Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Conference Revelations

Conference travel, at this stage of my career, feels very much like a field trip did in elementary school. We’re all let out of our cages, roaming free on the bushveld, with no idea what we’ll find.

Last week I went to a mini-conference on the grant that I’m administering. It was useful in several ways, some intended, some not. Getting a night in a hotel, away from The Boy and The Girl, was a nice break; there’s still something wonderfully decadent about hotel stays. What was useful about the conference itself was discovering that many of the issues that plague my campus are, in fact, common. I was a little annoyed at the way that some people used “college” to mean four-year institution – the majority of college students in America attend two-year schools – but these things happen.

One of the things that struck me was that I was clearly the youngest manager in the room. Most looked like they were in their 50’s. There were a few people younger than me, but they were either postdocs working for managers, or office staff. The pipeline is looking thin.

A generational gap quickly emerged in the discussions, though it wasn’t really addressed as such. The 50-somethings take ‘diversity’ to mean ‘race,’ which, in turn, means ‘African-Americans.’ The office staff, the postdoc, and I took ‘diversity’ to mean sexual orientation, religion, and international students, with race and gender as secondary categories. I raised the point once, to no apparent resonance, but when a 50-something raised the same point later in the context of what an undergraduate had told him, it seemed to strike a chord. (A prophet in his own country…)

The disconnect between the generation in charge of higher education and the students in it is getting worse, only because the generation in charge isn’t reproducing itself. To a kid raised on “South Park,” what would diversity education actually mean?

I’d love to see a shift to honest questions, as opposed to pre-approved sermons. How (if at all) should we tolerate the intolerant? What does tolerance mean when it isn’t reciprocated? As student religious groups become more fundamentalist, evangelical, and/or self-confident, this is becoming a real issue. (That they draw aid and comfort from the Republican Party doesn’t help matters any.) It’s a stickier issue than just saying all races are equal, but honestly, aren’t sticky issues the ones where progress happens? I’m tired of students claiming that someone else’s free speech rights end at their own threshold of taking offense; I’ve scanned the Constitution, and I don’t see anything in it about a right to never be offended.

If we don’t get out in front of these questions, instead of repeating comfortable lessons of the 1960’s, I’m afraid we’ll just lose the attention of the young altogether. They’re already fleeing the liberal arts in droves, in favor of fields they consider more marketable. Our market niche is the pursuit of truth. Once we’ve found Truth, we’ve lost our reason to exist. If we aren’t intellectually honest in our own realm, the students are probably well-advised to go with something vocational.

One way or another, this train will leave the station. I’d just rather be on the train than under it.