One of the questions about “ethical pedagogy” that I keep circling around, as long-time readers of this blog know, is what kinds of teaching or engagement faculty should pursue with students beyond formal courses. It is a cliche to say that learning mostly happens “outside the classroom”, but as far as residential undergraduate colleges go, it’s a vitally necessary declaration. Of all the things that bothered me about Benjamin Ginsberg’s self-gratifying attack on all things administrative in higher education, The Fall of the Faculty, it was his scorn for “learning outside the classroom” that annoyed me the most. Because the disdain of faculty for anything outside of the formal classroom is yet another way that we are paving the road to adjunctification and MOOCification.
The problem, both ethical and practical, is how to carry out deliberate pedagogy inside the life of a residential college community. If my classroom pedagogy is built around eliciting and honing the widest variety of modes of interpretation and expression for my students, about exploration and freedom, my teaching in community has to be as well. There are no grades to hand out, no assignments to mark up. But another thing that’s different is that in community what students and colleagues say and do has a direct impact on my own life as a professional. The classroom is a bounded space: a student’s explorations of the content can hit the walls around the course hard but that’s still a learning experience that the student and I can almost always recuperate positively. A college community is a much bigger space–and its boundaries stretch out into the world. Even if there weren’t a pedagogical dimension, faculty have to care about how their community is perceived, about what it does in the world.
The stakes are different than inside a class, and yet in a way they’re not different at all.
Some years ago, I was speaking with several students I knew and liked about this problem. They told me that they felt frustrated that faculty largely ignored students who were involved in activism, or if they paid attention to them, they did so as passive cheerleaders. Real decision-making, they complained, was inaccessible to them.
I wrestled a bit with a feeling of irritation, because I’d had the conversation before. I’ve had it since. I wrestled a bit with a feeling of chagrin, because I’d been one of the students who’d said just this sort of thing to faculty in the 1980s. I wrestled with a feeling of weariness, knowing how I would have taken it then if a 45-year old had told me he’d been one of the students who’d said this sort of thing back in his salad days yadda yadda yadda. Which of course is the first reason we don’t have these conversations more often: a sense of futility, a sense that all this has happened before and will happen again, a sense that we can’t help but be assholes in some way if we get involved in the discussion. Which is in so many ways counter to the ethos of education, which rests always on the belief that we can somehow find a way to teach what we ourselves couldn’t learn nearly so well under the same circumstances before.
So I couldn’t just walk away.
I tried to make a few points. That for one how an institution decides anything is opaque to everyone not because secrets are hidden but because deciding and changing and acting are particles and waves all at once: here in some unpredictable meeting or moment, a decision is made by a few people or even just one person; over there in some diffuse, fuzzy way a hundred people wake up and every morning edge towards doing something in a different way. That a person who the flow charts say has all the authority in the world can find it impossible to simply make something happen, and there a thousand people can think they’re grasping a nettle and find instead that they’re dancing with the wind.
This is very zen.
I also pointed out that the students in question hadn’t really bothered to ask some basic questions about how things worked and they still weren’t asking them–I was sitting right there ready to answer, but they’d rather complain and demand instead of being curious and asking open-ended or basic questions. One student countered that this was, essentially, above their pay grade–that they should be able to propose and someone (faculty, administration, “Swarthmore” in the abstract) should then dispose. Which really did nettle me as much as it would if a student skipped four or five class sessions and then asked me what was on the test. I’ve been pointing out for almost two decades that most of what students want to know about things work is readily knowable, but they have to put the work in–and when they’re given indirect answers accept that sometimes that’s because the way things work is indirect, when they involve confidentiality it’s because there’s something that probably should be confidential. For all of the invocations of democracy, consultation and consensus, I find that students harbor the belief that when it’s something they want, there should be a quicker and more authoritarian way of making it happen, that all it takes is a declaration, a policy, an order. Or that there are no costs, conversely, to turning every decision into a massively consultative and communal process, as if no one will have to actually work on that process.
We ran over a few other points. That students, no matter how passionate they are about the college, have a different and more short-term interest in it than faculty, staff, alumni or trustees do. That a decision that will have consequences for the next forty years affects other groups much more than it affects them. That maybe there are a few things yet that they don’t know about Swarthmore, the world or themselves, that the position of a student–and of any scholar–ought to involve a measure of humility by design.
I explained why I didn’t agree with these students on the specific issue of the moment that concerned them. We had a good discussion on the particulars, and I gave them a few ideas about where they could push further with some hope of gaining ground if they were serious about the issue. And then these folks went back a week later to demanding what they demanded and complaining that no one was listening to them. Now this, I have to say, I didn’t do back when I was a student: I was actually much more drawn to the faculty who were doubtful about South African divestment first because I learned things about the issue from them (they tended to be the people who knew something about the issue) and because it was much more useful for sharpening my own advocacy than talking to someone who patted me on the head and told me to keep fighting the good fight. And they were vastly better than the administrators whose job it was to placate and defer us, or the faculty who frankly thought they could manipulate us into serving as foot soldiers in their own intramural conflicts with colleagues. But even in the case of administrators and trustees, I understood very well that they were doing work in meeting with us and listening to us, that we were asking for time and attention in an environment where both were scarce. I appreciated what we got in that respect even when I didn’t agree with the outcomes. Now, mind you, the faculty I gravitated to were being good teachers in challenging me–they didn’t treat me as they would a serious professional enemy, which would have been terrifying. But the more there is a high emotional and political cost to that kind of engagement on the faculty side because students regard it as impossible or insulting that there should even be a challenge, the less it will happen.
Which brings me to the instance of the moment that has me thinking in these circles again. The college has invited our alumnus Robert Zoellick to be one of the honorary degree recipients at graduation this year, and some students have argued in terms that invite no dissent that this is absolutely unacceptable: that Zoellick is a key “architect of the Iraq War” and that his association with the World Bank, Goldman-Sachs and the Republican Party make him moral anathema regardless of whether there are highly specific decisions or initiatives for which he bears the primary blame that warrant such condemnation.
And I read the discussion and thought, “Is there even a point to entering it? Would I be welcome at all? Would this just be The Man sticking his nose in?” But then of course if no one does, that just feeds this sense that no one is listening and no one cares. More importantly, it leaves this particular viewpoint a free space to define what the wider community thinks and believes. And if I’m thinking pedagogically, even the students who question the invitation could make their case more effectively, because right now they’re making a case that is disturbingly broad and rather careless with evidence.
I teach a class where one of my possible “teaching outcomes” is to help students who come in with a critique of the World Bank and development institutions to refine, strengthen and extend that critique. I’m personally a very strong critic of the Bank’s history and many of its current policies and a strong critic of the history of development institutions and the idea of development as a whole. I agree with Matt Taibbi’s description of Goldman-Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”. I think George W. Bush’s two administrations were a major political calamity. I think the Iraq War was an extraordinary failure, a violation, and that many people who should face serious professional consequences for their role in it have escaped very lightly.
But I don’t think there’s evidence that Zoellick played any particularly important or central role in that war and I think it’s troubling that students have implied that he did. I don’t think working at Goldman-Sachs should make someone absolute anathema. I think Zoellick did a considerably better job at the World Bank than his predecessor and that the Bank’s influence and actions demand serious consideration and nuanced evaluation. All of which and more can be a subject for considerable disagreement between political allies–or political opponents.
None of which affects how I think of my own students past, present and future, and the students of this college who came well before I ever taught here. It would take an extraordinary act of specific malice and evil before I would think to disown a student, an alumni, from this imagined community. Because the central value of a liberal arts education, as I see it, is that we exert no mastery or ownership over what our students will become, and love them all for what they are and will be. If there were time enough, I’d invite every damn one of them to get an honorary degree and give a speech some day, so I can hear about what they’ve done and thought and become.
I heard an extraordinarily moving thing from a colleague at a recent panel on the future of the liberal arts. She decided to speak on behalf of what her students had told her they valued about the liberal arts, and the first thing they said was, “freedom”. Sure, there are distribution requirements and major requirements, they agreed, but otherwise they felt that they were free now and forevermore to develop their interests, passions, skills and aspirations as they saw fit and that the college believed deeply in that freedom. You cannot believe deeply in that freedom and then tell me that a person as accomplished in his professional life as Robert Zoellick isn’t a worthy part of this college’s legacy. You can’t tell me that there is only a narrow band of acceptable political and social commitments possible from a “Swarthmore education”, that if if a student idly confessed that he might want to work for Goldman-Sachs that we should grab his ear, march him down to the Dean’s Office and expel him right there and then for conduct unbecoming of a social justice crusader. You can’t tell me that we’re about pluralism and diversity and then set a standard that more or less says “Republicans and bankers need not apply”. This isn’t neutrality or dispassion: it’s the deepest passion possible, for freedom and empowerment through education. This is what it means to have that politics: that you not just tolerate but embrace the many ways that students will go forth into life and make some use of what they’ve known and done and learned in their education. You exercise no veto over them: not now, not then, not tomorrow or the next day.
You can’t even tell me that somehow the fix is in, that this is just favoring the 1% or whatever. That’s where a student who complains ought to do himself or herself a favor and ask, “So how do these invitations go out anyway?” And here’s how: first, Swarthmore has a tradition of strongly favoring its own alumni when it comes to honorary degrees, which is a tradition I love even as it risks a certain insularity. Second, it’s open to anyone–even students–to make a suggestion at the beginning of the academic year, keeping in mind the preference for alumni. Third, it’s a sleepy, pleasant little committee that looks at the suggestions each year, and gently tries to get a list down to a manageable size of people who might be available and who might say yes, looking for pluralism and also for who might be comfortable giving the kind of speech that works in that setting. (Which, no matter who we’ve invited, has almost never been sharply political or score-settling, because our speakers generally choose to be more welcoming and inspirational to the entirety of the community gathered that day: families, faculty, students, alumni, staff, people from town.) Fourth, that same process has year after year after year in all the years I’ve taught at Swarthmore brought extraordinary crusaders for social justice, committed left-wing activists, dedicated philanthropists, remarkable researchers and scientists, poets and dreamers all to the graduation. There’s nothing more bad faith than criticizing the process the one time out of fifty that it produces an outcome that you don’t care for when the other forty-nine times you wouldn’t dream of complaining.
So is this teaching or scolding? I don’t know: both, I suppose, but that line gets crossed in the classroom too sometimes. Is it welcome? Is it helpful? Does it move things ahead or shut them down? I don’t know: but I know that what’s at stake is both more and less than the education of students this year–and all years.