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.