Review of Books -- no other critic of the protests whom I've read has told us what it’s like to be inside a black skin, even in an oasis of supposed privilege – or what it’s like to be a well-meaning white student who’s accused of malevolent racism for questioning or misunderstanding a black student’s perspectives. But in November, The New Journal, a campus magazine, published "Black at Yale", a striking collection of essays on that subject by Yale undergraduates.

Sure, there are always some students of color who strike passive-aggressive poses that announce, in effect, “I am excluded, therefore, I am” – the worst sort of identity politics from a democratic point of view. But, again, in my experience, most student protesters are dealing with justified indignation about racism that’s carried like a virus by unwitting whites. And they’re dealing with a loss of a sense of belonging that fewer white students ever experience as intensely. To attempt to portray such protesters as ‘cry-babies’ is distasteful, also because we would all do better to try to remember some of the fears and histrionics we expressed when we were that age. ...

Read entire article at Open Democracy

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