Early last week, the University of Florida circulated a memo to its undergraduates, cautioning them not to wear offensive costumes on Halloween.
The issuance of such statements has become something of an October tradition on many campuses, and kerfuffle of some kind nearly always attends. Remember that last year, it was a dispute kicked off by a similar email at Yale that first put campus cultural politics into the national spotlight.
Even as under-thought administrative diktats go, UF’s memo was particularly bizarre. It included not only the now-routine solicitation for students to report each other to a “Bias Response Team” but also a possible threat that students’ social media accounts were being monitored.
The circular was accordingly lambasted in the right-wing press, but I’m not particularly interested in jumping onto that bandwagon. The Costume Wars have cost a lot of ink already, and my own views more or less track those Christakis expressed in her letter.
There was one line in the note, however, that received neither the attention nor the lambasting it deserved, and it had little if anything to do with Halloween costumes. In a throwaway note in the conclusion, the memo asserted that “as a community, we aspire ... to maintain an affirming campus climate for all members of our community.”
Repetitive verbiage aside, that floored me. The college experience should be “affirming for all”? Really?
I posit that it can’t possibly be true. Education is the acquisition of new knowledge, new information that one didn’t have before. Even if that new information doesn’t cause a change in a person’s beliefs, it must at least make him aware of his prior ignorance. If it didn’t, it couldn’t be new information at all.
In either case, the learning process is not “affirming.” Neither changing one’s mind in the face of new data nor realizing one’s ignorance is a particularly reinforcing of the self-esteem. They are, inherently and by necessity, process of disaffirmation. To be affirmed is to be upheld and validated, to survive challenge and scrutiny unchanged. To leave college with one’s mind and soul affirmed would be a profound failure. Would any graduating senior be better off leaving Penn with all his freshman-fall opinions affirmed? Would you?
I wish I were just harping on one unfortunate word choice by one random office in Florida, but I’m not. A search for the word “affirming” on the website of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators — the trade association for employees in the nebulous and ever-ballooning “student life” sector — returned nearly 88,000 hits. An unscientific review of the first hundred or so shows “affirmation” seems to have worked its way deep into the administrative psyche, appearing frequently in the boilerplate pseudo-philosophy of the profession writ large. One of NASPA’s main constituent groups, the Gender and Sexuality Knowledge Community, even offers as its “vision” the hope that “Each campus is safe, affirming and inclusive for all students, staff and faculty.”
There was a true gem of long-form narrative journalism in the Washington Post this past weekend, a profile of a young man named Derek Black. Black was raised, ironically enough, by white nationalists and, as an adolescent, rose to become something of a “thought leader” within that unfortunate subculture. At 21, however, he enrolled in college incognito, but was in time outed and ostracized until an orthodox Jewish acquaintance decided to try, civilly but doggedly, to persuade him of the error of his ways. He succeeded, and Black left the white nationalist movement and renounced his former views. It’s a tale not only of the triumph of engagement and persuasion over exile and vilification, but of the immense power and value of being deeply challenged, right down to the very core of your own self-conception, in the relatively controlled environment of higher education.
And where did Derek Black go to school? The New College in Sarasota, a campus of the same State University System of Florida as UF, which issued the statement declaring their goal to affirm all students.
Did the New College fail when it disaffirmed Derek Black’s conception of his own self and identity? Of course not. The world is a better place, and Derek Black a better man today because he was not affirmed, because he was challenged and contradicted and forced to re-examine not only his beliefs, but his entire conception of who he was as a person. Most of us aren’t avowed racists, but we could all benefit from that kind of challenge and self-examination regardless of where it starts or ends. That’s why we’re in college. Or at least, it used to be.
Affirmation is the opposite of education, and the failure of those who lead our universities to see that is a sad indication of just how far away from teaching and learning they have strayed.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” usually appears every Wednesday.
CORRECTION: This article previously described the New College as part of the University of Florida system. It is part of the State University System of Florida, along with the University of Florida. The memo about Halloween costumes was issued by the University of Florida. The column has been updated to reflect this. The Daily Pennsylvanian regrets the error.
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