Just going through the motions

By Damon Krane
Monday, September 9, 2002
The Post (Athens, Ohio)

**********************

Since I’m writing this column on a college campus during a week which marks the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect on how schools respond to traumatic events in the lives of students.

One day in 1995 my 10th-grade English teacher was reviewing the week’s list of vocabulary words when he noticed that one of my classmates was crying. The teacher abruptly stopped the exercise and asked her what was wrong. In a strained voice she explained that a young woman she and another student in the room had befriended through their soccer league had died unexpectedly the night before. Stunned, the teacher immediately stopped class and suggested finding the two distraught students a room where they could talk to each other about what they were feeling. The students agreed and left the room with our teacher, who returned by himself a short while later, visibly disturbed.

“Why would you try to sit through class when something like that has just happened to you?” he asked his class in a solemn tone. “This list of vocabulary words isn’t more important. It doesn’t mean anything when something like that happens in your life.”

The teacher paused, then said that he refused to teach for the rest of the period. He sat down and didn’t say another word. He just stared at the top of the desk, perhaps wondering what role he had been playing in encouraging students to divorce themselves from their daily activities. Whether by accident or intention, my teacher’s 35-minute strike ended up providing his students with the space to have a very candid conversation about what had just occurred and how we felt about it.

Ohio University had a very different response to the September 11 attacks. Not only did the university remain open on the day of the attacks, but most professors held their regular classes — many not even mentioning the attacks. One later confessed to me, “I’ve never felt like l’ve done anything more meaningless than teaching my regular class that day.”

At a campus forum I attended later that night, one student expressed her outrage that such a monumental tragedy had gone relatively unacknowledged by the university. “Well, people handle things differently,” replied a professor from the school of business. “l know that when something bad is going on, I like to keep myself busy so I don’t have to think about anything.”

In the days that followed, burying one’s head in the sand was recast as the quintessential patriotic act (soon to be replaced by supporting the mass bombing of the poorest nation on the planet, of course). Never mind our basic assumptions of the United States in world affairs, mainstream media commentators and political elites instructed us –- if anything about our daily routines changes, “then the terrorists have won!”

Another crisis struck OU last January when two sexual assaults and one beating of a gay student were reported on campus within a single week. Many students decided to break with business as usual by walking out of class to draw attention to the issues and scheduled an open forum-style rally on College Green. ln response, OU officials threatened to arrest students for trespassing on their own campus if they refused to move the rally to a less visible location.

These officials had good reason to see the rally keep a low profile. Despite administrators’ claims that they were already doing everything possible to make the campus safe, students later showed that OU had been in violation of the minimal federal guidelines for informing students of campus crime for at least the past five years (The Post, April 2, 2002).

Professors, by and large, didn’t fare much better than administrators. One professor emailed walkout organizers and chastised them for not knowing what they were talking about because they had not yet read his book on violence against women. I wrote back, explaining the reasoning behind our campaign and asking him to elaborate more specifically on what he felt were its weaknesses. He replied saying he was too busy to read my email, and we never heard from him again. Similarly, another professor was adamantly opposed to the walkout because it coincided with her class lecture on sexual violence in Nazi Germany. Therefore, she reasoned, the students who walked out of her class missed out on learning about exactly what concerned them.

Inherent in these responses to this past winter’s walkout and the September 11 terrorist attacks is the notion that American philosopher and educator John Dewey spent his entire career fighting.

“We always live at the time we live and not at some other time,” wrote Dewey, “and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each experience are we prepared for the same thing in the future.”

Thus, recognizing that school officials typically demand that students subordinate even their most profound and unsettling experiences to whatever the day’s routine happens to be, Dewey asked, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses [his or her] own soul… above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from [his or her] future experiences as they occur?”

When we are denied the opportunity to extract meaning from our immediate firsthand experiences, we are denied the ability to act with intelligent self-control upon the basis of such meaning. Ultimately, this means we are denied the possibility of freedom, as we end up devoting most of our energy and intelligence to adjusting ourselves to whatever authorities demand.

Some might be inclined to blow off what I’m saying. “Suck it up. Quit whining. Life goes on.” But I’m not saying we should drop everything and wallow in self-pity in the face of a crisis. Quite the opposite: I’m saying we should not settle for institutions –- our schools, our workplaces, our government (Are any of them truly “ours”?) –- that deny us the ability to define and democratically control those institutions to make them tools for satisfying our own needs and desires. Our needs and desires to understand, to cope with, and to act upon our world with intelligent self-control.

As someone on the political Left, I am committed to working toward a radically more democratic and equitable world. Each Monday this quarter, I’ll be devoting my column to that theme. I hope you’ll keep reading.

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