Debate? Dissent? Discussion? Oh, Don’t Go There!

March 23, 2002 | By Michiko Kakutani

That familiar interjection “whatever” says a lot about the state of mind of college students today. So do the catch phrases “no problem,” “not even” and “don’t go there.”

Noisy dorm and dining room debates are no longer de rigueur as they were during earlier decades; quiet acceptance of differing views—be they political or aesthetic—is increasingly the rule. Neil Howe and William Strauss’s book “Millennials Rising”—a survey of the post-Gen X generation—suggests that the young people born in the early 1980’s and afterward are, as a group, less rebellious than their predecessors, more practical-minded, less individualistic and more inclined to value “team over self, duties over rights, honor over feeling, action over words.”

“Much the opposite of boomers at the same age,” the authors write, “millennials feel more of an urge to homogenize, to celebrate ties that bind rather than differences that splinter.”

…A student’s article titled “The Silent Classroom,” which appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Amherst magazine, suggested that upperclassmen at that college tend to be guarded and private about their intellectual beliefs. And in this writer’s own completely unscientific survey, professors and administrators observed that students today tend to be more respectful of authority—parental and professorial—than they used to be, and more reticent about public disputation.

“My sense from talking to students and other faculty is that out of class, students are interested in hearing another person’s point of view, but not interested in engaging it, in challenging it or being challenged,” Joseph W. Gordon, dean of undergraduate education at Yale, said. “So they’ll be very accepting of other points of view very different from their own. They live in a world that’s very diverse, but it’s a diversity that’s more parallel than cross-stitched.”

The students’ reticence about debate stems, in part, from the fact that the great issues of the day—the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan—do not engender the sort of dissent that the Vietnam War did in an earlier era. It also has roots in a disillusionment with the vitriolic partisanship that held sway in Washington in the 1990’s: the often petty haggling between right and left, Republicans and Democrats, during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings and the disputed presidential election of 2000, and the spectacle of liberals and conservatives screaming at each other on television programs like “Crossfire.”

“Debate has gotten a very bad name in our culture,” Jeff Nunokawa, a professor of English at Princeton University, said. “It’s become synonymous with some of the most nonintellectual forms of bullying, rather than as an opportunity for deliberative democracy.” He added that while the events of Sept. 11 may well serve as a kind of wake-up call, many of his students say that “it’s not politic or polite to seem to care too much about abstract issues.”

“Many of them are intensely socially conscientious, caring and committed,” he said. “It’s just not clear precisely what they wish to commit themselves to.”

In a much talked-about article in The Atlantic Monthly a year ago, the writer David Brooks argued that elite college students today “don’t shout out their differences or declare them in political or social movements” because they do not belong to a generation that is “fighting to emancipate itself from the past,” because most of them are “not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it.” And yet to suggest that the archetypal student today is “the Organization Kid,” as Mr. Brooks did, seems too simplistic, ignoring the powerful effect that certain academic modes of thinking—from multiculturalism to deconstruction—have had in shaping contemporary college discourse.

Indeed, the reluctance of today’s students to engage in impassioned debate can be seen as a byproduct of a philosophical relativism, fostered by theories that gained ascendance in academia in the last two decades and that have seeped into the broader culture. While deconstruction promoted the indeterminacy of texts, the broader principle of subjectivity has been embraced by everyone from biographers (like Edmund Morris, whose biography of President Ronald Reagan mixed fact and fiction) to scholars (who have inserted personal testimony in their work to underscore their own biases). Because subjectivity enshrines ideas that are partial and fragmentary by definition, it tends to preclude searches for larger, overarching truths, thereby undermining a strong culture of contestation.

At the same time, multiculturalism and identity politics were questioning the very existence of objective truths and a single historical reality. As the historians Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob observed in their book, “Telling the Truth About History,” radical multiculturalists celebrated “the virtues of fragmentation,” arguing that “since all history has a political—often a propaganda—function, it is time for each group to rewrite history from its own perspective and thereby reaffirm its own past.”

During the height of the culture wars of the early 90’s, such views led to vociferous showdowns between academic radicals and traditionalists. It also led to the politicization of subjects like history and literature, and ideological posturing that could be reductive and doctrinaire in the extreme. Thankfully, these excesses have begun to die down, as bipolar dogmatism has started to give way to a scholarly eclecticism—less concerned with large paradigms, and more focused on narrower issues—but the legacy of multiculturalism and identity politics remains potent on college campuses.

On one hand, it has made students more accepting of individuals different from themselves, more tolerant of other races, religions and sexual orientations. But this tolerance of other people also seems to have resulted in a reluctance to engage in the sort of impassioned argumentation that many baby boomers remember from their college days.

“It’s as though there’s no distinction between the person and the argument, as though to criticize an argument would be injurious to the person,” said Amanda Anderson, an English professor at Johns Hopkins University and the author of a forthcoming book, “The Way We Argue Now.” “Because so many forms of scholarly inquiry today foreground people’s lived experience, there’s this kind of odd overtactfulness. In many ways, it’s emanating from a good thing, but it’s turned into a disabling thing.”

“A lot of professors complain about the way students make appeals to relativism today,” Professor Anderson added. “It’s difficult because it’s coming out of genuinely pluralistic orientation and a desire to get along, but it makes argument and rigorous analysis very difficult, because people will stop and say, ‘I guess I just disagree.’ ”

Outside the classroom, it’s a mindset ratified by the PLUR (“Peace, Love, Unity and Respect”) T-shirts worn by ravers (whose drug of choice is Ecstasy, which induces warm, fuzzy feelings of communion). It is also a mindset reinforced by television shows like “Oprah” that preach self-esteem and the accommodation of others, and by the Internet, which instead of leading to a global village, has created a multitude of self-contained tribes—niche cultures in which like-minded people can talk to like-minded people and filter out information that might undermine their views.

At the same time, the diminished debate syndrome mirrors the irony-suffused sensibility of many millennial-era students. Irony, after all, represents a form of detachment; like the knee-jerk acceptance of the positions of others, it’s a defensive mode that enables one to avoid commitment and stand above the fray.

What are the consequences of students’ growing reluctance to debate? Though it represents a welcome departure from the polarized mudslinging of the 90’s culture wars, it also represents a failure to fully engage with the world, a failure to test one’s convictions against the logic and passions of others. It suggests a closing off of the possibilities of growth and transformation and a repudiation of the process of consensus building. “It doesn’t bode well for democratic practice in this country,” Professor Anderson said. “To keep democracy vital, it’s important that students learn to integrate debate into their lives and see it modeled for them, in a productive way, when they’re in school.”


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