Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Opting Out

For a variety of reasons, there seems to be an uptick in the number of people asking for the ability to opt out of individual class assignments or even course requirements.

Some of these requests are obviously valid: a paraplegic student ought to be exempt from the required swim test, and I don’t mind barring a 14-year-old from a figure drawing class that uses live nude models.

But I’m seeing more opt-out requests, and some of them are beginning to make me nervous.

We’ve moved aggressively to include more high school students in college-level classes with our regular students. In some ways, this is very much to the good: students who are bored to tears by a high-school curriculum or offended by high-school culture get a different option, our enrollments get a boost, and some kids who might not have thought college was for them find out it isn’t so bad. Some of the smaller high schools can’t afford to run sections of advanced classes, so it’s easier to send the students here. And some of the home-schooled kids outpace their parents’ expertise (or facilities!) in certain subjects before 18, and need someplace to go. (This is especially true in the lab sciences and foreign languages.)

I worry, though, that as the influx of younger students (and their parents!) increases, we’ll gradually come under increased pressure to make every corner of our curriculum inoffensive to the younger set.

We’ve had issues before with younger students in ethics classes, when the discussion turned to premarital or extramarital sex, and we’ve also had issues in literature classes, where the full panoply of human experiences is fair game. In both cases, parents have asked for alternate assignments. Deleting every ‘adult theme’ from Western literature means deleting a hell of a lot of literature. Even seemingly-innocuous courses like Art History can raise issues -- do you really want to be on the phone with an angry father, assuring him that “The Rape of the Sabine Women” really is part of the Western art tradition? It’s not much fun.

After getting burned a few times, we’ve put up some hoops for parents to jump through when signing up their high-school-aged kids for classes. Some of it has to do with academic placement, but much of it is to make sure that we don’t have battles over content. 15-year-old Jennifer wants to take Spanish 1? Good for her! She wants to take Women in Literature? Well, let’s think about that…

Sometimes you get caught completely off-guard. In my teaching days, I was once called on the carpet by an adult student for assigning Swift’s “Modest Proposal” in a composition class. (I used it to illustrate both ‘the persuasive essay’ and ‘satire.’) He asserted that anything involving cannibalism was completely out-of-bounds. I assured him that we wouldn’t revisit the theme again in that course (which we didn’t), but I was taken aback at the self-assurance with which this man, completely blind to irony, assumed that I was actually advocating cannibalism.

I know there are ‘culture wars’ going on all over the country. The Northeast is probably less affected than some other areas, but we get it here, too. As the home-school crowd grows (it’s our fastest-growing demographic), I’m concerned that some of the norms we’ve developed around open inquiry will fall victim to parental umbrage, well-meaning or otherwise. That’s not because our norms are politically loaded, necessarily – Swift is a dead white guy, after all – but because much of the most valuable inquiry in human history has been into sensitive areas. If we aren’t free to play ‘devil’s advocate’ from time to time, we can’t do our jobs.

Of course, for the devil’s advocate to be effective, he has to be persuasive, and that carries the risk of changing minds. At base, I really think much of the sudden eagerness to second-guess curricular choices comes from an unwillingness to accept uncertainty, to accept the possibility that you might change your mind. It takes a certain courage to venture into uncharted territory, especially in emotionally-charged areas. But that’s part of maturity. It’s part of real adulthood.

Anybody who has ever weathered a bad breakup knows the fear of uncertainty. Hell, asking my then-girlfriend to become The Wife took a gigantic leap of faith. Deciding to have kids took even bigger leaps. If you never grapple with uncertainty, you never really learn to make leaps in its face. (Or, worse, you make the leaps too quickly, with no reflection on their cost.) I’m brave enough to read people I disagree with, and to admit when I’m not sure. Too many people confuse intensity of conviction with truth. I prefer to think that truth is what’s left standing after the dust settles.

Moving too quickly from “this makes me uncomfortable” to “therefore, I shouldn’t be exposed to it” is dangerous. As a college, we’ve made the choice to bar underage students from certain classes, rather than water down the content, and I’m proud of that choice. As the political winds shift, I hope we stay true to our mission. If that means offending a few true believers, so be it. There are worse offenses than offending.