When Professor Hsu mentioned "...the customer satisfaction model of education...," it brought back memories, no nightmares for this blogger. Earlier in his days in the groves of academe at the Collegium Excellens, the prevailing administrative philosophy was "The Student Comes First." This was a wacko reworking of "The Customer Is Always Right" in mass retail commerce. The atmosphere drove this blogger to hit "Play" on a CD loaded into the class computer:
[x YouTube/The CactusHead Channel]
"Keep The Customers Satisfied" (1970)
By Simon and Garfunkle
And no one applauded. Actually, the song is appropriate for readers of this blog, too. If this is a (fair & balanced) defense of free speech, so b it.
[x New Yorker]
The Year Of The Imaginary College Student
By Hua Hsu
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Earlier this year, James O’Keefe, the conservative activist famous for his hidden-camera exposés, visited Vassar College dressed in costume as the Constitution. Vassar, where I teach, is one of those campuses that seems to typify, for some, how wacky and permissive higher education has become—a readymade specimen for those seeking to depict the twenty-first-century American college at its most insular and navel-gazing. O’Keefe hoped to do this by handing out pocket-sized Constitutions outside the campus’ busiest building. One of his operatives, posing as a student, would then coax an administrator into destroying this replica of our nation’s founding document. A video edited down from the day’s footage shows an officer of the college awkwardly humoring the faux student, who is pitch-perfect in her recitation of how the offensively retrograde Constitution had “triggered” and traumatized her, helpfully suggesting that the officer use a nearby shredder.
In a year when college campuses were particularly visible as hotbeds of political activity, O’Keefe’s stunt didn’t make much of a splash. The administrator in the clip seems confused and skeptical, like an actress flubbing her lines, while the real-life Vassar kids caught on camera look mildly inconvenienced rather than incensed. What stands out is that, in contrast to O’Keefe’s other provocations, the clip could have served a variety of political viewpoints. As a parody of campus life, it tapped into a broader suspicion, shared across the ideological spectrum—from right-wing watchdogs to high-minded progressives—that college students these days are absurdly thin-skinned, unduly obsessed with “safe spaces” and political correctness.
It was a rich year for even the casual observer of campus life. There were tales of students seeking “trigger warnings” before being exposed to potentially upsetting class materials. There was a new interest in “microaggressions,” or hurtful, everyday slights rarely uttered with the intention to offend. There was the Northwestern professor whose editorial against “sexual paranoia” resulted in students filing a Title IX suit against her, and the University of Missouri students who sought to bar journalists from a public plaza, which they claimed to be a “safe space” protected from the media. There were the students at Yale who demanded that a residential adviser be reprimanded after she prevailed upon them to be more open-minded about offensive Halloween costumes. And there was the item in the Oberlin school paper about sketchy Asian food, a piece that the New York Times described as evidence of the new “culture war.” Every week seemed to bring additional evidence for the emerging archetype of the hypersensitive college student, spotlighted at the beginning of the school year by the Atlantic, in a cover story about the “Coddling of the American Mind,” and just last weekend, in a Times Op-Ed about the “culture of victimhood.”
Why this surge of interest in campus life, especially as fodder for ridicule? What have college students come to represent to those who presume to inhabit the “real world” that awaits them? These reports and reactions arrive at a moment of heightened scrutiny concerning the usefulness of college itself, in an era of astoundingly high tuitions and fees, and some of them have a whiff of intergenerational condescension, that enduring sense that youth (and critical theory) is wasted on the young. Compared to the scenes of sixties protest that remain most romantically legible in the American imagination, contemporary activism strikes many as low stakes and unfocussed.
But the alarm about offense-seeking college students may say more about the critics of political correctness than it does about the actual state of affairs. Plenty of evidence suggests that policies regarding microaggressions and trigger warnings aren’t as pervasive as they might seem to those who are not on campus. This is not to say that such policies (or demands for such policies) do not exist, nor to discount the very real pressures they place on teachers who work with difficult material. Is that coddling? Maybe it is. But an educational system built on legacy admissions and de facto segregation, with traditions of grade inflation that perpetuate privilege, is also a form of coddling. It’s understandable that protests about symbols and language strike critics on both the right and the left as being too touchy-feely. But it’s worth asking why the politics of everyday college life, from calls for more inclusive curricula to questions about whether campus buildings should continue honoring racist forefathers, have become so important to people spending their lives far from the classroom.
College once represented a bubble protected from the outside world. Students nowadays come into political consciousness in public, on the Internet, but also in a space—the twenty-first-century American college—that boasts a clear structure of accountability and hierarchy, a place where you might actually walk across campus, knock on a door, and meet a representative of the power structure. The logic of virality that governs life on the Internet has given student activists a sense of common struggle, as well as the means to escalate their grievances with relative ease. The “Ferguson effect” was a term invented to describe how nationwide protests against police brutality would result in a hesitant, overcautious police force. (There is evidence that claims about this effect have been overstated, if the effect even exists at all.) But another effect of the Ferguson protests—and the Occupy movement before it—was to intensify the desire to see injustices in one’s immediate surroundings as part of larger struggles that once might have seemed distant and abstract, to draw connections and recognize broader patterns linking everyday indignities with systemic problems.
This desire to see oneself along a continuum of experience isn’t remarkable in itself. What’s changed is the intense scrutiny from those just beyond the gates, eager to diagnose every gesture as some kind of larger trend. It’s a strange game of gotcha, from progressives wary of political correctness seeking out the juiciest anecdotes to O’Keefe’s mission to find someone at Vassar willing to do something un-American. The recent media coverage of Oberlin’s food fight, for example, seemed remarkably out of proportion to the original complaints. Before social media, grievances about cafeteria food from members of the campus’ tiny sliver of Asian and Asian-American students would have been lucky to make it across campus, let alone the country. But thanks in part to their use of au courant buzzwords like “authenticity” and “appropriation,” the “Oberlin foodies” became national symbols of campus culture wars run amok. Commenters took to the college’s Facebook page, ripping the students as spoiled and leaving an alarming number of racist comments about the Asian appetite for dog. (The comments have since been erased by the page’s moderator.) All of this seemed a strange turn of events, given that the original complaints, from an article in the school paper published with little fanfare a month earlier, didn’t seem to rise above a fairly modest lament.
What many of the cases across the country share in common is a desire by students to hold their institutions accountable in ways both impossibly big and manageably small. Particularly in instances when it is students of color agitating for institutional reform, it’s important to recognize what’s happening right now as the continually unfolding legacy of relatively recent policies designed to promote and insure diversity. At one point in time, institutions might have thought the mere presence of difference was a sufficient aim. But the question today is: Now what? Maybe the efforts of students pushing to fulfill a brochure’s promise of community and belonging feel purely symbolic or naïve. But it’s the most direct kind of response for those who suspect that their own presence may, on some level, be purely symbolic as well.
Working at a college hasn’t predisposed me to sympathizing with present-day students. All of this, from questions about college’s usefulness as pre-professional training to how today’s students confront challenging ideas, concerns me. As many academic critics of the campus wars have noted, one consequence of all these controversies might simply be more deans and administrators, and even more emphasis on the customer satisfaction model of education. Over the past couple of years, friends who have read stories about campus flare-ups have asked me what it’s like to teach kids these days. It’s complicated, I say, when you’re there every day. You see the good and the bad, the careful ideas and the brash whims, the moments of unexplained laziness and the stretches of superhuman vitality, and you remember that it’s all just a part of growing up.
Consider the trajectory of the typical twenty-something, born in the early nineties, a product of the test-oriented No Child Left Behind educational model. This hypothetical student came of age during the Obama era, with a new understanding of America’s future demographics, at a moment when the narrative of a red and blue America was firm orthodoxy. This student’s first Presidential election may involve Donald Trump. Identity politics, in the world this student knows, are no longer solely the province of minorities who have been pushed to the margins. The same ideas about inclusivity and belonging that spark campus revolt also underlie the narratives of grievance and decline animating supporters of Trump and the Tea Party. Within this context, where large swaths of the so-called real world have already surrendered to cynicism, perhaps direct action and protests, even in the name of seemingly minor causes, are the only politics that still makes sense.
It is tempting to conclude that what is happening is simply a rerun of what always happens, this time in the age of aggregation. But I’m not sure what we accomplish by insisting that nothing new is going on, or by suggesting that students simply try harder to belong. It seems similarly unhelpful to belittle an archetype, questioning the sources of their esteem or reading their motives in bad faith. The imaginary college student is a character born of someone else’s pessimism. It is an easy target, a perverse distillation of all the self-regard and self-absorption ascribed to what’s often called the millennial generation. But perhaps it goes both ways, and the reason that college stories have garnered so much attention this year is our general suspicion, within the real world, that the system no longer works. Their cries for justice sound out of step to those who can no longer imagine it. Maybe we’re troubled by these students’ attempts to imagine change on so microscopic a level. Maybe they interest us as a litmus test for the political future—one with different frontiers and more vociferous demands. There is a naïve idealism at the heart of student protest, which might be desperate or loud but never as cynical as the world that necessitated it. Today’s youth should be understood in terms of the choices available to them, not the world they’ve inherited. Let college kids be, many of us say, for they are no weirder than we were. It’s a comparison meant to be generous, since past generations, we think, turned out more or less OK. This flatters the old, not the young. Ω
[Hua Hsu is a contributor to The New Yorker. His first book, A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific, will be published by Harvard University Press in 2016. He is currently an associate professor of English at Vassar College and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Hsu received a BA (English) from the University of Caifornia at Berkeley as well as a PhD (American civilization) from Harvard University.]
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