The Coddling of the American Mind ~ The Atlantic
Slut-shaming undermines women ~ The Boston Globe
My Friday classes meet in a light filled computer lab on the second floor of our campus’ newest academic building. The room is state of the art. Six flat screen TV’s line the classroom and a Smartboard projection system lights up the white wall at the front of the lab. Despite the modern bells and whistles, my Comp students slump in their chairs like they’re attending a five a.m. paint drying lecture. They scatter their backpacks on the floor and prop their chins on giant cans of Monster Energy. English is not their top priority.
Right now we are working through an op/ed unit that has us reading and thinking about current events that in many cases divide our country. We’ve read articles about cultural appropriation, about empathy, about cellphones. My goal is always the same: to challenge the status quo, to question accepted ideas and typical patterns of thinking. My job is to teach critical thinking skills.
The trouble is, critical thinking is a slippery concept. Educators are fond of jargon – “critical thinking” might be our favorite phrase. We always have a new theory to roll out with a set of shiny, matching words to describe our latest iteration of the same old story: we’re supposed to teach students how to think. But teaching sometimes reluctant scholars how to think – instead of what to think – gets messy. Recent criticisms of higher ed, point to reluctant engagement; many college instructors are afraid to venture into the fray. Some fear that students will take offense and find new ways to opt out of the difficult work of learning to think critically. We’ve been accused of “coddling” the “American mind” by allowing students to opt out of the tough conversations. But as the critics also point out, “critical thinking [by any definition] requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial thinking.” Too often, this seems like a tall order.
Sometimes it helps to practice critical thinking with an uncomfortable – even shocking – topic. In fact, it might just be necessary.
Fridays are rough – the college parking lot is noticeably empty, there is always more yawning, more groaning about lack of sleep and hangovers. It seemed like a good day to throw around some mildly shocking vocabulary, so I asked my students to consider the problem of slut-shaming.
We read an essay which claims that sexual assault on college campuses is exacerbated by the “wide spread belief that some women are sluts.” I began our discussion with an admission: we were all going to stumble over our words. The topic is taboo, but familiar. We would have to use language usually reserved for private, sotto voce exchanges. We’d all likely feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, but we were going to do it anyway. I told my students that I expected them to speak up if they were offended. I said I expected them to try – that our classroom space was a place of failure, a place to make attempts.
In the end we laughed a lot. We asked good, solid questions – mostly questions we couldn’t answer. We sketched out ideas about why we make judgments, about what we might do differently, about who was to blame. And we ended up in a new place. This new knowledge wasn’t about clarity or facts, but about the benefits of the thinking process. I think we learned that if we were willing to wrestle with new ideas and reconsider old ideas, that our world gets the slightest bit larger.
Larger is what learning looks like. But it is also a shock to the system. Starting with an idea that is uncomfortable – like slut-shamming or racism or human rights – might make the process easier. If we begin in a place of uneasiness, we are forced to deal with our “emotion and desire” directly. Considering factual evidence and alternative viewpoints might feel better than sitting with our own anxieties about a taboo topic. At least it’s a good place to start.