Sunday, May 29, 2016

Nathan Heller at Oberlin

Nathan Heller has an article on student protests at Oberlin in the latest New Yorker that I found very interesting. Heller did a lot of listening – to student protesters, to the college president, to class of '68 professors baffled by this generation of young people. Given the level of hysteria among the protesters, listening sympathetically was something of a feat, but Heller managed it.

What interested me was the way the concerns of the protesters intersect with my biggest worry about our universities, our lack of any consensus as to what education means. The angriest protesters seem to be completely alienated from the college's educational mission, whatever that might be. They feel lonely and unsupported on campus – “There’s this persistent, low-grade dehumanization from everyone”, one says – and have no sense of what they are supposed to be getting out of their time at Oberlin. Since they have rejected neoliberal capitalism, they have no interest in furthering their careers. But though many of their professors share the same hostility toward corporate careerism, these students have trouble connecting with those professors, too. Why?

I thought this conversation with a group of black students was key. They are discussing the list non-negotiable demands presented by the students to the college president, which he waved off with an assertion that non-negotiable demands are wrong and what is needed is dialogue. (I bet he is a fan of the Dalai Lama.)
“Even those who didn’t write it had things to put into it,” Taylor Slay, a fellow Abusua member, says. She is sitting next to Adams, taking notes. Adams goes on, “Me trying to appeal to people? Ain’t working. Me trying to be the quiet, sit-back-and-be-chill-and-do-my-work black person? Doesn’t work. Me trying to be friends with non-black folks? Doesn’t work.” She draws out her final syllables. “Whatever you do at Oberlin as a person of color or a low-income person, it just doesn’t work! So you’re just, like, I’ve got to stand up for myself.” “I have to be political,” Slay says. “I have to be political in whatever form or fashion,” Adams says. “Because I have nothing else to do.”

There were negative responses to the fifty demands (which included a request for an $8.20-an-hour activism wage, the firing of nine Oberlin employees deemed insufficiently supportive of black students, and the tenuring of black faculty).

But the alumni reactions were the worst, according to Adams. “They are quick to turn around and call twenty-year-old students the N-word, and monkeys, and illiterate uneducated toddlers, and tell us to go back to Africa where we came from, and that Martin Luther King would be ashamed of us,” she says. “We knew realistically that most of those demands were not going to be met. We understand legality. We understand finances—”

“We see the pattern of nonresponse,” Slay says.

Zakiya Acey furrows his brow. “The argument was ‘Oh, so students ask for this, but it’s not legal,’ ” he says. “But it’s what I need. And it’s what this country needs, and it’s my country. That’s the whole point. We’re asking—”

“We’re asking to be reflected in our education,” Adams cuts in. “I literally am so tired of learning about Marx, when he did not include race in his discussion of the market!” She shrugs incredulously. “As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values. I’m going home, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”
If you don't care about entering on a career, and don't want to be changed, why are you in college?

That was a serious question, not a dismissal of these students. I tend to think that a huge amount of what all people do is about developing and asserting our identities, but this generation of activists seems to be particularly obsessed with identity. They want, more than anything else, to be who they are. Jasmine Adams seems to be saying, “I don't want to study Marx, because I am not the sort of person who cares about the European working class; I am the sort of person who cares about race, and I want the university to help me deepen my understanding of my own concerns.”

We are asking to be reflected in our education.

Seventy years ago American higher education was about molding adolescents into young gentlemen and ladies – more precisely, about moving people into the upper middle class. You studied things because they were the things that people in the upper and upper middle classes knew, or that prepared you for upper middle class careers. Obviously that is a distorting generalization, but I think it is close enough to the truth to serve the purpose.

But if you reject careerism, and reject the whole notion of being molded into a certain sort of person, what does college have to offer you?

I do have answers to that question: to expand your knowledge of the world and of scholarship about the world, to develop writing and thinking skills, to make friends, to mature in a supportive environment, and so on. But I understand that other than making friends these things are just not very appealing to many and maybe most people. The professors who did the most to encourage my elder daughter's intellectual pursuits all seem to assume that she should become a professor herself, as if academic life is the only place for people interested in history and art. Many professors, at least, see the academy as the only place where once can pursue a life of the mind, making curiosity into just another carer path.

So my main reaction to Heller's article is to see identity politics as another attack on any generalized notion of education. If the most important thing is to be your own most authentic self, why study anything in which you don't see yourself reflected?

One of the students Heller interviewed, asked about her future plans, said,
“Working my piece of land somewhere and living autonomously—that’s the dream,” she said. “Just getting the eff out of America. It’s a sinking ship.”
How is education going to help her with that?


David said...

I too was impressed with this article and found it very interesting. In fact I've read it twice. I wonder, though, if the problem is really that no one agrees on the purpose of a college education. Rather--and I sense this even in your own comment--there is at bottom all too much agreement, and the consensus is that college is about careerism. Careerism is certainly used as the justification for a lot of the unpleasantness that these students don't like. "Do you think your professor is brusque, rude, arrogant, high-handed, narrowly-focused, unconcerned with you as a human? Just wait till you meet your employer!"

I suspect a lot of the storm and stress we meet in these stories reflects the fact that many of these students are discovering that the whole world of striving careerism isn't for them. And isn't that, after all, to be expected in a meritocratic system? A system based on merit is one in which, by definition, most people will fail--and can one realistically expect them then to go quietly? I say this as someone who generally has more sympathy with the failures than the successes.

Beyond that, one point in the article that impressed me came when Jasmine Adams said, "It was, like, one day I was at college having fun, and the next day someone called me the N-word, and I had no avenue." She later complains, if I understand her correctly, that no administrator would simply declare "Racism is not accepted!" Maybe some problems could be avoided if administrators simply had the courage to declare that things like the N-word are UNACCEPTABLE, just as it would (or should) be unacceptable if Joy Karega used class time to preach her Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style theory that the Rothschilds control the world. Specific sanctions and policies can wait till later. Someone in authority should have the guts to state the basic principle.

G. Verloren said...


Many young people have an overwhelming societal expectation placed upon them to go to college, despite not really having any reason to otherwise.

Their parents, their extended family, their high school teachers and faculty - they all operate on the assumption that these kids should all go to college, and that if they don't then there's something wrong with them. And at the end of the day, many young people go to college simply because it's what society has always told them was expected of them.

So then families spend time and effort helping their kids study for entrance exams, spending money on college-prep books and learning resources, hiring tutors and seeking out special help to ensure they can pass their tests; they apply for grants and scholarships, going out of their way to meet special requirements, performing public service hours, et cetera; they talk to counselors, research schools, figure out tuition cost to value ratios, consider living arrangements, distance to travel or commute; they go through the application process, they visit the schools, they fill out paperwork, they get everything squared away; then they work out finances while taking classes, struggling to get work-study or even just evening part time jobs they can manage, or taking out brutally exploitative student loans...

They spend several years of their lives and lots of money and effort on the whole endeavor because it's what everyone expects of them... and then you have sophomore and junior college students realizing, "This isn't doing anything for me. I'm not getting anything worthwhile out of this. Why the hell am I here? Why the hell was the point of all that blood, sweat and tears fighting to make this a reality and to make it work?"

And of course, no one wants to turn around and blame their parents or family for railroading them into that situation. It's much less painful and embarassing to think the failure is maybe on the part of the college instead. And in some ways, that notion isn't exactly wrong - the schools really aren't providing anything of value to these particular students.

G. Verloren said...


Moreover, colleges themselves go to great lengths to promote the societal expectation that every child should attend college - because let's face it, they don't care about what happens to these young people after they leave, they just want to sell as many diplomas and make as much profit as possible.

This is why schools will allow 100+ students to seek degrees in a field that they know for a fact only has an average of 5 new job openings nationally per year. Who cares if the labor market can't possibly support these individuals, and therefor the vast majority of the degrees they hand out become worthless? So long as the kids and their families pay their tuition fees, that's not the college's problem! No need to advise these kids that they're making a mistake before they even begin, because then they might not earn as much profit!

So we've got these kids caught in the middle of a for-profit school system that doesn't care about them at all, and their well meaning but misguided family and loved ones who lack the knowledge and foresight to realize they're making a colossal mistake blindly pushing their children to attend college.

And then we've got the racial component in play. A lot of these kids going to college come from poor, uneducated families that really don't know any better. When you grow up in inner city Chicago and your parents struggle to give you any opportunity you can, and they've been convinced by society that without a college degree you're never going to have a decent life, how can you possibly expect people not to fall straight into this trap?

Our schools today simply do not care about their students, except as pertains to their own interests. They're happy to leech money from their successful alumni, and equally happy to exploit and rob the kids they can't really offer anything of value to. The insitution doesn't care about preparing young people for the future - they only care about running them through the expected motions, and collecting rents along the way.