A study in contrasts


A colleague brought to my attention a story from yesterday’s All Things Considered, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I mean, I wish I could stop thinking about it, because I need to move on. Alas.

NPR wanted to share what matters to progressive Gen Z voters, so they shared interviews with three such people. (They said they’ll also air a piece featuring conservative Gen Z voters, because bAlaNcE.)

The first person was James Kweisi Butler. He’s not a college student as far as we know (and is a model/actor/dancer/youtuber). He’s been arrested six times in the last few months for protesting as a BLM activist. He’s not thrilled about Biden/Harris, but he’s voting for them because it’s the only feasible choice for him, and during this election season, he is working on projects related to criminal justice reform and amplifying the voices of other Black people.

The second person was Manny Cruz, a new student at CSU Dominguez Hills. Hey, that’s where I work! Yay, Go Toros! It’s not too common to have our students on national news like this. How cool is that? (And if he’s undeclared, could we woo him over to Biology?) They mention he’s been working double shifts at In-N-Out to get his family through the pandemic. What’s he have to say about voting this year?

You can be angry at Donald Trump all you want. But ultimately, we as a country chose to put him there. In reality, he’s just exposed a lot of things within ourselves…

I’m not by any means saying the Republicans are racist, but I will say just generally a lot of people who I’ve seen support him tend to have a lot of racist perspectives…

With a new candidate comes new possibilities. So I feel with my first time being able to vote, I can take a step towards that possibility of a difference. So I feel it matters a lot, and I wish everyone knew that, too.

[emphasis mine]

Manny Cruz, on NPR 09 Sep 2020

Next up, they shared an interview with a student at Occidental College! Hey, that’s my alma mater! Woo! Go Tigers! They don’t put Oxy students on the news every day either! What does this student have to say about the importance of this upcoming election? NPR lets us know that she’s decided to not vote for anybody for president this year. Uhhh, why is that?

When the Democratic Party coalesced around Joe Biden, I remember unregistering from the Democratic Party that day…

If I live for another, like, 50 or 60 years, the climate is going to start getting pretty unlivable…

I don’t know what it’s like to live in a country where the U.S. hasn’t been bombing children in the Middle East. And I’ve seen, like, even under the most progressive presidents to date, Barack Obama, you know, protesters are still brutalized in Ferguson and Standing Rock. And then the same thing is happening again. And I think now is a time to, like, have a little faith in the idea of being radical and re-imagining what the world could look like.

Oxy student*, on NPR 09 Sep 2020

Well, then.

I know what it’s like to live with so much comfort that you can shelter yourself from the most hideous consequences of the Trump administration. I still think it’s possible to have faith in the effectiveness of being radical, while simultaneously recognizing that a lot of people can’t afford to be uninvested in who runs our Executive Branch at this moment in our history.

I suppose it’s our job as educators to hear this kind of stuff with a generous heart and an open mind, so that when the college experience provides a more detailed cyclorama of the world, our students will be inclined to take in the view. I think we need to have enough genuine humility to hear people out and communicate earnestly. We can teach others how to give a damn about other people by living our own lives as an example. We have to hope that by being gentle while we provide knowledge and experience, this may fuse into some form of wisdom.

Folks who work in well-endowed institutions with lower teaching loads and more privileged students sometimes ask me about how I deal with the challenges of being a professor at a place like CSUDH. There are discussions of “student quality.” And discussions about student preparation for university work. And then I ask about the challenges about being a professor at WEU (Well Endowed University) or ESC (Expensive Small College), and think back on my time teaching in such places. These conversations usually end with an understanding that we all deal with different kinds of challenges as teachers.

It’s a financial challenge for most universities to create a genuinely diverse student body, because most people in this country can’t afford the sticker price, even after a heavy dealer discount. University systems such as CSU and SUNY and CUNY are still subsidized enough by the public to be accessible for many people. (In the CSU and SUNY, if I recall correctly, about 50% of operating expenses comes from the state. Which is a far cry from 100% that we used to have, but it still better than other places.) We aren’t putting tall fences around the system. This accessibility does wonders for the educational environment, in a lot of intangible ways that are hard to understand until you’ve had the chance to teach in different types of institutions. Ultimately, we learn from other people, and when your educational environment is exclusionary, it’s a lot harder to learn some of the most important lessons.

* I haven’t mentioned the student’s name here (even though she publicly responded to critiques on twitter, by saying that she doesn’t want to vote for the lesser of two fascists. And also made the point that in California, her vote is essentially moot, though didn’t really address the impact of her remarks to an audience of millions including people in swing states, as far as I noticed) because this isn’t about her and I don’t want to write a post to drag a college student. I mean, if you want to track her down it’s easy enough from the NPR story, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here. As some people say, “punch up, not down.” Though here, I’d rather not be punching at all, I just want to talk about the challenges that we face while teaching in all kinds of places.

5 thoughts on “A study in contrasts

  1. What interesting perspectives. These young people can teach us a lot! I look forward to start teaching them today, even if only online. While I fully understand the sentiment of the non-voter, it does seem like a dangerous idea to not vote, based on principle this time around.

  2. Terry, I think you’re implying that the student at Occidental has a different perspective because they’re enrolled at a school with a rather large endowment, whereas the student at CSU is not in an environment of privilege. I had to look up the endowment to make the connection. I don’t know that we can tie this attitude to privilege alone. Some people are just fed up with “the system”. I do think education is still the key and suspect even the Oxy student will change their mind one day as they continue to acquire knowledge, life skills, and life experience.

    • In the past year or two, when I talk about universities that are more exclusionary (who selectively admit students based on metrics associated with the resources and opportunities available to them), I’ve tried to not make this about Ivy vs non-Ivy, or prestigious SLAC vs. less prestigious SLAC, or regional public vs. flagship state university. Because it looks like that these institutional differences boil down to the size of the endowment. High endowment institutions are more attractive to students and there is more competition for space, and institutions that want to appear to be higher ranked and more impressive will select students who have higher grades, scores, and also more money is important, because they have to admit enough full-payers to balance the books. There’s a pretty close association between the rankings that people pay attention to and the size of the endowment. And these institutions that rank higher have students with more privilege. I’m not trying to draw grand conclusions based on a radio interview of one student from each of these institutions. I am saying, though, that it takes a hell of a lot of privilege to proudly say that it’s not worth it to vote for a run-of-the-mill party line Democrat to remove Trump from office.

  3. I’d find it more interesting if NPR interviewed more typical examples from Gen Z. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of Americans aren’t college students or graduates. Most Americans are lower class and working entry level jobs. Anyone who is in or has been to college is part of a fortunate or even privileged minority.

    It’s the less educated lower class that experiences most of the problems from police brutality, lead toxicity, poverty and inequality, high rates of unemployment/underemployment lack of healthcare, lack political representation, etc. Those are the people I want to hear from. It’s telling that NPR and the rest of the MSM ignores them, the silenced majority.

  4. I’m more than a little fed up with the third interviewee’s attitude, so I commend you on having patience with it. They seem to think that they’re sending the message that there are “consequences” when they don’t get platforms that are progressive enough for them. Instead they’re just sending the message that there’s no reason to take the youth vote seriously because on Election Day they will stay home like they always have.

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