They tell tales of an enchanting place, where the apples are endless, where musing hipsters run free. Devotee — and chump — that I am, I think I will make a pilgrimage there, to this new hard cider bar in Brooklyn.
It’s part of a renaissance, of special limited-batch kegs from mixologists who possess unfathomable knowledge on exotic things like fermentation. But I drank hard cider way back in graduate school, too, cheap pints of the stuff, downed with my classmates in a dive-bar. Management, I think, ran some sketchy business out of the bathroom, but we returned night after night, to perch on bar stools, listen to reggae, and discuss our own bad poetry. Hard cider — fancy or plain — will always be dear to me, if only because it was part of the intellectual — and tipsy — dialogue that grew me up.
A couple years after graduating, I first started teaching college, but I was far too young for it. I was regularly mistaken for a student by both faculty and students. I was still in that mode myself, typing away self-importantly at coffee shops (coffee was still enchanting then too, not just machine-oil). And since we were essentially in the same age pool, I’d sometimes come across my students’ profiles on JDate – which is, if you’re wondering, not titillating at all, but just awkward.
I was so young that I was naïve about academia. I didn’t know that you had to take sides (team Dean or team Chair), and that titles like professor, assistant-professor, associate-professor-but-with-a-cubicle-near-the-fridge, were all carefully measured. To top it off, I was still grappling with the nuances of intellectual dialogue.
It was intimidating to try to be any kind of authority in a dynamic exchange with a room of people so near my own age. With time, the balance began to shift and I started to hold my own more comfortably. Yet as I look back, I see that the tipping point in this was not just more experience but a dawning awareness of the difference between my own perspective and that of the student population.
Many of my writing students — not all, obviously — possessed a thread of entitlement that felt foreign to me and to my generation. This point of view came with a sense of sweeping legitimacy around their own ideas. A thought or a piece of writing was presumed complete and good simply as a result of having come from them. The revision and refinement needed for both their effect in writing and their sophistication was often at first deemed unnecessary – not because of any ordinary student laziness or age-appropriate uber-confidence, but because there was some presumption that a validity lay in their simple de facto existence.
Of course it was my job at the front of the class, to try to provide context and complexity. And often I did. But I was always left to wonder about the view itself and the generational gap: Where did it come from? Were we really so different after all, my classmates and I, when we were the ones drinking cider at the dive bar? Aren’t all student conversations the same as they grapple with the world, sometimes pretentious, sometimes earnest, sometimes true? It occurred to me, that maybe I was just turning old and crotchety before my time. Why would our conversation really be so much more nuanced and open, more outside ourselves?
One lingering possibility is that in the short years between when I came of age and when they came of age, the process of seeking and possessing knowledge had changed profoundly. Aching over library books with pen and paper, I developed one relationship with it… very different from theirs, cutting and pasting from Wikipedia. Because all ideas seem flattened and relative when they are accessed easily and equally.
And that relativity, it seems, can become dangerous. That point of view, let loose in academia — a culture already defined at its political core — is what’s behind the perfect storm gathering over universities. Where anti-Semitism poses as free speech and boycott movements. Where tip-toeing prompts colleges to fire professors for off-color language in class, and expects educational materials to be sensitively framed lest someone – anyone — should be offended. That relativity bleeds into the parameters of creativity in the arts, literature, and music – like with the presumptions behind a recent concert ban on reggae singer Matisyahu for not taking a public political position on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. And that relativity, unchecked, will reshape our larger intellectual culture.
But to return to ground zero, to the origins: no one is blaming the shift on this generation of students who enter college with their point of view. They were simply born into it, and professors, liberal and foul-mouthed or not, are charged with addressing their world-view. That’s the age-old exchange, since the beginning of time and through my own years of learning: Students come in thinking they know everything. Professors show them the most important thing to know is that they don’t.
But it is the administrators now who are charged with — and sometimes failing to — create the proper forum for that dialogue, catering to the student sensibility as if it is simply about making the customer happy. Because in the end, if that dialogue becomes empty posturing, then everything around it – the education, the diploma, and the institution itself — are they worth much more than a dive-bar pint?