Thursday, September 08, 2011


When Givens Collide

In high school and college, I remember being a little annoyed whenever a teacher or professor would discuss the civil rights movement. At that point, the faculty had living memory of a time when the civil rights movement was a contentious issue, and taking public stands against racism was still controversial, so they taught it that way. The students, Gen X’ers before the term was popular, would quietly wait for them to get off the soapbox. We just assumed that of course the civil rights movement was right and racism was wrong; it wasn’t a live theoretical issue. So we’d just wait for the teacher or professor to stop reliving the past so we could get on with it.

(Yes, I know, that understanding was callow. But so was the teaching.)

For the faculty, the civil rights movement was a recent enough memory to be a live issue. For the students, it was simply a given, and going through those lessons repeatedly felt a bit like a catechism.

When givens collide, it’s easy for misunderstandings to develop. Our palpable fidgetiness whenever the civil rights movement came up wasn’t based on racial hostility; it was based on resentment of having to go through the catechism yet again. But you couldn’t really say that, so we just fidgeted and waited for the subject to change.

(Much of the anti-political-correctness stuff of the 80’s and 90’s, I think, reflected the resentment of the catechism. South Park channels that well.)

I recently hit a similar point on campus, and it took me a few days to realize just what had happened. My givens were different than some other folks’, but we hadn’t figured that out, so we talked right past each other.

A program that had fought and clawed its way into the college decades ago has been underperforming. I noticed and mentioned it. Its senior faculty flipped the &^()^& out, and went directly to some really nasty personal accusations. I just thought they had lost their minds.

Our assumptions were different. They lived through the days when the existence of the program was controversial, and at some level they still believe it is. So they’re hypervigilant about the slightest whiff of criticism, no matter how well-founded, fearing that it’s a stalking horse for program elimination.

I take the existence of the program as given and obvious. Of course we have it; why wouldn’t we? It hadn’t occurred to me to question its existence. From my perspective, the issue was that it wasn’t accomplishing its goals terribly well, so it needed to try something new. I had hoped to move the discussion from the catechism to ways to improve.

From their perspective, my questioning was clearly a declaration of war. From my perspective, they were barking mad, and more than a little self-satisfied. Both perspectives are internally consistent and both fit with observed facts; which one you choose depends on which ‘given’ you start from.

Realizing the disconnect actually gave me hope. If the grotesque overreaction was based on an outdated fear, then I can address that fear and hope to make progress. (If it were based on insanity, I wouldn’t have that option.) It’s not a guarantee of success -- the academic equivalent of NIMBYism is powerful and self-reinforcing -- but it’s better than just staring in disbelief.

The first generation to come after an epochal shift doesn’t see it the same way as the folks who lived through it. To the first “post-” cohort, the shift is a done deal, a settled event. It inspires neither pride nor outrage. It’s just there. To the group who sweated blood to make it happen, that can seem like anything from rank disrespect to old opposition in new clothes, but it’s not; it’s actually a necessary and welcome step. It’s easy to take a singular achievement as timeless and done, but the world moves stubbornly on, and even great ideas need to be tweaked. There comes a time to put aside the self-congratulation and admit that the world didn’t stop in 1968.

I watch this sort of thing happen _all_the_time, although I don't think I'd have articulated it nearly as well as you just did, DD (thanks for that).

I think it tends to be exacerbated by the steady churn in administrative positions (at least, where I teach). People with absolutely no historical memory can't possibly know where the landmines are still buried from that last battle. Yes, those who are overly invested in re-living the last battle need to move on, but on the flip side, it surely would help to have some folks on the administrative side (at least among administrative assistants/equiv of civil servants) who take the long view, too. That might allow the ensuing discussion to be framed in a way that would avoid this whole scenario.
Likewise: there comes a time to put aside the self-congratulation and admit that the world didn’t begin in 1968. Sometimes thinking about the past can be constructive.

Your post certainly focuses generally on balance, pointing to weaknesses and limitations on each side. But its end, like its beginning, urges moving on and not considering the past.
Given that the current state of American politics is dominated by an entire political Party existing for the purpose of destroying America as punishment for electing a black President . . . well, there's a lot of subtext here.
... the world didn’t stop in 1968.

Wait. W..what? What are you saying??
The world actually began in the summer of 1967! I think that when we take for granted the struggles of the past, we're experiencing generational forgetting and we might ignore the lessons learned. Sure, (fill in whatever blank you like) is a given, but it just very well might not be. I'm a Jewish NYer living in the deep South and givens are just given lip service here and maybe not even that.
The past continues to influence the present. Something that happened fifty years ago is still part of our national consciousness, and for good reason. Those who want to say, "Ancient history; move to the present, please" are being naive. Those who think we're past all that yucky racism stuff don't appreciate that institutionalized racism still exists. Jim Crow's corpse may be in the ground, but some of his organs were transplanted, thanks to Nixon and his Southern strategy that still influences our electoral politics today. How can anyone who has witnessed the "Is Barack Obama REALLY a citizen?" garbage think that the systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans pre-1964 is completely in the past, just something from page 817 of the history text?

On the programmatic/departmental level, the backstory is also relevant, though maybe not in as compelling a manner. But as Dean Dad seems to suggest, perhaps the safest bet is to begin the conversation with, "This is a valued and valuable program that has not always been given its due. We want to see it thrive. However, I've noticed..." You can't assume that everyone already knows you're on the side of the angels.
As Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
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