The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Let apathy ring?

Jan. 20, 2012, 2:38 a.m.

The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Let apathy ring?There’s nothing quite like a professor’s opinion to end a debate. Replacing your own thoughts with the comfortable ability to endorse something that seems respectable, even if foreign, is easy and natural. So professors rarely make their opinions known in discussion, if only to prevent section from becoming lousy with students parroting them back until the debate devolves into unthinking stagnancy.


Liberal arts colleges and universities alike swear by their unbiased fostering of considered and careful thought, but most, through their professors and administrations, lend tacit or active sponsorship to a single creed. There’s little mystery as to what ideas leading universities endorse. I have no bone to pick with this consensus. But the development of this tacit agreement in academia may have cost it exactly what it hoped to stir up: active campus debates and political action.


The resolution of controversy is the most appropriate use of the able mind. In college we are given the opportunity to wade deeply and forcefully into it. We have outlets for expression of varieties political, artistic and social. Yet it somehow seems as though that place has been superseded. “Occupy the Future” and its ilk of University-encouraged action do more to hamstring students attempting to form political movements than help them. Many students are left with a troubling picture of political life on campus, and begin to feel a lament creeping up. We no longer have agency, as could and was delivered through university indifference. Rather, we are provided with the sense of a child being nudged by his or her parent towards better ideas, which does much to stifle our zeal for action. Where there was once the opportunity to revel in the independence of our thought, there is only a nagging sense of obligation.


Not only does the attitude, real or merely perceived, of our surroundings change the actions of normal supporters, it muffles their opposition. The similarity between opinions voiced on campus is almost choir-like in its exactitude, when material things are said at all. Especially on social matters, dialogue uniformly falls to one side, and the other is ridiculed in absentia. The dissidents are present yet confine themselves to their own company. Those whose opinions don’t line up feel the pressure of knowing where campus authorities’ judgment will fall. As a result, the possibility of an enlivening clash and debate is much reduced. Those who felt as though there was a moral duty owed to act are dissuaded by the absence of a fray to dive into.


It is those professors who brought about academia’s consensus who are most disappointed by its direction. Political fervor has largely been by pre-professional drive. In that, we have lost something integral to that experience which we call college. Rather than being heady, our collegiate life is focused around drive and persistence in the place of an intellectual experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in our extracurricular pursuits.


The meat of our actions expresses our drive but not our intelligence and shows our desire to be good people but neglects our need to be thinking people. We have shied away from being decisive in our beliefs. We would rather serve the community than seek to improve or criticize it with our minds. It is hard to call our extracurricular commitments fickle, as transparent as they may often seem. While they may be motivated by a simple sense of duty or the need for a well-ornamented resume, I would not call any of our community service clubs misguided on those grounds. But on another I certainly could. The most prominent feature of Stanford’s extracurricular activities is their completely uncontroversial nature; our campus’ most active commitment is to avoiding that which our professors want us to greet head-on.


I believe that universities may create better citizens today than they did yesterday. Stanford does nothing if not remind students that they are duty-bound to the society that makes their achievements possible. Anyone who remembers convocation can remember the public and community service mantra. I can’t speak to how effective they are in that regard. I can say, however, that this may be replacing a culture of thinking with a utilitarian culture that values thought so it can improve itself, but not materially change.


It says more than most would like to notice about Stanford’s student body that the strongest political response comes from its faculty and administration, not its students. Our most prominent political expression or involvement is an anemic protest in Meyer, and the University-organized events were twice as visible. I believe wholeheartedly that we students are capable of creating lively and passionate discourse, as well as action, on campus. I also believe that we can accomplish this far better independently than the University’s prodding can stir us to.


What better action can you take than emailing Spencer at dsnelson “at” stanford “dot” edu?

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