One of the weirdest features of life that I’ve noticed since going back to college is that the tone of several aspects of life has radically changed. For instance, criticism of student work is taken personally far more often than it ever was ten years ago when I first attended college. I’ve also noticed that people are far less likely (this is by observation, so I could be wrong) to admit fault when they receive a bad grade.
I’ve been trying to figure out why this may be. I remember in a Calculus class a young man would always waltz in late and try to make silly comments about people. I mentioned this event here. He was never sorry because it was always somebody else that needed to solve a problem. Circumstances of this nature are so common. I even received permission to turn in a late programming assignment because the professor appreciated that instead of blaming somebody else, I said, “It was my fault, the time just got away from me.” I got full credit for it despite it being two weeks late. He was literally amazed that I simply owned my mistake.
But what is it that changed? In some sense, nothing has ever changed. The Bible depicts this as central to the human departure from God’s will:
Genesis 3:11-13 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (12) The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (13) Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
On the other hand, in ten years something has changed. It could be me. Maybe I’ve gotten old. But, I’ve also noticed that as many of my own students write research papers for a public speaking class, that the journalistic pieces I read have a much greater bent toward sarcasm and feigning offense at other people’s actions, words, and even clothing. While reflecting on this, I recalled a piece that was cited in several books I read for a research assistance job I was preparing for a few years ago. The essay is The Personal is the Political by Carol Hanisch. In it, she essentially sees women as a political and economic class of the oppressed variety who must mobilize. That’s nothing new for feminist authors of that era. What is interesting is this:
So the reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.*
I wonder, I really do, if class based thinking has become so common that the attitude which she articulated here has been absorbed by students. Thus, kids see teachers and students in perpetual form of class conflict.
This could explain why rules, regulations, concepts, logic, and rigor are seen as enemies of student success. There are no personal solutions to these problems because, as far as students are concerned, the problem is political. It must be handled by authority figures who can change the rules. They would not use those words, but think about it:
- You should have offered more extra credit.
- The reading assignment was too boring.
- I don’t think we need proofs in Calculus.
Perhaps as a consequence or simply a coincidence, the categories of personal and political are very blurred these days. It is very difficult for many people to experience a disagreement without shock or anger. Why? They take the philosophical/political to be purely personal or based on preference. Thus, to disagree with me (on these assumptions) is to devalue me as a person. Political disagreements are now personal affronts. This might even be why atheists aim to use mockery against religious people. They’re offended by disagreement.
I mean, The Facebook is filled with rants by people who are mad about differences in preference just as often as they are mad about differences of opinion. I’ve even noticed it in myself while looking at people lifting weights incorrectly. I should have just been happy they were improving themselves. Instead, I was mad at them for doing it differently (seriously though, people suck at lifting weights). I wish there was a way to know for sure if this philosophical shift toward seeing outrage as a sign of political/moral sanity is to blame.
Now, I have no doubt that groups of people do not have success because they are mistreated, overlooked, or disadvantaged. This is observable to anybody who takes the time to look at the world. Indeed, this observation is part of the deposit of Biblical wisdom:
Proverbs 13:23 The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.
The unjust must repent, and not just with religious symbolism and public shows of sacrifice. We who are unjust must learn what this means:
Hosea 6:6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
On the other hand, I know from experience that nature does not always bestow us with the gifts we would prefer. I have a bone disorder that makes a lot of things painful and difficult for me that otherwise normal people can do with ease. You could ask several of my friends how I’ve responded to that disadvantage. I bring this up because no amount of outrage could have helped me unless I used it for legitimate character transformation. I suspect that a shift in thought away from making every personal problem a matter of politics that somebody else must solve and away from making every political/philosophical/taste disagreement into a personal affront would do us a great deal of good.
*Hanisch does note in an introduction to the essay written some 40 years later that the theory of the paper has been misused. I could be missing her intent, but the sort of collapsing of the political (ideological in general) into the personal as well as their inversion seems to be the result of attempts to apply her theory.