We Are Legion or, Some Thoughts On Higher Education After The Election

I read two news articles about tests being cancelled at two different universities after the election. The comments following each blamed “socialist liberal professors” for “poisoning” the minds of young people, turning them into “babies” who “can’t cope with reality.” As William James once wrote, a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. So, if by “poisoning” these people mean teaching young people how to think critically then let me be the one to say you’re welcome.

It’s no secret that many people think that colleges and universities have agendas. If by agenda they mean teaching students to think critically so that they can become fully engaged members of society, acting as agents of change, if they so choose, then yes that is an agenda. The opposite of thinking critically is blind obedience to the will of the State.

Many of the students I teach are first-generation college students. They often feel alone because they have no point of reference at home where higher education is concerned. All of my students, just like their peers who went straight to work after high school, are navigating the world on their own terms, trying to make sense of it all and facing threats that we couldn’t conceive of when we were their age. They are not “babies,” per se; they are, however, bombarded by information, in and out of the classroom, at a rate that we didn’t experience at their age.

As educators, we have a responsibility to our students, part-time or full-time, young or old, rich or poor. We will not be intimidated by enemies of intellect. It’s been two days since the election and already there have been incidents of violence and hate at various campuses across the country. It’s no stretch to think that it will get worse before it gets better.

In the coming days, we will not let others intimidate our diverse student body, threatening them because of their skin color, because of their religion, because of their sexual orientation, or the ideas that they ponder as they navigate their young and admittedly, at times, difficult lives. After all, we are Legion. And we are everywhere.

The Dawn of Idiocracy

My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all…

“The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

~George Carlin

This week I read about the 900+ writers who signed a letter to Amazon asking the company to stop selective retaliation of authors published by Hachette who are in a dispute with Amazon over e-book pricing. You can read about the letter here. And for simple explanation of the dispute, you can view this LA Times article. In all of this a current runs much deeper than it appears on the surface, one aimed not at sticking it to writers who worked hard to be where they are now but at control.

What bothers me about Amazon and the alleged bullying is not that I feel sorry for successful authors in the thick of this debate. Ok, actually I do. I know a little about what it takes to start writing a novel and finishing it. The success part? I am still waiting, but that’s a separate issue. What bothers me is that Amazon has gone from selling books to everything under the sun. Need a lawn mower? Check out Amazon prices. Need body wax? Look no further than Amazon. Can’t find that doo-hickey that does the thinga-mah-bob? My guess is Amazon has it.

Amazon has obliterated brick and mortar bookstores, both chain stores and independent operators, and with no other competition around it is attempting to fix prices namely because there’s no other game in town. In other words, control is the law of the land.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an Amazon Prime member. I also have a couple of books for sale on Amazon. Shameless self-promotion here. And over the years I have purchased plenty of items from Amazon; mostly books, but a few videos and perhaps a video game or two for my son.

So, O’Brien, why are you so hung up on the control issue? For the last thirty years or so there has been a systematic drive to create less critical thinkers in our society. A good many corporations, Amazon, while relatively new, can be counted among them, contribute to this drive by steering attention away from books and learning. In Amazon’s case, at least in my humble opinion, by offering all kinds of crap readers do not need. If you don’t believe me, go over to the Amazon web site. If you’re already signed in, then sign out. And then look at the home page. Right now, as I write this, there are ads for men’s fashion, solid state drives (not that I would know what a solid state drive is if you dropped one on my head), videos, and digital cameras. Did I leave out the Bluetooth Audio Receiver? How about the ad from Xfinity Triple Play? Never mind. Moving on.

Call me crazy. Laugh if you want. Go ahead. I’m thick-skinned that way so I don’t mind. Then ask yourself this: how does critical thinking help me get what I want? In the question I pose there are two operative words that sum up our culture: get and want.

Someone smarter than me once wrote that Americans, despite whatever label they self-apply—mother, father, CEO, postal employee, teacher, factory worker, carpenter, philosopher, are first and foremost consumers. This word ‘consumer’ need not be applied to those of us who feel compelled to buy things. A consumer can also be someone like me consuming electricity to write these words. As such, we are more concerned with wanting and getting than we are with thinking.

But O’Brien, you say, I’m finished college. Why do I need to think critically now? Or to put it more bluntly, in the words of one of my former professors, the late great John C. Berkey: “Oh fuck that, man.” Why? Because I am a member of the society in which you live. Because year in and year out many of us accumulate worthless crap that we just don’t need. Because no matter what side of the political fence you fall on we all vote for the same people who, when you get right down to it, don’t give a rat’s ass about their constituency. Sure you can vote for the person whom you think will end the deficit, eradicate war, bolster big business, lower taxes, etc.; but ultimately we do not matter to them.

The eradication of critical thinkers in any society is bad. We weep for other countries or at least feel uneasy when we see in the news that teachers, humanitarian aid workers, religious figures, or what have you are rounded up and summarily executed in the name of a system ‘wanting’ to gain power. Ironically, we cruise through our own lives in what David Foster Wallace referred to as the ‘default setting,’ not questioning things, not caring about anyone else but ourselves (and what we want to get), and generally not interested in bettering ourselves. We eschew radical thinking, but we will not think twice about gaining benefit from such radical thinking if it somehow becomes mainstream (penicillin, electricity, the telephone, equal rights, the list goes on and on). And we appear, as Americans, to be quite comfortable with the continued dumbing down of our population.

Case in point: my son’s high school summer reading list. It is peppered with books on a middle school reading level. Dumbing down gone wild. Was it a dream? Or do I remember when teachers attempted to challenge students with reading assignments? For my son, and his contemporaries, it’s a brave new world; one in which corporations have the last say in education (or what they loosely define as education).

It is the dawning of the age of idiocracy. My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all, that knows not how to offer resistance to detrimental conditions, that will not understand what all the fuss was about in the Sixties with Vietnam protests or even the Eighties with protests against nuclear proliferation, that closer to home none in his generation will stand up against police brutality, genetically modified foods, etc. Worse, my son’s generation will no longer understand why it is important to nurture their own ideas with the ideas of those who came before them. In short, they will lack critical thinking. As a parent, a writer, an educator, and a human being, I find that troubling.