• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Doing the Reading

When you suspend disbelief and do the reading, so much more becomes possible …

February 4, 2022
 
 

I love this piece from Mississippi Today. It’s well worth the read, but the short version is that a conservative young white woman in law school at Ole Miss, Brittany Murphree, decided to see what the fuss around critical race theory was really about, so she signed up for a course in it. Lo and behold, when she actually did the reading and saw what it was about, it bore no resemblance to the brand that some political actors have ascribed to it. It’s not about guilt-tripping or indoctrinating; in fact, if you read enough, you discover that different people working within the field disagree with each other. It’s more about taking seriously a set of questions that many of us were raised not to ask.

So many issues can be solved if folks just do the reading.

I’ve written before about my own experience taking classes in what was then called “women’s studies” in the ’80s and ’90s. They didn’t resemble the jokes or stereotypes common at the time. Most of the other classes I took introduced entirely new information. Some helped connect the dots among things I had seen, but most were simply new. The classes on gender were different. They took things that were already familiar and applied different lenses to them. They made the familiar seem strange, and not inevitable. That suggested possibility.

As with Ms. Murphree’s experience, I quickly discovered that various authors within feminist thought don’t agree with each other. I found some enlightening and some not. Rather than indoctrination, the effect was to sharpen a sort of discernment. To the extent that liberal arts classes are supposed to be about the arts of liberty, developing discernment strikes me as fulfilling the liberal arts ideal at a high level.

For straight white men in management or leadership roles, I consider the experience essential. With authority comes the ability to do unintended harm. Taking that prospect seriously, I think, implies an ethical responsibility to pay attention to the unspoken assumptions that underlie decisions. Increasingly, there’s also a pragmatic benefit; as people’s expectations to be treated with respect gain momentum, they’re often less willing to let stupid decisions or comments slide. Best not to make those mistakes in the first place.

But even beyond the practical benefit, there’s the intellectual thrill of understanding old facts in new ways. That part—the intellectual excitement when you realize that you can look at something very differently and make sense of it in a new way—often gets lost in the public conversation. One part of the public discourse wants to reduce higher education to job training and nothing more. Another reduces it to a political football. Both parts give short shrift to the distinct jolt that happens when a new idea clicks. That’s more likely to happen when we don’t rule questions out of bounds from the start. And I firmly believe that the experience of new ideas clicking should be available to absolutely everyone.

Ideas like that aren’t unique to courses on race and gender, of course. I remember being gobsmacked when I first read about Baumol’s cost disease, for instance. The same was true of the concept of opportunity cost, or the law of diminishing returns. In a history class on modern Africa, we read an anthropologist who noted in passing that, generally speaking, the smaller the society, the more gods it has; monotheism tends to be a property of large societies. That one blew my mind. I even remember the first time I heard someone refer to “buying debt.” It struck me as an oxymoron, until it didn’t. In physics, the idea of “potential energy” warped my brain; it seemed more like a bookkeeping convenience than a property of reality, but it’s real.

The common denominator to all of these is the willingness to suspend disbelief and do the reading. If you can do that, the rest will follow.

I worry that many of our students don’t get the chance to suspend disbelief. They’re too busy trying not to drown in an increasingly polarized economy. Increasingly bombastic and simplistic politics and journalism don’t help, either; by virtue of drawing sharp lines—embracing what Julia Galef has called the soldier mind-set, in which opposing ideas are meant to be defeated—they can easily obscure the possibility that things might be different. Because they can be.

Bravo to Ms. Murphree for actually doing the reading. It’s on the rest of us to ensure that colleges remain able to create chances to do exactly that. We owe it to the future.

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