A few days ago one of my students announced in class,
I hate Catholics.
Me: Do you perhaps mean you’re opposed to Catholicism?
Student: To what?
Me: Catholicism. Stating that you’re opposed to all people who identify as Catholic might not be what you mean. Catholicism is the religious practice. Some aspect of Catholicism might be easier to critique than all of the individuals who practice it.
Student: Catha . . . catha what?
Me, slowly: Catholicism.
Student: Catha . . . yeah, I can’t say that word. I’m against it.
Of course not all exchanges on a university campus go like this. Admittedly, this student is underprepared for college. It happens often enough in a state that doesn’t champion quality education: Tennessee ranks in the bottom 10 states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and second to last in ACT scores.
If these dismal assessments aren’t convincing, it’s easy enough to characterize the state’s disregard for education and equality via some of our representatives, like Sen. Todd Gardenhire who voted against health care coverage for Tennesseans but when asked if he’d give up his own state-sponsored insurance, called his questioner an asshole. Or Rep. Rick Womick who justifies his proposal to limit women’s access to legal abortions: “Is it my responsibility to keep your britches up?”
Characters like Gardenhire and Womick are not unlike my student in that they go for simplistic one-liners rather than logical argument, and tend to shut down rather than encourage dialogue. While I doubt many students carefully monitor state politics and politicians, the sound bites trickle down to them through the people they do watch: community leaders, parents, friends, and teachers.
Politics, too, trickle down. Because of grade incentives, my student’s primary and secondary teachers probably felt pressure to pass her through their classes, lest they themselves get passed over. Because the nation’s out to save students like this one, we’ve standardized education. So rather than encouraging her creative thinking and logical response to ideas and the world, we pushed her through a multiple choice test. We should have inspired in her a sense of inquiry, but instead we taught her to try for a passable score by answering the easy questions first and leaving the difficult questions for later. Or just leaving them unattempted.
Skipping the difficult questions is the advice and example she’s followed. She’s not willing to pronounce a name, much less a sound idea. What’s particularly frightening is that more than apathetic, her resistance to careful thought leaves her at best disrespectful and intolerant, at worst a bigot.
Of course the conversation I began this post with is a single event. But the dumbed down antagonism it evidences is not. From an uprising in Ferguson that no one calls an uprising to a frat that forgot the civil rights movement, America is mired in a racism we’d rather not admit. And in sexism. Women still make less than men, and still do more housework and child rearing. After we get home from (not very well) (paid) work. Because we’ve internalized the roles we were once told to play.
As individuals and as a culture, we carry our scripts around with us until we memorize them. Until we’re written over with an almost dogma that doesn’t have a face or name because it’s us.
So how do we fight ourselves? A classroom begs us to admit, rethink, and try again for something better. And for a moment, I thought she and I would. My student asked me to help her understand the unfamiliar: “catha what?” The idealist in me imagines that for a moment, she asked me to help her say something new and maybe even think something new.
But we missed it. Now, she’s left behind and so am I. Sometimes, it’s difficult to imagine a different world. I’m with once rocker now cultural critic Henry Rollins in that “Someday, things will be better is so much low-temperature, defeatist crap.” Per first or second wave feminism, and per abolition and civil rights movements, isn’t this someday? So it’s back to the classroom to try again.