If my recent experiences are any indication, we professors face a daunting challenge: The polarized American political environment has conditioned our students to see life in monochrome. The Right tells them to view all as either black or white, while the Left insists that everything is a shade of gray.
We’ve long struggled with the either/or student, the one who writes a history essay in which events are stripped of nuance and presented as the working out of God’s preordained plan; or the sociology student who wants to view poverty as a modern variant of 19th century Social Darwinism. These students -- assuming they’re not acting out some ideological group’s agenda -- can be helped along simply by designing lessons that require them to argue opposing points of view.
Yet despite all the hoopla about the resurgence of conservatism, I get more students whose blinders are more postmodern than traditional. This is to say that many of them don’t see the value of holding a steadfast position on much of anything, nor do they exhibit much understanding of those who do. They live in worlds of constant parsing and exceptions. Let me illumine through two examples.
In history classes dealing with the Gilded Age I routinely assign Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward. In brief, protagonist Julian West employs a hypnotist for his insomnia and retires to an underground chamber. His Boston home burns in 1887 and West is not discovered until 2000, when he is revived by Dr. Leete. He awakens to a cooperative socialist utopia. West’s comments on his time say much about late 19th century social conflict, and Leete’s description of utopian Boston make for interesting class discussion. I know that some students will complain about the novel’s didactic tone, others will argue that Bellamy’s utopia is too homogeneous, and a few will assert that Bellamy’s explanation of how utopia emerged is contrived. What I had not foreseen is how many students find the very notion of a utopia so far-fetched that many can’t move beyond incredulity to consider other themes.
When I paraphrase Oscar Wilde that a map of the world that doesn’t include Utopia isn’t worth glancing at, some students simply don’t get it. "Utopia is impossible” is the most common remark I hear. “Perhaps so,” I challenge, “but is an impossible quest the same as a worthless quest?” That sparks some debate, but the room lights up when I ask students to explain why a utopia is impossible. Their reasons are rooted more in contemporary frustration than historical failure. Multiculturalism is often cited. “The world is too diverse to ever get people to agree” is one rejoinder I often receive.
It’s disturbing enough to contemplate that a social construct designed to promote global understanding can be twisted to justify existing social division, but far more unsettling was often comes next. When I ask students if they could envision dystopia, the floodgates open. No problems on that score! In fact, they draw upon popular culture to chronicle various forms of it: Escape From New York, Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes…. “Could any of these happen?” I timidly ask. “Oh sure, these could happen easily,” I’m told.
My second jolt came in a different form, an interdisciplinary course I teach in which students read Tim O’Brien’s elegantly written Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried. O’Brien violates old novelistic standards; his book is both fictional and autobiographical, with the lines between the two left deliberately blurred. My students adored the book and looked at me as if they had just seen a Model-T Ford when I mentioned that a few critics felt that the book was dishonest because it did not distinguish fact from imagination. “It says right on the cover ‘a work of fiction’” noted one student. When I countered that we ourselves we using it to discuss the actual Vietnam War, several students immediately defended the superiority of metaphorical truth because it “makes you think more.” I then asked students who had seen the film The Deer Hunter whether the famed Russian roulette scene was troubling, given that there was no recorded incident of such events taking place in Vietnam. None of them were bothered by this.
I mentioned John Sayles’ use of composite characters in the film Matewan. They had no problem with that, though none could tell me what actually happened during the bloody coal strikes that convulsed West Virginia in the early 1920s. When I probed whether writers or film makers have any responsibility to tell the truth, not a single student felt they did. “What about politicians?” I asked. While many felt that truth-telling politicians were no more likely than utopia, the consensus view was that they should tell the truth. I then queried, “So who gets to say who has to tell the truth and who gets to stretch it?” I was prepared to rest on my own clever laurels, until I got the students’ rejoinder! Two of my very best students said, in essence, that all ethics are situational, with one remarking, “No one believes there’s an absolute standard of right and wrong.” I tentatively reminded him that many of the 40 million Americans who call themselves "evangelical Christians" believe rather firmly in moral absolutes. From the back of the room pipped a voice, “They need to get over themselves.”
I should interject that this intense give-and-take was possible because I let my students know that their values are their own business. In this debate I went out of way to let them know I wasn’t condemning their values; in fact, I share many of their views on moral relativism, the ambiguity of truth, and artistic license. But I felt I could not allow them to dismiss objective reality so cavalierly. Nor, if I am true to my professed belief in the academy as a place where various viewpoints must be engaged, could I allow them to refuse to consider anyone who holds fast to moral absolutism.
The stories have semi-happy endings. I eventually got my history students to consider the usefulness of utopian thinking. This happened after I suggested that people of the late 19th century had better imaginations than those of the early 21st, which challenged them to contemplate the link between utopian visions and reform, and to see how a moralist like Bellamy could inspire what they would deem more pragmatic social changes. My O’Brien class came through when I taught the concept of simulacra, showed them a clip from the film Wag the Dog and then asked them to contemplate why some see disguised fiction as dangerous. (Some made connections to the current war in Iraq, but that’s another story!)
My goal in both cases was to make students see points of view other than their own. Both incidents also reminded me it’s not just the religious or conservative kids who need to broaden their horizons. We need to get all students to see the world in Technicolor, even when their own social palettes are monochromatic. Indeed, the entire academy could do worse than remember the words of Dudley Field Malone, one of the lawyers who defended John T. Scopes. Malone remarked, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.”
Robert E. Weir is a visiting professor at Commonwealth College of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and in the American studies program at Smith College.