Ever since Trump’s surprising November victory, and even more so since inauguration, students have been asking me about life under a Trump presidency. Concerned and even scared, they were seeking advice on how to deal with the challenges of this new reality. I claim no expertise on American politics or Donald Trump, but I thought I’d share here some of the thoughts I shared with my students, which I think should frame the conversations we have about him (and politics in general) in and outside the classroom:
1. Some of Trump’s policies are classical Republican-Conservative ones.
These include his reinstatement of the Mexico City policy (and his opposition to abortions in general), the cancellation of mortgage subsidies, his desire to increase military spending, and his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. There’s nothing inherently problematic with such positions. If you are a conservative, you probably like at least some of them. If you are a liberal, you probably don’t.
If you are in the latter camp, you just need to remember that there will be times throughout your life when you will be living under presidents you don’t like, or whose policies really scare you. Many conservatives felt that way about Obama. Also remember that many of the policies Trump will enact will be reversible by whoever comes next. Presidents do leave a legacy after them, such as the appointment of supreme court and federal judges. One reason many state laws that are quite abhorrent to progressives (voting rights, abortions, etc.) get struck down by federal courts is that Obama had stacked district and circuit courts with liberal judges. Educational and environmental policies presidents enact can have lingering effects. And a reversal of Roe vs. Wade, as unlikely as it seems now, would be a blow to progressives and, some would argue, to women’s rights. But none of these changes suggest everything will be lost and that our Republic is in danger.
The same goes for Trump’s nominees to head the various departments and agencies. Some, like Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, and Tom Price, represent a classical Republican approach to the issues these individuals were nominated to oversee: education (more privatization and school choice), environment (fewer regulations and increase in fossil fuel burning), and health (dismantling of Obamacare, turning Medicaid into a block grant program). Others may indeed appear to be strange or unqualified appointees, but Trump would not be the first president to appoint unqualified people. Overall, Trump’s new cabinet is less educated (by academic degrees) and much wealthier than Obama’s was, but that does not necessarily indicate it will do a lousy job. But, it may do a job you really won’t like.
2. Other Trump actions and ideas should alarm you.
I’m referring to actions that endanger the very nature of our democratic republic and our standing in the world, and to policies that break from decades of political traditions both Democrats and Republicans cherish. Here I include a gloomy rather than hopeful inauguration speech, in which the President used words such as “bleed,” “carnage,” “depletion,” “ripped,” “rusted,” “sad,” “stealing,” “stolen,” “tombstones,” “trapped” and “unrealized” – which conservative and liberal commentators alike agreed did not belong in an inauguration speech. Then there was Trump’s bizarre insistence on the size of the crowd that attended his inauguration or on the number of fraudulent votes on election day, issues broadly rejected by any sane observer and excused by the Trump administration as “alternative facts.” And then there was his senior adviser Steve Bannon, who called the media the opposition party and suggested reporters shut up; the censoring of government Twitter accounts to prevent employees from publishing facts the administration doesn’t like; and White House Press Secretary’s Sean Spicer’s admonition of the media that “we’re going to hold the press accountable,” seemingly forgetting that in a democracy only the press criticizes the government, not the other way around. And finally, there’s all this talk about appeasing Russia and insulting Mexico. Ah, yes, and the immigration ban.
These are not liberal or conservative issues. They should frighten anyone who cares for the core values of our democratic republic. We have never had a president who acted this way, from neither party, who appointed an ultra-nationalist as a close adviser, or who during his campaign bragged about sexual assault and resorted to misogyny, racism, and childish insults. Thus, even if you voted for Trump – indeed, especially if you have – those actions should bother you. Professors should not take political sides in the classroom in a way that would intimidate students who disagree with them. But, when appropriate, they may speak up in defense of values we have always shared as a society and a democracy, and against racism and other forms of discrimination.
The good news is that America is not Weimar Germany or, to use a more recent example, Venezuela. A populist-radical movement, as powerful as it may be, isn’t likely to topple our democratic institutions. Our constitution and civic society are strong enough to resist non-democratic policies. Calling CNN “fake news” isn’t likely to shut them up; and congress still has much power it isn’t likely to give up so easily. But, Trump’s presidency has the potential of eroding our democracy, as David Frum explained in his recent article for The Atlantic. Frum is a conservative journalist, but his criticism is aimed primarily at Trump and other Republicans. It is worth reading for the fresh perspective it offers, its gloomy predictions, and his suggestions of what we – especially the conservatives among us who live in states that voted for Trump – can do to preserve the integrity of our republic’s democracy.
3. Understand why Trump won, and why Clinton lost.
Trump owes his victory to several factors: His reality-star reputation, his charisma, his ability to connect with crowds that never used to attend political rallies or vote, and his political message – as fuzzy as it was – that resonated with voters who felt the post-recession economy has left them behind.
But Trump also won because Clinton ran a lousy campaign. To lose to a candidate like Trump should have been really hard. But Clinton didn’t talk about the issues voters cared about; never visited areas that should have been key to her campaign, and which Trump did; she took blue collar workers for granted; her campaign did not listen to local organizers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere who indicated months before election day that democrats are shifting to Trump; and she immersed herself in unnecessary scandals (who uses a private server for government emails? Who does that?). Clinton spoke to some intellectuals and liberals along the coasts, but Trump’s charisma (and Bernie Sanders’, for that matter) made her appear dull and uninspiring. And we can think of other issues. Her loss, however, does not indicate the majority of Americans have turned ultra-conservative or ultra-nationalist a la Steve Bannon. In fact, many recent opinion polls on issues from immigration to healthcare and education indicate most Americans are somewhere in the middle between center-left and center-right. Take a look at this poll about immigration, for example. All we need are better candidates.
4. Reach out to Trump voters
Many of my students have said they are weary of talking to Trump voters, since people voting for Trump effectively condoned Trump’s behavior. A sexual assault survivor told me she no longer wants to talk to any of her (now former) friends who voted for him, as she feels by doing so they have degraded her and trivialized the trauma she had endured.
We can’t argue with that. Some will have a hard time reaching out to Trump voters not because of Trump’s policies, but because of who Trump is and their belief that voting for Trump was an endorsement of misogyny, sexual assault, mocking the disabled, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and more. But here’s something to consider: Many – I’d guess most – people who voted for Trump did so despite the horrible things he said, not because of them. They would never condone such behavior in their own lives, within their families. Aren’t you curious to know why they thought things were going so bad in this country (despite the Leading Economic Indicators suggesting otherwise), and what Clinton did or didn’t do, that pushed people to vote for someone they also saw as reprehensible, or at least, the lesser of two evils?
Thus in our classrooms and on campus in general we need to listen to one another, consider other perspectives, debate civilly and politely even when we have deep disagreements, and be vary weary of labeling anyone we disagree with as a misogynist, homophobe, etc. Some accuse college campuses of being liberal echo chambers, of fostering racial and religious diversity, but not so much ideological diversity (see more on this here and here; and a contrary view here). Whether this criticism applies to my campus or not, I can say this: Almost every semester, I meet students who in the privacy of my office tell me that they are conservative, but that they do not speak up in class or argue for their position because they do not want to be labeled negatively by their peers and the professor. “I’m pro-life, but I have stopped speaking about it because every time I did others dismissed me as anti-women” one student told me. Another lamented friends lost over an argument not about the right of LGBTQ people to marry, but simply about his refusal to attend a gay wedding as he personally believes in the traditional definition of marriage.
This has to stop. If you are liberal and college only exposes you to liberal ideas and you dismiss anything conservative as ignorant, dumb, outdated, racist, or Trump-supporting, you will have defied the purpose of attending college. Even worse, you will emerge as a mediocre version of the desired civically oriented citizen college aims to produce: One who understands how our society and politics work, who respects the rights of others to think differently, and who possesses the cultural, historical, political, and economic understanding to engage others in meaningful conversations. Want to understand why Trump won, or how to prevent this from happening again? Talking to those “others” may be a good place to start.
5. Stay informed, become an activist.
Don’t cry over November’s election results (especially if you did not vote). Instead, start educating yourself on the issues, on what matters to Americans whose lives are different than yours.
Don’t waste too much time on social media. That article you share is probably not going to make a big difference even if you have 5000 followers. Instead:
Read good newspapers that still maintain journalistic integrity, from the right and left.
Read good books on American society and politics, like Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, or Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, to name but a few.
[Have more book suggestions? Send them to me and I’ll add them here]
Donate to your favorite organizations (even $1 can go a long way).
Attend rallies and other political gatherings, and even join a social or political movement.
And yes, when you are done with college, run for office and make a real difference. You don’t need a lot of money to run for local positions, and often local government at the city, county, and state level is where real change that affects our lives happens. A 22-year old won’t likely get elected to congress, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t sit on school boars, city and county councils, or even at the state house. We need good, young, motivated, and reasonable people (i.e. not radical left or right) in politics.
I understand the desire to find easy classes. The possibility of a decent grade without having to put in too much work is quite appealing. The temptation to find an easy class increases when looking for courses outside of one’s major, whether they are general electives or core curriculum classes. I too had those moments when I sought (and chose) easy classes. But, even as an undergraduate, I was honest with myself: An easy A means less learning. There’s no way to spin it. Taking a class that does not teach much or does not require you to come to class or read a book is the equivalent of shopping for groceries, paying for the items in your shopping cart, and leaving some of them at the supermarket. Only your education is a much more expensive product than a bag of chips.
As a professor, I am not one of those who gives out easy As, because I truly believe that rigorous, meaningful learning requires effort, hard work, and yes, some moments of frustration. I’m very open about my approach, and discuss it with students the first day: I will do everything to help you succeed, I will provide tips and meet with you as many times as you need, I will give feedback on your written work, I will teach you a lot of new and cool stuff, and I will even bump your grade up if you had a rough start but worked your way to up throughout the semester. But, you will work for that A. How hard? That depends on your skills and background, but at least statistically, not too hard. It turns out I don’t give out fewer As than other professors. In fact, the statistics I’ve seen suggest that “hard” professors don’t give out fewer As than those popularly perceived as “easy.”
At the end, it comes down to your approach to college: If you are here to learn a profession and everything else not part of your major is a nuisance to you, by all means look for the easy A courses whenever you can. Your GPA will likely be higher, and you will have more time to focus on what matters to you. You may end up not a very good professional (because good professionals are always broadly educated and can do more than just their job), and you will be missing out on great educational opportunities, but that is your choice to make. If you are that student, you should not take my (or any other somewhat challenging) class. If, however, you are here to learn; if you like intellectual challenges and still want good grades; if you understand that core curriculum classes are an opportunity; and if your approach to any unrelated course is “I already have to do this, why not make the most of it?”, you should definitely take my courses.
So, take a moment to reflect on the type of experience you are seeking while in college. Then, make choices that are right for you.
I consider myself a decent teacher. Students’ evaluation of my courses are overall positive. Here and there, students protest against what they believe is my liberal bias in teaching, lack of respect for religion, or my contempt for conservative ideas and media outlets. Such claims are preposterous (with the exception of my treatment of Fox News, for their mostly false reporting rather than their politics), but they always make me wonder what might have made my students feel uncomfortable. Was it my insistence on discussing slavery, race issues, gay rights, feminism, evolution, or global warming? Perhaps. I certainly agree that one should always strive to present different opinions in class (including ones he/she disapproves of), and that I for sure can do a better job at it. And yet, some of the issues that bothered my students had little to do with my teaching style and more with their coming to class unprepared. By this I mean unprepared mentally, for the type of thinking and learning college requires you to do.
So, for those of you arriving in college within a few weeks, here are some things to consider. This will be most useful for those taking large intro, gen-ed classes like the one I teach (HIST 150):
1. You will need to read every week, and probably more than you have ever done. You will need to understand what you are reading, not just memorize it. You will be expected to comprehend the meaning of a text, to make connections, see the “big picture” of events or ideas, and be able to explain long-term consequences. In my classes, the students who do that (as opposed to memorizing dates and names as high school would have you do) are far more successful.
If you are in a professional major that teaches a narrow set of skills, your core classes are your only chance at developing critical thinking, creativity, and strong writing skills. Come to them with the aim of taking as much as you can from the experience, not as a burden.
2. Politically sensitive issues are fair game in college. You are no longer in high school, and your professors have no reason to steer away from topics that might make you or your parents uncomfortable. That includes discussing religion too. Such issues aren’t presented in class to alter what you think but rather to help you understand why you think it. A professor may say something really provocative or even outright offensive about one of your core values. Don’t be put off by this. Instead, take the challenge and try to think if you have the knowledge and tools to argue with your professor. If you don’t, you may need to do some reading.
3. All religions are treated equally and critically. That’s how we do things in academia. The late eminent historian Patricia Crone explained why we should adopt such an approach:
Historians and social scientists must write as atheists: whether or not they have religious beliefs, they must suspend all convictions of a non-empirical kind when they work, no religious or ideological beliefs being allowed to impinge on scholarly or scientific research. All invocations of the supernatural have to be disallowed. This is one of the ground-rules of modem science, but even without going into the nature of scientific thought, it should be obvious that every religion must be treated as a man-made phenomenon for the simple reason that there are so many of them. Logic dictates that like phenomena be treated alike. It is impossible to treat all religions as true in the sense of given by supernatural authority, because they contradict each other, disagreeing even over the number and nature of the supernatural authorities involved; however, it is perfectly possible to treat them all as products of the human mind evolved in response to problems in the here and now.
This is not to say that they are necessarily false. It may well be that the human mind has hit upon the truth in supernatural no less than natural matters, so that this religion or that, or this part of one religion and that part of another, is true in the sense of corresponding to a supernatural reality beyond us. But this is not a scientific question because it is not amenable to empirical proof; it is a matter of belief. Nor is it a historical question because it is irrelevant: ideas generate action when they are believed regardless of whether they are true or not in our opinion.
(Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (London: One World Publications, 2003), 141.
This is the approach to religions your professors will likely take, whether you study history, sociology, anthropology, or philosophy. It does not imply that historians (or scholars in general) need to be atheists, only that they need to write and teach as such. This should not intimidate you. Your professor will never tell you what to believe, but would only ask you make that a personal matter, recognizing that without empirical evidence for such events as the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, Jesus’ walking on water, or Muhammad’s communications with the angel Gabriel, we as scholars must treat such stories as fantasies. For us, Abraham probably never existed, King David ruled over a small kingdom and not greater Israel, Jesus was a charismatic leader but not the son of God, and Muhammad was not a prophet. You as a student may believe in what you wish, and no one should ever contest that. I have my beliefs too. But it will be significantly harder for you in college if you do not develop the ability to separate the personal you from the professional, academic you, that is able to criticize all religions, including your own, and does not assume that one truth is universal simply because the texts you believe in tell you so.
And one more thing. Last year I made a claim in class that modern religions always project an idea back to the founding of the faith to give it credibility. I gave several examples from different traditions (such as ISIS and its depiction of the “original” Islam), but the one that triggered a lot of anger from the class was the claim that opposition to abortions in the US is a modern phenomenon, that it was never an issue until the 20th century (i.e. people got abortions before but no one talked about it), and that the idea that life begins with conception does not appear in the bible (it doesn’t, at least not explicitly, though some interpret certain passages as such). Now, I understand why such a statement might anger you if you grew up in a certain religious context. But try to take yourselves outside of that context, I told my students. Try to grapple with my actual argument. Some tried, and some did that more successfully than others. And some students were outright offended. If that is you, prepare to be offended for the next four years.
4. Professors are here to help you understand the difference between opinion and fact. Not every statement you make is a valid opinion simply because it is preceded by “in my opinion.” You can be wrong, and you can be ignorant, and you can make claims that are factually incorrect. Our job is to help you take your views and justify them based on facts and solid research. While that at times would lead you to change your mind, that isn’t the main purpose of academic study. Nothing wrong with changing your mind though. I’m 38 years old and I still change my views on all sorts of things all the time. I let credible evidence guide me, instead of manipulating it to fit my views.
For example, if you believe that humans are not responsible for global warming or that there is no such thing (over 95% of scientists believe humans are responsible for global warming); that all living things did not evolve from primordial organisms over billions of years (evolution is a core theory of modern science, which even the Catholic Church now accepts); that the Holocaust never happened (it did, and it was well documented by the Nazis themselves); that vaccinations can cause autism (there’s now conclusive evidence that they don’t); that homosexuality is a choice (it isn’t; a plethora of studies show it to be an outcome of various biological, genetic, and other factors the individual does not control; and attraction to the same sex is found among other animals too); that feminism is women’s radical conspiracy to rule men (it really only means equality); or that African-Americans and Latinos are not disadvantaged in the workforce (there are quite compelling reports on this, see here and here), you are not opinionated or conservative or presenting an alternate point of view. You are outright wrong, and it is perfectly fine for your professors to point that out to you. There’s credible, scientifically or statistically based evidence to refute any of the claims I just listed. You can of course contend that you don’t accept scientific theory (and the alternative is?) and that statistics are biased (they sometimes are, so you need to read credible sources). But making such claims won’t make you any less wrong, and in fact would invoke the question what the hell are you doing in college.
So what can we argue about? Last semester, a student argued that I’m showing a liberal bias because I claimed that there are racial tensions and inequalities between whites and blacks in America. Again, I’m not sure why stating a fact makes me a biased professor.
We can have different views on what causes racial inequalities, who is to blame for them, and what needs to be done to minimize them (or if there’s a need to do that). All such discussion falls into the realm of opinions. Claiming the issue does not exist is ignorance. Your professor has not only the right, but also the duty, to point out things you don’t know in hope that you would want to look further into them and form your views. Naturally, it isn’t always easy to argue with your teachers, since they have years of schooling and research behind them, and you are just a beginner. But that, my friends, is the essence of the challenge of college.
Come prepared to question everything you know, everything you believe in. Accept the challenge, embrace it, let it take you to wonderful places. Students who manage to do that, who do their research and aren’t afraid to argue with their professors, are ultimately those who have the most rewarding college experience.
This week, I talked with my students about opportunities for women, why women face more challenges in building meaningful careers, and what we can all do to change that. Here’s a transcript of what I said in class.
I concluded last week by saying that women tend to struggle more with making plans for the future, with dreaming of something big. I’d like to address this specific point today. Allow me to share with you some information, statistics that show that on quite a few parameters women lag behind men just because they are women. First we have the obvious wage gap, where nationally and in Indiana women make less money then men: in Indiana women make 73 cents for every dollar a man makes just because they are women. Women also tend to be poorer than men, and even poorer when we look only at African-American or Latino women.
Wage gap in the US, men vs. women
Wage gap data for Indiana
The situation does not improve if we consider child care. Here’s a table of the percentage of 4 year olds enrolled in state pre-Ks. It’s 0% in Indiana because Indiana simply does not have such a program (it does not fund pre-K programs, which are all run privately), but in 40 out 50 states less than half of the 4-year olds get preschool funded by the state.
A list of percentage of 4-year olds attending state-sponsored pre-Ks per state in the US
I’m sure some of you probably think: what’s it to me? I’m only in college, I don’t have a 4-year old and I won’t have to worry about this any time soon. But I think that you should think about it because private pre-schools are expensive (they run anywhere from 7 to 20k a year), so many families can’t afford to send their children there, or can only send them there part time, which inevitably means one of the parents has to give up on his/her career. In too many cases, it would be the woman who gives up on her career, because the man is the primary breadwinner anyway, the one who makes more money.
Another area in which women are particularly disadvantaged is maternity leave. The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not have mandatory paid maternity.
This is how we compare to other countries in maternity leave
In that it lags behind many developing countries as well, and even behind ISIS (the Islamic State), which offers generous paid maternity leaves to its women. Although federal law does provide for three months of unpaid maternity leave, very few women take advantage of this. Why? First, because the law that provides for this leave has so many exceptions that in effect about 40% of parents in the US are not covered by it. And second, because most women (and their families) cannot afford to be without pay for 3 months, and they definitely cannot afford to pay their employer for their health insurance while they are away. Yes, you actually have to pay your employer for the right to take time off to have a baby. Makes sense, doesn’t it? The connection between having paid maternity and women’s ability to pursue ambitious careers and have families at the same time is quite evident. Whether you think states or countries should fund maternity leaves, the fact is that the lack of it puts women at a considerable disadvantage compared to men, and leaves many women who aren’t wealthy or high-middle class with the unfair choice of career vs. motherhood.
Now let’s look at access to reproductive health, or in general, health services for women. My favorite example is Planned Parenthood. This network of clinics has gotten poor rep for performing abortions, but actually abortions account for only 3% of what they do.
Income and operations of Planned Parenthood: Abortions account for only 3% of what they do.
Each time a clinic is closed, women who are poor and on Medicaid – the majority of their clients – are deprived of life-saving services and the ability to plan when to have children, and therefore have less control over their overall health. In other words, the onslaught in recent years on clinics that allegedly or openly perform abortions has led, in many communities, to the deteriorating overall health of women. The connection between being healthy and successful is quite evident I think.
Even if you are not directly affected by everything I’ve mentioned so far, think carefully about the educational system in which you were raised: In typical classrooms, boys speak up more than girls. Teachers and school counselors – even women – encourage boys more than girls to participate, invest in schoolwork, apply to top colleges, and pursue meaningful, fulfilling careers. More than once I have talked to female students who were at the top of their class in high school and their advisers recommended they apply to that large state university, whereas guys from their high school who were not nearly as good were directed to private, elite universities out of state. And the trend continues in college and in real life: female students don’t participate as much as men do in class even if they are the majority. Any professor who teaches smaller classes than this one will tell you this right away. A recent study has found that in political gatherings, such as town hall meetings with candidates, women, even if they are the majority of participants, speak much less than men, and their questions get a far less detailed answer from the candidate than the men’s.
Personally, I have seen those male-female discrepancies in my work too. As many of you already know, I often talk to my students about their dreams and aspirations. I’ve discussed this issue with hundreds of students over the years, and the statistics are quite grim: of the students who indicated they knew what they wanted to do after college, men outnumbered women by a ratio of 5:1, and their plans were almost always more ambitious. My impression is that men tend to slightly overestimate their abilities, while women to considerably underestimate them.
This is the outcome of the structural inherent discrimination of women built into our society through institutions, and laws, and yes, religions too, almost always created by men. The good thing? We can change that. All of us, everyone sitting in this room, men and women. Just by being here you have been given a wonderful chance to make something of yourselves, to succeed beyond your imagination, to shatter, not just break, that glass ceiling and show the world that a woman who comes from a small town in Indiana or a mid-size Midwestern city can go to a top graduate school, has a shot in the greater world outside of this place, and can be not the person working for the lawyer or doctor or manager, but rather the lawyer, doctor, or manager.
You have to start believing, you need to be more ambitious about your dreams, and if you can’t do it on your own, ask for help, find the mentor who will take you there. It’s not going to be easy, because many of the women sitting here have been brought up to believe that getting that ordinary decent job after college is the best they can do because it’s better than what others in their family or community have done, that their ambitions can not extend beyond earning $30k or $40k a year and having a family. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way, if that’s honestly what you really want. But I would like to believe most women sitting here would want to do something greater than this (and still have a family), if given the chance.
Don’t wait for anyone to give you the chance. Take it. Fight our society’s structural inequalities that leave women behind. Choose the right major for you, have the right people on your side, do well in school, train yourselves in as many skills as possible, from writing to a foreign language and advanced proficiency with computers, apply to the best graduate programs and attend them, seek the best jobs, be socially and politically active, and vote for candidates who support women, regardless of their sex or political party. You don’t have to wait till you are finished with college to make a difference. In fact, there’s a burning issue that’s affecting every one of you – and men too – right now, on this campus, and on every other college campus in America.
Next week, I shall be discussing that burning issue that we all should be doing something about. Follow this page for more to come.
Today in class I talked to my students about dreams, the need to have ambitious goals, even such that they themselves do not believe they could achieve, and about setting out to realize them. The unfortunate reality is that 74% of my students do not believe they can go to any program they want. I’m not sure why, or who told them they can’t. Maybe it was their parents, or other family members, or teachers and counselors in high school, or friends, or the media that constantly shows only people of certain backgrounds in those fancy jobs or universities, or maybe the fact that the vision they have of a place like Princeton is not from real life, but from a movie like Transformers 2 (I saw it being filmed there, by the way). But I’m real enough, I told them; I went to Princeton, for 5 years, for free. And I’m not better than any of them.
Then, I shared this letter. It’s my acceptance letter to Princeton from 2004. It is a letter that changed my life. “Anyone sitting in this room,” I told them, “deserves to get a letter like that one day. It may not be from an Ivy League school, but it will open up an opportunity you never thought you could have.”
In late 2012, students at my former institution, Emory University, walked out of classes one day at 12 noon to participate in a rally in front of the administration building. Joining faculty and staff, they protested against cuts to certain departments and programs, announced a few days earlier by the dean of the college of arts and sciences. The gathering outside the building soon led to a sit-in on the 4th floor of the building, right outside the president’s office. Demanding to speak with him, the protesters, now primarily students, remained in the hallway for 6 hours until allowed to see the president. Although the students’ actions achieved little – the cuts were implemented as planned – they reflected student activism of a type rarely seen on some college campuses, like the one I teach at. In fact, in the six years I have been teaching, at 3 different universities in 3 states, this was the only case of meaningful, bold student action I have seen that transcended the world of social media, until the recent die-in protests against the decision not to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
There was no lack of causes to protest against: from funding cuts to humanities and arts programs while senior administrators continued to make over half a million dollars a year, to social causes like recognition of same-sex student couples, ban of guns on campuses, or even national and international crises, student activists should have had their hands full. And yet, the students I’ve taught rarely walked out of classrooms, demonstrated vociferously on campus, occupied the office of a dean or president for hours or the main quad with tents for days, or clashed with the police that came to evacuate them. Admittedly, activism that takes on a more moderate tone can yield equally significant results. Take, for example, the wonderful work of Emory’s Sexual Assault Peer Advocates, a group that has raised awareness for rape culture among students and the university’s administration, and supported sexual assault survivors. But despite such noteworthy and admirable efforts, today’s college students, even those participating in student government and campus groups, pale when compared to the activists who demonstrated against the war in Vietnam all over college campuses in America in the 1970s.
The recent die-ins, even here at Ball State, serve as a reminder of the potential power of student protests. Through large rallies, sit- and die-ins, and various groups and clubs, students can really change the world. So why haven’t they been doing just that? The question defies a simple answer. Perhaps students nowadays are weary of the possibility a potential employer would Google them and find out they were troublemakers, a strange approach given that many employers would (I hope) prefer people who care over those who are indifferent. Perhaps the false perception that activism through social media alone can effect change has prevented many from encamping outside the administration building.
And then there’s the socio-economic question: Although within the general population we have seen people of all walks of life demonstrate and protest (in Ferguson, in New York, and elsewhere), it appears student activists are far more vocal on campuses of elite universities than they are at universities such as mine. This isn’t too surprising. The burden of day-to-day survival leaves no room or time for social and political activism. It is no doubt easier to speak about oppression when one is free of worrying about tuition costs, replacing an old computer, buying a winter coat, or a car that won’t start in the morning. Such concerns are daily realities for many of my students. Submerged by school work and the need to support themselves through mediocre, low-paying jobs, many are simply too occupied to care enough about the world around them. Growing up in small towns and mid-size cities in the midwest, my students are more likely to be concerned about the prospects of finding a decent job and paying back student loans than about ongoing crises in the Middle East or Ukraine or here at home. Those who pick professional majors that train them for a specific vocation (of the type one once upon a time did not need a college degree for) are not likely to develop a global social and political awareness, because they will not be taking courses where such issues are ever discussed. For them, terms like the Islamic State, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the Keystone Pipeline, the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the recent calls for racial equality in this country will remain mostly theoretical concepts they are not likely to fully understand or care about. And so they would have no reason to act.
More disturbing, however, is the relative apathy students in my campus feel toward issues that directly affect them. Sexual assault is a case in point. It is a real problem on our campus, as it is elsewhere, attested even by the university’s own annual crime report, which, assuming only 5% of cases on college campuses get reported, puts Ball State at around the national average; and by the fact that I, a relatively new professor, already know 9 female students who are sexual assault survivors. One would expect that such a problem, which affects the entire student body directly and concerns it more than the situation in the Middle East or even in Ferguson, would lead to significant action on behalf of student leaders, one that would be seen, heard, felt, and reported on non-campus media. In reality, however, efforts so far have amounted to a campaign launched by the Student Government Association, at the center of which was a rather anemic and poorly worded pledge statement students were asked to sign (poorly worded as it talks about “nonconsensual sex” but fails to call it what it is – rape – calls survivors “victims”, and ends with the empty statement that “preserving evidence requires timely reporting”).
In my classes, I have talked repeatedly about this issue. Hundreds have heard me speak about it. A few dedicated students have taken me up on my offer to help them launch a more vigorous initiative to fight rape culture on campus, and time will tell if their endeavors amount to something. I hope they do. But the majority of my students have so far been oblivious to this issue, even though statistically a quarter of their female friends will soon be, or have already been, the subjects of rape or attempted rape. Thus a photo mocking my presentation on sexual assault last semester, posted on the pro-rape-culture Twitter page BSUFessions, received many more views than the video and transcript of my presentation combined, and went viral among students via Snapchat. For those who found my presentation funny, or for the thousands following that Twitter page, rape only happens in dark alleys and women are assaulted because they get drunk or dress like sluts. Bold activism, anyone? Forget about that. If such an issue won’t get our students to act, we cannot expect some violation of human rights taking place in a foreign country to. So where are the activists, you ask? Who knows. I haven’t seen them on my campus recently.