Apathy or Fear; or Maybe a Bit of Both

There is no denying that on today’s college campuses there is a decrease in dialogue, especially group dialogues and particularly between those with diverging views. Certainly that is the case at Brandeis University where I’ve been living for seventeen years and observing this trend.

The consequences are dire. In an environment where young people do not engage with others whose ideas are outside of their comfort zone and are unwilling to respond to perspectives that are different than theirs, they are unlikely to develop into healthy adults. This is also decaying the strength of character of today’s college students, including those who’ve recently graduated.

In my and my wife Chanie’s attempt to address this disturbing phenomenon we’ve launched a new initiative called, A New Conversation with Chanie and Peretz. Essentially it’s authentic conversations with individuals who engage with tension in their lives, go out of their comfort zone and have the courage to discuss it, no holds barred. The conversations are recorded and shared as podcasts. Later we gather with a group of students to discuss these podcasts.

During our recent conversation with the group of students, a comment by the podcast guest bemoaning the general apathy toward Israel at Brandeis was highlighted. Surprisingly he shared that he wished there were some anti-Israel activities as this would invite some real conversations.

The students agreed with his point, but added an observation that was striking and startling. They noted that there is another strong factor contributing to the lack of group dialogue and open conversations. Grading.

In the classroom, which is intended to be a place to freely share ideas, especially conflicting ones, students are afraid to share a view that conflicts with the professor’s view since it will likely affect their grade. Their grade will affect their GPA, which will determine their job, which in turn will influence almost everything about their future lives. Understandably few want that risk.

What we have here is a potent combination of apathy and fear that is deteriorating the fiber of young people’s character. At Chabad our motto is Clarity, Courage and Humility, the building blocks of healthy character. This requires developing one’s capacity to engage with tension, or to use the cliché, “Be comfortable with discomfort.”

The podcasts on a New Conversation with Chanie and Peretz challenges both the guests and the hosts and thereby models for listeners engagement with tension. The conversations with students that follow the publication of these podcasts provides them with an environment that stimulates their capacity to engage with discomfort comfortably.

Oddly, Chabad is perhaps the only place on campus where this is happening, as confirmed by many students. Perhaps this is because we, Chanie and I, have been living seventeen years out of our comfort zone and have found, despite the initial difficulty, the richness it provides.

You can listen to the podcasts and view the conversations with students at www.anewconvo.com. The podcasts will appear shortly on iTunes and Google Play.

About the Author
Rabbi Peretz Chein is co-founder of the Chabad House at Brandeis, established in 2001. Born in Israel to Russian immigrant parents, Peretz also founded iLearn, an educational program attended by upwards of 100 students. Ran numerous marathons, inspiring students and alumni to join him. Founded a tech-startup that addresses the needs of event organizers, and was recognized for his organization's fiscal transparency.
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