Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A New Semester and the Meaning of a College Education

A few days ago, a college freshman from Duke University wrote an impassioned opinion piece about why he refused to read something his professor had assigned:  he said the particular assignment (a memoir by Alison Bechdel called "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic") violated his Christian beliefs.  The book in question has been described by critics as "a fresh and brilliantly told memoir," and adjectives like "powerful" and "engrossing" were used as well.  That said, the book is not without controversy:  it is about the author's reflections on her childhood, growing up with a closeted gay father who owned a funeral home-- and Bechdel is very frank about her father's, and later, her own, sexuality.  I understand it's not a book everyone would find appealing; but the professor had every right to assign it, and I find it odd that the student would not even read it.

Please don't misunderstand me.  I am not against other people's religious beliefs, and I am not against religion.  But part of going to college, it seems to me, is to be exposed to new ideas and new experiences.  Over the years, I've assigned students readings from a wide range of sources, from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal and everything in between.  I've assigned readings I personally disagreed with, and readings I personally loved.  I see my role as promoting critical thinking-- the ability to analyze and evaluate the ideas that are being presented.  I want students to learn to think for themselves, to form their own opinions, to challenge what they've always been told, to consider varying perspectives and seek to understand why people feel so differently (and so passionately) about certain issues.

But my role is NOT to protect my students from "dangerous" ideas or to shield them from perspectives they might not like.  Far too often, our culture seems to promote "confirmation bias"-- seeking only those sources that agree with what we already believe.  So my conservative friends nearly always quote Fox News or Rush Limbaugh when they are debating online, while my liberal friends generally respond with something Rachel Maddow or Bernie Sanders said.  Talking points fly through the air, memes get repeated (even if the quotes are taken out of context or the person never actually said it).  That is not education.  That is public relations:  making "your side" look like the only sane choice, while playing up the flaws in the competition.

I've heard some conservative pundits claim that most professors instill a "liberal bias" in their students, or worse yet, that colleges encourage students to be anti-American.  It's a myth, but it's one I frequently encounter.  Because I live in Massachusetts, a blue state, many of my students may indeed have liberal views, especially on social issues.  But not all of them do.  While many of the students I encounter could be classified as center-left,  I have also had students who are center-right:  some who are pro-life, some who oppose gay marriage, even some who thought the war in Iraq was necessary.  And yes, I've had students whose parents vote for Republicans.  (One of my best students worked on the Romney campaign in 2012.  He and I had some great debates about politics, but the tone was always respectful, and although we differed on who would be the best president, when it came to his final exam, he got the "A" he deserved.) 

And that's my point:  all I ever ask of my students is that they have good reasons for their responses; that they read the materials I assign (whether they personally like those materials or not); and that they make up their own mind whether the points in each article or chapter are persuasive.  I have never penalized a student for disagreeing with me, and I don't expect them to always see things my way.  As long as students can demonstrate that they understood the readings, all will be well.  And if they didn't like a certain reading, as long as they can explain why not (without resorting to insult or name-calling), then I've done my job.

I feel sorry for the Duke student who could not even allow himself to read what Alison Bechdel wrote. I feel sorry for any student whose views are so rigid that they cannot even expose themselves to other beliefs.  Reading something does not mean accepting or believing it.  For example, when I was in college, I had to read the works of Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist theologians in my world religion class; but even though I did not agree with those readings, I would never have told my professor that as a Jew, I refused to even read them.  I worry that our culture has become so closed-minded that people, students included, see no benefit to learning other views or experiencing the world through someone else's eyes.

As a new semester begins, I hope that my students will find my classes challenging, thought-provoking, and interesting.  And yes, I know that some students will be in my classes because for them, college is a means to an end-- a place to acquire the skills to get a good job.  But I hope they will realize there's much more to a good education than that:  college really is an adventure, and along the way, students can encounter ideas and perspectives they might never have thought about before.  In fact, I believe the truly educated students are the ones who have mastered critical thinking, the ones who are able to make intelligent decisions and think for themselves. I hope that my classes will provide many opportunities for that kind of education to take place.  Welcome to the new semester! 


  1. I believe that it is important that we challenge ourselves. I have read literature where I disagree with the author, as well as non-fiction. I benefit from understanding the opinions and experiences of others. If we wall ourselves off from each other, can we truly have a functional society.

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