On Campus: The Importance of Dumb Mistakes in College (NYT)

On Campus: The Importance of Dumb Mistakes in College

http://nyti.ms/2yUtqbC

Usually, the outrage is over things they say, for example a campus newspaper editorial that grapples with balancing free speech and appropriate behavior. That’s a quandary that has occupied American legal theorists since the founding of the country. It’s certainly one any young citizen should think through.

But last year, when Wellesley’s student paper ran an editorial wrestling with this same idea — and advocating limits on hate speech — it was widely read and criticized in the media as if it were enormously consequential.

Were the authors’ arguments entirely mature and well reasoned? No. But students deserve the chance to try out ideas. When they do, sometimes they’re going to botch it — sometimes spectacularly. And that’s why we have learning spaces.

Thirty years ago, college students could have tried out radical ideas about limiting free speech in print. The results might have been simplistic or doctrinaire. But readership would have been largely restricted to campus, and the paper would have been in circulation for only a day or two.

In this climate, there is little room for students to experiment and screw up. We seem to expect them to arrive at school fully formed. When they let us down by being just what they are — young humans — we shame them.

This shift in the visibility of college students has changed the work my colleagues and I do as educators, too, and not for the better.

If a Williams student spray-painted “Corporate Deathburgers” on a local building today (not that they ever would), it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone posting the security footage online. Then the outraged calls and emails and tweets would pour in, demanding that the college disavow Deathburger values. I’d be writing news releases explaining that at Williams we take Deathburgers very seriously. There would be op-eds about the Deathburger problem on American campuses today. And the video would live on: another student weighed down by the detritus of his or her online life.

Technology is a lead actor in this drama, but of course, privilege and power influence how the narrative plays out. Some people are given more learning opportunities than others. I might have been a longhair with spray paint when I got arrested, but the arresting officers also marked me as a white University of Michigan student. Had I been someone else, I might have learned a different lesson.

But our response to inequality shouldn’t be to strip the privilege of learning from the lucky few who can already enjoy it. We must expand this universal right to develop and grow.

A commitment to learning isn’t synonymous with freedom from accountability. And it can’t extend into areas like sexual violence or racial hatred. But when it comes to college kids, my worry is that we’ve become unwilling to tolerate innocent mistakes — either that or we have drastically shrunk our vision of innocence.

In my own life I made bad choices that went far beyond spray paint. I flunked out of college and at various points narrowly dodged jail time. When I think back to those mistakes, I’m horrified and chastened. I feel fortunate to have survived, to have had the privilege to make amends.

It would be nice to live in a world in which errors weren’t necessary. Or would it? Miles Davis left behind a quote that I think captures the beauty of a world in which mistakes are natural or even valued: “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note — it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”

Our children deserve the opportunity to play the music for themselves.

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via NYT http://nyti.ms/2gVZ2VB

December 9, 2017 at 04:36PM

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