news feed versus seminar table

I find nearly all editorial writing about waves of unruly campus activism frustrating because even the most regrettable and objectionable episodes are ultimately isolated events. Blips on the radar of American higher education, a system that includes twenty-plus million students attending nearly five thousand degree-granting institutions. Over at Crooked Timber, Corey Robin seems to share these frustrations about essays of this genre and their limited, un-representative subjects:

I’ve tended to stay out of these debates of late, in part because they mostly don’t speak to my experience of campus free speech. Our challenge at Brooklyn College has never really been how to keep speakers off campus; it has almost always been how to get them on campus.

I’m writing some thoughts about the topic here only because one recent essay spoke directly to my own anecdotal experience as a university educator. In an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal, Heather Mac Donald cites the Facebook protestations of Columbia students against the university’s Contemporary Civilization course as examples of the “tantrums” and “victimology complex” at the center of campus activism. Having taught four sections of this very class during my doctoral work at Columbia, I am struck by the disconnect between the vitriolic language of this virtual shouting and the unfailing civility of each and every student I ever taught in my analog, low-tech classroom. These outraged Facebook posts, in other words, in no way reflect the consistently mature, critical, intelligent discussions I witnessed among my Columbia undergraduates.

Perhaps this rift shouldn’t surprise me. It is obvious to anyone who has ever read Facebook, Twitter, or even the comments on Mac Donald’s essay that the technological ease and pseudo-anonymity of on-line writing brings out our least charitable selves. I imagine the hostility on campus catalyzed by social media is a phenomenon parallel to the technology-enabled “smug style” that pervades America’s mutually incomprehensible political parties.

Connecting the dots, Nicholas Carr explains in a recent essay at the Boston Globe how Facebook’s goal of “universal self-expression”

reinforces the idea, long prevalent in American culture, that technological progress is sufficient to ensure social progress. If we get the engineering right, our better angels will triumph. It’s a pleasant thought, but it’s a fantasy. Progress toward a more amicable world will require not technological magic but concrete, painstaking, and altogether human measures: negotiation and compromise, a renewed emphasis on civics and reasoned debate, a citizenry able to appreciate contrary perspectives. At a personal level, we may need less self-expression and more self-examination.

Civics and reasoned debate. Appreciating contrary perspectives. Self-examination. The well-honed, time-tested technology for effecting these outcomes is the seminar table, not the news feed.

But those who write fiery op-eds denouncing the excesses of campus culture continue to blame studious humanities seminars—rather than algorithmic feeds that reward bombast—as the engine of campus incivility. Mac Donald, with Columbia in her crosshairs, demands that professors “start defending the Enlightenment legacy of reason and civil debate.” What more, really, can we ask of the very educators who are already teaching Mill’s On Liberty, Plato’s Republic, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to over a thousand Columbia undergraduates every year? If the caustic Facebook posts she cites and my own intellectually robust classroom sessions are any indication, perhaps she should demand more defense of civil debate not from faculty but instead from Mark Zuckberburg and Jack Dorsey.