• 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.


Other Minds

Moral implications from taking other people seriously.

June 2, 2020

As the 2003 Gulf War approached, I had an exchange with a student.  He was excited that we were about to get revenge for the attacks on the twin towers; he had the same expression that avid football fans get in the last quarter of the Super Bowl when their team is coming back.  I didn’t write down the exact words, but the gist of our conversation was this:

Student: We’ll finally bomb those bastards and show them who’s boss!  

Me: That doesn’t work.

Student: What doesn’t work?

Me: Remember on 9/11, when the twin towers were attacked?

Student: Of course!

Me: How did you react?

Student: Huh?

Me: Did you say “Uh oh, we’ve strayed from the one true faith.”  Or did you say “F--- them and everyone who looks like them!”

Student (laughing): The second one.

Me: Exactly.  Now, how do you think they’ll respond when we bomb them?

Student: (deer in headlights)

He had trouble looking at the situation from the other person’s point of view.  It didn’t seem to occur to him that they even had a point of view separate from his.  But they did.  

If that were peculiar to one student, I wouldn’t bring it up.  But it’s endemic in our culture, and the consequences are horrific.  Provocateurs use heartfelt protests of an atrocity -- a series of atrocities, really, ranging from the murder of Eric Garner to the murder of Sandra Bland to the murder of George Floyd -- as opportunities to stoke backlash.  They know just how quickly a great many people will believe that any gathering of Black people is a threat, and just how credulous they’ll be of any accusation, no matter how absurd.  They’re counting on it.

In higher ed circles, we sometimes speak of empathy as a ‘soft skill,’ which makes it sound optional or insubstantial.  It isn’t.  It’s a central skill of citizenship.  Without it, we’re lost.

As my son and I watched footage from Minneapolis over the weekend, he asked in genuine disbelief how anyone could possibly side with the man who killed George Floyd.  I responded that many people do.  Their fear, or disgust, or unthinking deference to armed authority makes it nearly impossible for them to see what he sees, just as he can’t see what they see.  

Good educators almost always have a pretty robust sense of other minds.  We have to.  Anyone who has ever tried to teach fractions can attest that people absorb information very differently.  Really good teachers don’t just present truth.  They understand the sources of error, and work on those.  They teach the student, as well as the subject.  A teacher who quickly defaults to “how do you idiots not see this?” has no business teaching.  Among other reasons, it simply doesn’t work.

Racism is utterly congruent with the denial of other minds. It’s a form of erasure. They aren’t the same thing, but they complement each other.  I’ve mentioned before the revelatory effect that what were then called “women’s studies” classes had on me as a student. The effect was different than, say, the class I took (and enjoyed) on Tudor and Stuart England.  When I signed up for the Tudor and Stuart class, I knew going in that I didn’t know much at all about it. The information was new to me, but entirely unthreatening. 

Reading feminist critiques of contemporary American culture was something else entirely.  Instead of introducing new material, it brought new lenses to bear on things I thought I knew. That uncanny sense -- similar to what Brecht called ‘defamiliarization’ -- was much more unsettling.  It suggested that things I thought were obviously true, might not be. Later encounters with Critical Race Theory had similar effects. That sense of “my reading might not be the only one” is absolutely crucial in management.  I encounter alternate readings of a shared reality every single day.  It’s most of the job.

Liberal democracy -- as opposed to “liberal Democrats” as Americans use the term -- is a mechanism for allowing different minds to coexist.  It’s far from perfect, but at its base is a really appealing sort of humility: anyone, including the leader, can be wrong.  The truth can’t be reduced to whatever the leader says it is; the leader’s story is only one among others.  Implied in that view is that anyone -- anyone -- can be right, and should be treated accordingly.

A large and seemingly growing portion of the polity seems to have forgotten that.  It has retreated into politics-as-team-sports, treating every issue as zero-sum with a clear winner and loser.  That isn’t just another perspective; it’s a violation of a ground rule.  It’s a denial of other minds, and a sanction for brutality.  There aren’t two sides to the question of whether George Floyd deserved to die with a man’s knee on his neck in the street.  He didn’t.  I can say that with confidence, never having met him, because that’s a ground rule.  Anyone can be right, and should be treated accordingly.  

Educators should know that better than anyone. We deal with other minds every single day. Here’s hoping we remember to teach them why.


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