Today we commemorate a day that has lived in infamy for 78 years–a day that also united our country as has no other event in history. I was not born for another 12 years, but as if from instant mutation of both X and Y chromosomes, my parents passed along that sense of reverence to my sister and me. It was never spoken. After all, one seldom discusses tongue-rolling or hand-clasping either, but they’re in our genes. Thus, for the generation with whom I came of age (yes, the infamous Boomers), the current divisiveness in our culture is unprecedented and uncomfortable and pernicious.
I have responded in the only way I know how–in the halls of academe. Perhaps my response is laughably feeble, but I have seen some encouraging results. For the last two years, I have been attempting to unite my little cadre of freshman-composition students in a project entitled “Coming Together in a Time of Discord.” I first regale them with my belief that ours is the most divisive period in memory (and yes, I lived through the Sixties). At first, they don’t believe me because it’s all they have ever known.
But they begin to understand when we delve into our first topic–free speech on campus. They have grown up with trigger warnings, and their entire social milieu has seemingly morphed into one huge “safe space” where controversy is prohibited or swiftly punished. They are shocked when I tell them about my own university experiences: that my Spanish teacher in college asked us to look up words like shit and fuck, that a history professor called immigrant workers wetbacks, that a teaching assistant said to me in a lecture hall filled with students, “Bozzola, you need to calm down, smoke a joint, and get laid”–and that they all kept their jobs!
We read and discuss in depth an Atlantic article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” If they think about the irony at all, they are surprised to learn that what now seems like right-wing diatribe was only a half century ago the rallying cry of far-left radicals. What is surprising to me, though, is the results of the rest of the assignment. I have provided a list of four other articles whose authors argue against Lukianoff and Haidt–some specifically directed at their article, others simply on the opposing side. After selecting one of those articles, the students must write a comparative rhetorical analysis of the two. Startlingly, given the current political climate, over 75% of my students in English 111 (I have 65 this semester) argue in favor of free speech and suggest that their opponents need to develop thicker skins.
For another assignment, I ask that they read “Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space” by Brent Staples. Of course, they don’t find the examples of stereotyping shocking; indeed, they are shocked when I suggest that 1989 the readers of Ms., where Staples originally published his article, did. However, the meat of the assignment comes later when they must discuss their own experiences with stereotyping–for being blonde or a cheerleader or a soldier. In those personal-experience essays, they begin to realize that the experience of being “other” is not restricted to groups characterized by differences in race or sexual orientation or gender identity.
Finally, I provide a list of controversial topics ripped from the headlines–transgender children, Confederate monuments, white privilege–and require a five-page research project in which they argue on one side or another for an academic audience and then restructure the argument for a public audience. The great wonder of this assignment is that when the students discuss their projects in class, even though they take strongly opposing viewpoints, they disagree amicably. Sometimes I even see signs of recognition that there actually is another side to the question. Only once have I had to stop a discussion that came precariously close to the attack mode so prevalent in today’s media.
So why have I taken your time with this discussion? We’re up to 678 words, and not one of them is about Advent. I haven’t mentioned Jesus or expectation or taming the pre-Christmas frenzy. But what I have done is to suggest that there are ways to combat the divisiveness that has poisoned today’s society–not just in the polarized United States, but around the world. There are ways to demonstrate that the things that unite us are more powerful than the things that divide us–the ultimate lesson I try to impart to my students.
The one I can’t include in my lesson plan–this is 2019, after all–is the one we prepare ourselves for during this blessed season of Advent.