In recent years, America has become an anomalous society, bereft of many of the social rules, explicit and especially implicit, that previously we lived by. That may sound good – liberating and innovative, free of the burdensome constraints that plagued our ancestors and slowed progress. But too much of a good thing is not always wonderful, and on occasion freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. The loss of our system of culturally based rules may even be responsible for part of the fix we are in.
The rules I am talking about here are not the explicit ones we recite to our children: Say Thank you. Put away your toys. Don’t make fun of other people. The rules I am talking about are the ones most adults used to figure out by themselves in the course of arriving at maturity, implicit assumptions about how to be human, how to be a person of gender, how to manage work, friendships, and intimacy, and many more. A great many of these are currently gone or contested.
Here are a few areas (of many) in which guidance has vanished.
- Gender and sexual expectations. What jobs are suitable for whom? Why? Who can act how to whom? Who’s the boss: at home, at work, and everywhere, and how is being the boss appropriately manifested? (See Jill Filipovic’s excellent discussion in the New York Times Sunday Review (November 5). Filipovic’s point is that the qualities and behaviors we view with dismay in the president are tolerated in him by those who no longer have a sense of how men should behave: perhaps, in the old days, they were often authoritarian and cold-blooded, but at the same time, they were expected to be responsible and disciplined. Too many men have used the excuse that the first set of expectations no longer applies to discard both. Too many men have become angry and entitled children; they have abandoned the old rules, but have failed to establish new ones, more egalitarian in keeping with the gender roles of our time.
The problem is compounded by a radically changing set of assumptions about women’s roles and expectations, which have changed greatly over the last half-century — probably more than they had changed since the beginning of human history. Indeed, they have changed too fast for many people, men and women alike, and at the same time, paradoxically, for others they have not changed enough. Men no longer know what women are, so they have no certainty how to be the contrasting category, men. Before women were able to achieve success in prestigious fields, and so could be self-supporting and autonomous, it was reasonable for men to feel that it was their job to protect women, since women were weak and helpless. But now women are not that way, so men don’t feel protective, nor should they. But does that mean they can now behave like silverback gorillas? For women, too, the shift can be problematic. To require old-fashioned protection is to acknowledge an identity that is less than fully human, with little self-esteem and still less capacity to make meaningful life decisions and other choices. But it had its comforts, for which some women still long.
- What college is for and how it should (therefore) work. Many experts point out that college is not what it used to be. But that is because the society into which colleges send their graduates is itself not what it used to be. So critics bemoan the many ways that universities seem not to be doing their various jobs without first considering the differences between what those jobs used to be and what they are currently becoming.
The university came into existence about 1000 years ago, with its main function the education of young men for the ministry. Over a century ago the institution reinvented itself as a system for the creation and dissemination of knowledge through publication and teaching. At the same time, land-grant universities were established in America with the promise of education for all, and thereby social and economic advancement for all. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century, this ideal moved toward fulfillment, and a college education, in many social strata, became the norm and the expectation for every adolescent. But not every adolescent had (or has) the desire and/or the ability to enter into the knowledge business. So universities now find themselves perplexed: how do you create a modern “college education” that works to educate all who wish to attend? Who should be their clientele, and what should these “customers” want to get out of the transaction? People now take very seriously the Faustian bargain public universities made with state legislatures and taxpayers over the latter half of the last century: give us your taxes and we will make your children more successful than you. But that promise has proven false, because the children understand first, that the universities can make no such guarantee; and second, what they are supposed to do to get the promised goods their parents have paid for are forms of knowledge in which they have no interest and which, moreover, have no direct connection with what young people have to know to be successful at modern work. So students search for something interesting to do while they are being bored to death by irrelevant subjects for four (or more) interminable years. That in turn leads to the overemphasis on sports, the pervasive influence of fraternities, and the undergraduate partying that goes on relentlessly from Friday to Monday, seriously interfering with the business of instruction. But since students have no real interest in what they are being taught, and no sense that learning it will prepare them for meaningful or remunerative work, the bingeing and partying and the like that those activities entail are not so much bad choices made through youthful ignorance, but the only activities that seem to matter. It’s not that they are fun, in any real sense, but that they are the only things that make sense to those who engage in them.
Faculty and administrators themselves don’t know, and therefore cannot articulate, and still less act on, what college education is for, or what universities themselves are supposed to be doing. Clearly universities are not charged with preparing students for the ministry; less clearly, they are not functioning, or surely at least not functioning well, as knowledge institutions.
All institutions flourish if they are seen, by insiders and outsiders alike, as doing the jobs they were created by their societies to do. Medicine cures disease; government keeps us living together safely; the church gives us hope; and so on. But the university is currently unable to make any claim for the relevance or success of what they are doing. So budgets are being cut, faculty jobs are ceasing to exist, students emerge without learning anything, the sort of knowledge found in scholarly journals is the subject of non-academic jokes, and confusion reigns.
Should the focus of undergraduate education be – as often argued — purely vocational? Is the modern American university an expensive, but not very good, employment agency? If so, then the current love affair with STEM, and consequent contempt for all other fields and forms of knowledge, might make sense. But then universities, and those who love them, have to make that perfectly clear, and acknowledge that the preservation, acquisition, and dissemination of knowledge are no longer their business. I for one am not quite ready to let that happen.
There is a deeper related issue: how exactly does “knowledge” get inculcated into the adolescent mind? The answers to this question have become murky or distorted; some undergraduate demands and behaviors conflict with what instructors and others legitimately feel are ways of inculcating, and acquiring, knowledge. These demands lead to the insistence of undergraduates that their emotional needs be seen as paramount in the educational process. And that assumption (all too often accepted by instructors as valid) leads to discursive anarchy on campus of a couple of troublesome kinds, identifiable under the rubric of:
- The inability to argue constructively. The university is, or should be, the place where students learn the most important lesson they can carry into adult life: the ability to persuade others through civil, though sometimes tough, verbal argument. The 2016 elections brought in their wake, particularly on “elite” campuses, an escalation of verbal and nonverbal violence in demonstrations, including the use of insults and bullying. Yes, we can thank our president for setting an example, but the seed is falling on fertile ground. Students should be learning how to engage in serious argumentation: the presentation of ideas, in reasonable tones of voice and in civil language, with the acknowledgement that an opponent is an intelligent and sensitive human being. They have to learn the futility and immorality of resorting to physical violence. Just as scholars would never (well, hardly ever) dream of physically attacking a colleague with whom they have a scholarly disagreement, students must learn from their educational experience that arguments must remain civil and verbal.
In her important 1998 book The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen noted our increasing inability to disagree agreeably. The problem has only gotten worse. It exists, to be sure, not only in the university, but also in our politics and elsewhere, and unless we can create real change in our public discourse, there are reasons to worry that our experiment in democracy may come to an unfortunate end. Because the university is the source of tomorrow’s leaders and style setters, it must bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility for leading the way.
Another problem has recently arisen problem in the discourse of the university, in a sense the inverse of the problem discussed above, which is a sort of hyperaggression. On the other hand, some students seem to have developed a fear of displaying or experiencing, in their classroom discourse, any opposition at all: the fear of “triggering” and “microaggressions.” Susceptible students, when they are exposed to ideas or topics that they find emotionally upsetting (say, a rape scene in a novel, to a student who has been a victim of rape), are unwilling to confront the topic, and demand that the instructor and course syllabus protect them from that confrontation. To protect themselves they demand “trigger warnings.” “Microaggressions” are verbal acts, usually by members of a politically dominant group, that – usually beneath the overt notice of speakers – denigrate members of another group, whether ethnic, racial, or sexual (for example, the assumption of the validity of a stereotype, say, the notion that Asian American women are submissive, or black males are sexually aggressive). Because these notions are often expressed nonverbally, they are very hard to controvert or correct.
Of course it is reasonable to ask people to be sensitive to the fact that others’ experiences may be very different from our own, and therefore to be careful to speak politely. But it is also important to realize that many of the apparent insults called microaggressions are are innocent; and that stopping the discussion of the topic under consideration may interfere with the purpose of the class, and with its attempt at education.
If universities are to become, or remain, places for rational discourse about ideas, faculty and administrators have to help students develop and test the ability to speak freely yet civilly. Until the university can be a place for free and open discourse, it is failing to do its job. University attendance must teach students to recognize that political discourse is about the topic under discussion, not about the personal needs and relationships of the people in it.
These two problems – over- and under-aggression — are mirror images of each other. Both undermine discourse and thereby the function of the university: the creation and dissemination of knowledge, which can only be achieved through open and safe communication.
- The role of POTUS in the above. We can’t determine the extent to which the verbal peculiarities of POTUS #45 are responsible for any of these problems. Perhaps the problem is circular: because we have become unable to see and treat one another as persons and humans equally deserving of respect, our political discourse has become increasingly abusive; because abusiveness has become the norm, too many find Trump’s vulgarity unremarkable or even desirable. Because POTUS is the man Americans look to as an exemplar of how to behave and how to speak to and of others, Trump’s habits encourage and excuse our worst excesses. Thoughts and emotions that we once wisely kept hidden as shameful now become the norm – if it’s good enough for POTUS, surely it’s good enough for me. This may well be the worst, longest lasting, and most dangerous of Trump’s legacies. Even if we squeak through his thirst for nuclear annihilation and contempt for action on climate change, even if we elect a new president in 2020 or at least 2024, the obscenities of Trump-style discourse will remain with us. It is very hard to undo habits, especially when they gratify our infantile desires.
The foregoing are just a few instances of the newly anomalous nature of American social practice. Anomaly not only allows people to behave badly – because those forms of behavior are not, technically, bad since there are no standards to measure them against – but causes everyone to feel confusion and anomie, because we don’t know what is expected of us. That confusion in turn can evoke fear, which turns into anger, which then encourages violent behavior, verbal and otherwise, especially against those who seem to be using the absence of rules to achieve a status to which they are not entitled: women, minorities, and non-natives. And the gratification derived from the expression of these feelings supports the one who legitimizes them, specifically POTUS. So Trump is both the malefactor and the beneficiary of the bad behavior.
The recent election results in New Jersey, Virginia, and elsewhere are encouraging: perhaps the disease has run its course. Let us hope so.
In other news: My daughter-in-law, Daniela Bleichmar, has just published a new book: Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. I have not seen it (ahem), but descriptions look fantastic! Also, if any of you are going to be in the area of the Huntington Library before the beginning of January, Daniela is curating an exhibit there for which the book is the catalogue raisonnée. Check it out! (I am not sure that it is legal to kvell over the accomplishments of non-blood relatives, but I am hereby doing so anyway.)