Monday, March 20, 2006

Appopriate expectations

This morning, I read an article on Inside Higher Ed, regarding a new study of political attitudes in academia, which got me thinking. ...

Years ago, during my Master's program, I had a good friend. I ended renting a studio apartment in the same building as he, leading to us spending even more time together. We were both studying the same thing, took many classes together, and found a degree of affinity toward each other within that context. But, we were very different. He was a conservative Christian, and I was not.

Should that have affected our friendship? Surely it did, but not to the extent of preventing it. Rather, I came to the realization that my expectations of our friendship should remain within the context that we shared. I recognized that our friendship would not, and should not extend to discussions of a political or religious nature. Sometimes, when two people disagree about matters, they can still be topics of conversation. In this case, however, I think our views were so disparate that such a conversation would not have been fruitful or enlightening.

That did not make him a bad person, or an evil one (though I might find myself at times vehemently opposing something he would support). I wished him well in life, I was pleased by his successes, and saddened by his difficulties, as I hope he was by mine. Surely it was not a matter of my repressing my own views, but rather one of suppressing them for an appropriate context. If I go to the grocery store, does it matter what the checker thinks of Kosovo or Sudan, Iraq or Iran? What matters in that context is whether or not my items are scanned efficiently.

A few years ago, when serving as graduate student representative to the faculty senate, one item on the agenda was a resolution to oppose the Iraq war. As I remember it, I was sympathetic to the wording of the resolution, but I was uncertain whether it was the appropriate venue for faculty to present these ideas. In part this was motivated by my belief that matters of national and international politics was outside the purview of the faculty senate, in part because it smacked of imposing ideological orthodoxy on the campus, and frankly in part because it seemed a relatively meaningless gesture (did Washington politicians really care what California university professors thought of their policies? -- in terms of the neo-con establishment, surely not!)

I applaud one conclusion of the study cited in the article above, which, as reported, presents a strong call for professors to be willing to present ideas that may upset some students. But I also recognize that this depends upon context. We can easily offend students any time we like. The question is to what end is our upsetting our students aimed? We do have an obligation to act within society, never to be silent in the face of injustice. How and when this is done, not whether, is the hard question.

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