When I was a freshman in college, I enrolled in a newly designed class which bore the unfortunate name Math for Poets. This turned out to be a very big mistake.
The course description promised a “fun” course in mathematics for people who “hated or struggled with math classes.” Those of us who had registered for the class had been poor-to-mediocre high school math students, and each of us took Math for Poets assuming it would be an easy A. Instead, it was easily the most difficult class I have ever taken in my life.1 There were twenty of us who took the course (the most students allowed in a class in our college), and very quickly the relatively simple task of simply not failing Math for Poets began to take up the majority of our non-class time. My roommate John, who took the class with me, once joked that the word “poets” was likely a Delphian joke referencing how anyone taking the class was likely going to go mad and commit suicide.
About midway through the semester, one of my fellow students cracked. Or perhaps she merely found her backbone. Or maybe she just got bored. Whatever the reason, one day during class she began loudly berating our professor, the course, and mathematics in general. The professor, she railed, needed to be the one to take a class from her. She was, after all, a real poet, and poets knew more about Important Things From The Heart than math professors could ever know. Poets knew, for example, that any discipline that dictated that 1 + 1 must always equal 2, instead of 5, or 87, or a red and green striped zebra sipping cocoa, was by definition the kind of blunt instrument used to destroy creativity and oppress the masses throughout history. That the professor would even be associated with mathematics, she declared, was proof enough that he not only hated art, but was also likely working to enslave non-white people and keep women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. As I recall, the world “hegemony” was used more than once. I’m paring it all down, obviously, but in realtime it was a sweeping and majestic performance that seemed to go on forever. At the end, the student stood with tears streaming down her proud, stoney face, packed up her books, and marched slowly and defiantly from the classroom. During the entire episode, the professor just stood there with his mouth hanging slightly open, completely at a loss.
The resulting week or so was much as you might expect, had you ever attended a liberal arts college. Students in the class, finding the entire episode strongly cathartic, spread the word. Petitions were started, at first for the college to eliminate Math for Poets (and assign passing grades to everyone in the class), and later for dismissing the professor, and, ultimately, for eliminating the entire Mathematics Department. Lines were drawn among the students who signed the petitions as to who was One of Us, and who was One of Them. The whole process took on a life of its own for maybe three or four days, until… well, until it didn’t. The issue was largely self-correcting, as students got bored, came to their senses, or — more likely — simply found a brighter and shinier object to protest.
I don’t know what you were doing between the years of 1983 and right now, but if you weren’t too busy being in a coma you might have noticed a distinct lack of society dissolving, the Republic crumbling, or the masses rising as a result of my classmate’s actions. The primal screams that Math for Poets inspired led to neither a New Golden Age of Art, nor a suspension of the Constitution. They were, rather, the mere flexing of the budding intellectual muscles of a bunch of kids, their bodies a churning sea of insecurity, stress, solipsism, anxiety, and hormones controlled by brains still at least a half-decade away from full development. And make no mistake. The Math for Poets hubbub was but one of hundreds of other eye-rollingly silly goings on at my school that year, which in turn was but one of tens of thousands of places of higher learning — each of which had its own not-yet-mature, post-adolescent students engaging in not-yet-mature, post-adolescent activities.
I don’t know where my “real poet” classmate ever ended up in her life. I lost track of her well before graduation. Likely, today she is a healthy, happy, and fully functioning member or society. She was hard-working and wicked smart, and so the odds are good that she’s been highly successful at whatever path she chose. Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine what events could have permanently derailed a future as bright as hers, save perhaps one:
If her frustrated outburst had been recorded, broadcast to a bored and hectoring world, and she had been defined by the twin crowns of Hero and Villain placed on her by the rest of the country for the rest of her life.
* * *
As long as I’ve hung out online, I’ve largely tried to dodge freak outs over The Problem With College Kids Today. This is because I find these discussions — not to put too fine a point on it — completely moronic. “Hey, did you see that some eighteen-year old somewhere earnestly said something immature?” Why yes I did, and I also understand that this morning Starbucks served coffee to people — so there’s two things that happened today that should come as a surprise to no one. I have yet to see one of these so-called “news stories” that can’t easily be summed up by the headline, BREAKING: TEENAGERS FOUND TO STILL BE TEENAGERS BY DEEPLY PERCEPTIVE PUNDIT. Worse, it’s seemingly not enough to just point at these kids-being-kids and cluck like hens. We have to attach the Potential Fall of Civilization to their each and every word.
“We have lost the capacity for rational debate,” claims Rod Dreher in a piece attaching such import to something some unknown student said as to unwittingly back up his claim. Conor Friedersdorf, meanwhile, clearly believes that unless we magically hand eighteen-year-olds decades of wisdom and fully developed brains with their high school diplomas, free speech itself will soon disappear from the land. Even Ken White, a writer and intellect whom I downright love, admire, and often envy, seems so intent on proving to the world his ability to pwn not-yet mature and not-yet-fully-educated teenagers as to make me cringe in embarrassment for him.
Whenever these issues come up, I am tempted to point out that what is happening today in places like Yale and Mizzou is no different than what happened on our own campuses when we were kids. Except, of course, that this isn’t exactly true. Things clearly are different today than they were before. But it’s instructional — and important — to take a step back and determine what exactly it is that has changed.
That young people who enter college are not fully educated, fully wizened, and fully developed human beings seems true enough on its surface as to be a given. Indeed, that is precisely why we send our kids to college in the first place. So whatever has changed, it isn’t the kids.
Colleges, too, remain largely unchanged. When I went to school, faculty and administrators were aways attempting to balance the desires of the student body with the needs of the faculty and administration. At the risk of appearing dismissive in a way I do not intend, college is largely a grand play pen where newly minted adults get to practice being part of the real world. This includes the real world of politics. Faced with a spectrum bracketed by either letting the inmates run the asylum or condescendingly patting students on the head and telling them what a cute little student government they have, most schools choose to find some kind of middle ground. They allow students to have a voice and some actual power, up to a point. Do those students therefore take that voice and power and make bad choices? Of course they do. And that’s okay. It’s all part of growing and learning, which even though we tend to forget it is exactly why we send them to college in the first place.
So if kids are still kids, and schools are still schools, what is it that has changed?
The answer is: the rest of us.
In this mass-media/internet driven world, we are the new and volatile variable that’s been thrown into the mix. We, who so crave bright and shiny new objects to entertain us that we take seriously presidential hopefuls like Donald Trump. We, who joyfully elevate and give undeserved status to goobers who make racist tweets about Star Wars, just so we can revel in the pleasure of talking about them. We, who are just so god-damned bored on a semi-slow news day that we all pretend that something some nineteen-year old said is the fulcrum on which the fate our Great Republic balances. And so we elevate these kids in both fame and importance, and we line up behind our pre-made culture-war battlements, and we either pledge to defend their every immature uttering as Sacred And Previously Unspoken Holy Truths, or we declare them the Enemy whose lives we must destroy for the Good of America.
Stop and think, for a moment, exactly what that means.
Go back into the deepest and darkest recesses of your brain, and retrieve some memory of some ignorant, ill-considered, and earnestly cloying thing you said or argued when you were still nineteen. Now imagine what would have happened to you if, instead of being allowed to figure out for yourself over time where your had erred, the outside world made you a B-list celebrity for it. What would it have done for your future had you been been publicly tarred and feathered by tens or hundreds of thousands for that utterance? Worse, what would have happened to your potential maturity if tens or hundreds of thousands told you how Brave and Truthful you were, even if the primary reason they were doing so was to stick it to the other side? If you’re unsure, be sure and check in with Suey Park in about ten years and see how much of a favor we did her by turning her into a folk hero/villain.
Over at his own joint, Freddie notes:
Even worse, though, is a common response I hear: OK, yes, there are college students who display illiberal attitudes and aren’t very committed to free speech. But they’re just college students, and they’ll grow out of it, and who cares what a bunch of 19 year olds think, anyway? I find this very frustrating as well. Teaching college students is the only job I’ve ever really wanted. It’s uncool to talk about having a calling, but I have one, and it’s to be a college educator. And that means that it’s my job to take college students seriously. To take their intellectual and political commitments seriously. I would be abdicating my responsibility to them if I just dismissed these passionate political protests as a fad, a transitory phase that they’ll get over someday. I’m not sure that’s true. But even if it is true, right now, these young people are filled with a profound sense of moral and political responsibility. My own life was enriched by college educators who took my intellectual and political commitments seriously, who never treated them as juvenile, temporary, or unimportant. I can’t fail to provide students with the same respect today.
For this, I believe Freddie deserves a standing ovation. Freddie, after all, actually teaches these kids. It’s his job, and we should let him do it. That he is obviously ready to both steer them towards a more mature intellect and treat them as actual human beings rather than disposable culture-war symbols is to his great credit. I pray that my own kids fall under the wing of a teacher like Freddie. So good on him.
But the rest of us?
We need to knock it the fish off and leave them all be. At best we aren’t doing these kids any favors by putting them in the spotlight; at worst we’re doing real damage to them. Even if ‘kids being kids’ was an actual problem, its a fairly intractable one. But even so, it’s one I wouldn’t worry about. The Republic didn’t crumble x-number of years ago when your boyfriend bought that Che Guevara tee-shirt. Democracy survived your rolling your eyes and telling your parents they were “so bourgeois” when you came home from Thanksgiving that one year. Freedom of speech did not wither and die on the vine when you proposed to your study group that your professors should be barred from making you read things written by dead white men.
I think the word can all survive a few more years of kids still being kids.
[Images via wiki commons and wikipedia.]
- This is not hyperbole. The instructor, a very nice man who lived and breathed mathematics, believed that his discipline only began to get truly interesting at it’s most outer edges; his class was therefore a journey though these passions. This meant that in order to even begin to understand what he was talking about most days, you needed a very tight grasp on topics such as advanced calculus and trigonometry, statistics, dynamical systems, and number theory, just to list a few that I remember. This expertise, if I recall correctly, was held by exactly none of us who took the class. [↩]