I had an interesting conversation with a student about this week where we were supposed to be talking about his work and I ended up hogging the conversation. He was asking me some interesting questions, though, about how I think about policy and intervention and research, and I was thinking through some things on the fly as I spoke.
At one point, I was trying to explain why I get a bit uncomfortable when a college or university (any of them) tries to use first-year orientation or other student life programs to encourage or even mandate attention to social justice, social responsibility or a range of related terms.
A little of my concern is about the extent to which those general and laudable-sounding concepts often end up treated as synonymous with a far more specific laundry list of political and social projects. But as I thought about it after the conversation, I realized I was uneasy for deeper if also vaguer reasons.
Let’s say an academic institution decides it wants its undergraduates to develop a commitment to social responsibility and that orientation is a good place to hammer that point home to them all.
It’s not so much that this is a case of political indoctrination. It’s more that a statement is being made rather than a question being asked. Yes, sure, I know that many staff and faculty at such an occasion are pedagogically savvy enough to use a kind of faux-Socratic approach. If you really mean it, however, you have to seriously leave room for, even encourage, someone to answer the question, “Should we pursue social justice or be socially responsible” by saying, “No”.
There are a lot of “no” answers that have a place at the table, in fact.
No, this is the wrong institution or place for us to be doing that.
No, you (or I or we) are the wrong people to be doing that.
No, this isn’t the right time in our lives to be doing that.
No, we don’t know what is meant by those terms.
No, we don’t know what we need to know to do that the right way.
No, I may want to do that, but I don’t want to do it by working with you.
No, that’s too broad a concept, or too complex an idea to boil down in one discussion.
No, I don’t think it can be done by collective effort.
No, those are private questions.
No, I know more than you do about what those ideas mean, so don’t try to tell me what to do. You should be listening to me instead.
No, this is an elitist institution that is just appropriating the language of social change for its own ends.
No, you’re just being conformist, trendy or offering slogans.
No. Is there a keg anywhere at this meeting?
I’m not saying I encourage any of those answers. I am saying that any time I’m talking about questions of policy or intervention or social action, any time the question “What is to be done?” is part of what I’m doing in class, or anything I’m doing with students, all of those no answers need to be allowable, possible, completely legitimate. When a university bundles something like “social responsibility” into an event where it is also talking about where to park, what your major might be, and how to use your keycard, there’s no space for any of those kinds of replies. I think an institution can lay out a minimal set of requirements for interpersonal behavior that includes mutual tolerance and civility, but it is important not to confuse that with an ongoing commitment to social responsibility.