Let's Feed the (Educationally) Hungry

In the aftermath of the election, this semester offers something far broader than a single teachable moment, writes Daniel F. Chambliss. It may, in fact, mean a reappreciation of higher education’s relevance to real life.

February 13, 2017

Two days after November’s presidential election, the students in my section of American Society, an introductory sociology class, seemed to be collectively in shock. Most of them -- politically liberal, I suspect -- were subdued, talking quietly; some were frowning; a few were red-eyed, as if they’d been crying. All were evidently thinking about what had transpired. I don’t know if this makes them “snowflakes,” but they were clearly determined, then and there, to talk about the election results -- how they occurred and what they meant.

The ensuing discussion was one of the most detailed and information packed of the semester. My students truly, deeply wanted to learn about politics: the electoral college, the building and shifting of coalitions, the rural/urban divide in America, the primary system, how redistricting creates majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives, how the makeup of the U.S. Senate benefits rural states, whether voting is “rational” or “emotional,” and what those words even mean. We speculated about the likely effects of a Trump presidency (backed by Republican control of all branches) on a range of policies.

They were already better-than-average students, to be sure. But on that day in particular -- and in fact, for the rest of the semester -- they were as committed to learning as any students I’ve seen in 40 years of college teaching.

That day’s discussion made me think: in higher education, now is our time. If what I saw is widespread -- if large numbers of college students, at least for now, care deeply about what the election and the new administration mean -- then this new semester offers something far broader than a single teachable moment. Perhaps it will mean a reappreciation of higher education’s relevance to real life.

A huge number of academic topics have suddenly become controversial and almost desperately important. Start with how American elections work, in all their weird complexity. And then, why were the most scientifically sophisticated polls so invariably wrong? Students have now certainly heard of “fake news,” but can they distinguish reliable sources from fraudulent ones? “Information literacy,” an ugly coinage reflecting a crucial skill, may come into its own as an important goal of education, along with a revived understanding of slanted language, coded words and dog-whistle appeals. How do social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook shape our thinking about the world?

Once-obscure terms from cognitive psychology -- confirmation bias, for instance -- are beginning to have currency with large media outlets, and with college sophomores. And as ethnic politics have surfaced so rapidly, students may be ready for discussions about what ethnic and racial groups really are and how they are formed (often in political struggle, and for political purposes).

Formerly dry topics such nationalism and nationalistic appeals, migration and labor flows, and the limits of executive power now have immediate resonance. Undergraduates stage protests against President Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim nations while voraciously reading online hastily constructed guidebooks on “resistance” and on the historical harbingers of authoritarianism.

At the same time, some Hispanic students are worried about their parents’ (or their own) potential deportation, and some job-seeking seniors are sensing an uncertainty in the economy that will affect everyone’s prospects. Never before have obscure trade agreements -- NAFTA? TPP? The European Union? -- received so much (even if superficial) public attention, and business majors might now notice that corporations, small businesses and government are inextricably and complexly interwoven, even in nominally free market economies. Under an administration that promises protectionism, the very definition of “free markets” comes into question.

Now that, as one student told me, “History really is happening,” maybe we professors can hold a lecture audience for the evidence of climate change, the arguments for various national health insurance systems, the efficacy of methods of policing, and the implications of scientific research funding policies, public and private.

It’s an extraordinary time in the intellectual life of America: worries over the symbolism of saying “Merry Christmas” are no longer confined to modern-language departments, while the very nature of truth itself is discussed almost daily on cable TV. The most arcane subjects -- not to mention the very legitimacy of critical thinking based on logic and evidence -- have taken on a renewed relevance, driven by our country’s (and the world’s) political upheaval.

Such discussions may be treacherous, to be sure, because now they actually matter. We will need to be prudent. But when students are hungry to learn, it’s our job to feed them.

Every spring, a colleague and I teach a course on Classics of Modern Social Thought. When we get to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the students usually fade a bit, slowed by Smith’s step-by-step descriptions of how wealth is created, why protectionism is self-destructive and how a division of labor with regulated free trade is so productive. I’m guessing that this spring, the discussion will be a bit more lively.


Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College.


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