The Truth-Seeking Impulse in Higher Education

When I wrote my most recent statement on how faith informs my work in language and literature, I chose this prompt from Calvin College’s faculty handbook: “Write an essay for the broader Christian community explaining what is at stake in the Christian engagement with your discipline … Incorporate examples from your own teaching and research.”

In my Written Rhetoric class, I’ve recently begun teaching an essay titled “The Braindead Megaphone” from a book of the same name by commentator and author George Saunders. In the essay, Saunders argues that American discourse has lost its way, and he blames the merging of the broadcast journalism and entertainment industries for the problem. Media companies are so concerned with making money that the “truth-seeking impulse” – essential to reporting the news and cultivating mindfulness – is no longer a priority or even a value. With the adverse influence of marketers trying to cash in on what New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum and others have called “the attention economy,” news outlets seek to keep audiences tuned in and watching because, in the end, the primary goal of their enterprise is profitability. Saunders acknowledges that the truth motive, which at its core involves self-critique and slow, complicated deliberation, has always been subsumed by the commercial motive but says “we’re in an hour of special danger, if only because our technology has become so loud, slick, and seductive.”

To what extent has the megaphone of broadcast journalism created a nation of zombies?

Saunders, writing in the early 2000s, cites coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the O. J. Simpson trial as indicative of how the telling of news has been “degraded.” No longer were broadcast journalists merely reporting the facts, nor were they especially interested in using the airwaves for cultural critique and self-reflection; instead, they increasingly exploited the viewer by sensationalizing and exaggerating news items, or, worse, manufacturing reasons to follow the “latest” developments. This trend, Saunders maintains, has changed the way news outlets cover the most serious stories so that, for example, in hyping the invasion of Iraq (the strategy, the tactics), most networks and cable news channels neglected to question “the essential morality” of the conquest. Those that did were drowned out. But perhaps even more devastating, the media’s obsession with putting on a good show (versus ferreting out the truth) has distracted us audience members from evaluating what we’re watching and damaged our ability to converse rationally with one another. We have absorbed their habit of dumbing discourse down and cutting off uncomfortable but necessary public debate.

Saunders’ essay is not an empirical study but the musing of a cultural observer; his intention is to provoke the imagination, epitomized in the central metaphor “The Braindead Megaphone”–  a metaphor that must be pondered if we are to get what Saunders is saying. Megaphones are used to amplify one voice over all others; they are not listening devices. With the megaphone, the speaker asserts his or her authority over what might otherwise be an unruly crowd, and he or she controls the conversation rather than receiving the input and the wisdom of others. What he or she has to say is said so forcefully that the audience stops thinking for itself and is coerced into following his or her direction. To what extent, Saunders is asking, has the megaphone of broadcast journalism created a nation of zombies?

ABUSE OF WORDS AT COLLEGE

Because I am a poet, whose vocation involves scrutinizing words and the way they work, Saunders’ essay got me thinking about other cultural endeavors that use and abuse language – higher education, specifically – and I began to wonder if unintentionally college professors, administrators and staff also stifle the truth, not with a megaphone but with their cant. I don’t think academics set out to talk over others or to bully, though no doubt these abuses occur. Most who are involved in the academic project genuinely desire meaningful exchanges with one another and put a premium on inquiry. But I do think that too often with its squawk box of prepackaged phrases – jargon, lingo, company lines, talking points – the discourse of educators, whatever their bailiwick, can come across as rehearsed. At its worst, language on campus may demand certain orthodoxies; it may discourage saying (and thinking) anything new. It should be no surprise, then, that undergraduates, adapting to the rhetorical climate, tune their words to the official buzz. They, too, begin repeating the pet phrases and mantras of the university culture – whether it be secular or sacred – sometimes without understanding the origins or the reasons why these words have come into fashion.

We at Calvin rely on our own tried-and-true sayings, language from our theological tradition (“agents of renewal,” “every square inch,” “discernment,” “Creation Fall Redemption”), our business practices (“the Calvin brand,” “efficiencies,” “prioritization,” “the strategic plan”), our educational mission (“think deeply, act justly, live wholeheartedly,” “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely,” “minds in the making”), our legal obligations (“safer spaces,” “due diligence,” “compliance”) and so on. Most of these choice words provide a useful shorthand for robust concepts that, because of their complications, take time to express. To the extent that they are connected to a true picture of the world, our preferred sayings can serve as either way points or safeguards for the kind of culture-making we as educators – Christian educators – are called to manifest. But overuse can turn them into empty phrases and actually suppress hard thinking and moral reflection. In essay exams and class discussions, students tell us what they think we want to hear. The result, at times, comes across as lip service or, more troubling, as cynicism. Familiarity can, and does, breed contempt. Perhaps a perfunctory recitation of the official college verbiage is a necessary stage in their learning. But I’m not always confident that our students are actually engaging the ideas, the creeds, the confessions, the Reformed doctrine – instead of only lifting a few well-worn expressions out of context. Truth be told, all of us in the Calvin community now and then slip into glib sloganizing when we should be prizing complexity, as if in mouthing a few touchstone phrases we have satisfied our educational mission. Here is where Samuel Johnson’s admonition to the younger Boswell is instructive: “Clear your mind of cant.”

What is particularly concerning to me now at this point in my professorial career is the degree to which language on the college campus prescribes and enforces boundaries, boundaries that prevent even Calvin instructors (much less their students) from saying the errant thing or poking too sharply at the superficiality of what passes muster among them. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting, with regard to free expression on campus, that anything goes; indeed, ill-begotten words that intentionally wound or deceive should be censured. I’m arguing, instead, against a kind of verbal policing that prematurely cuts off authentic dialogue. In such a pedagogical climate, the temptation for me as a professor is to steer clear of sensitive issues like race and homosexuality, although it is precisely these controversies that faithful, thinking Christians should be prayerfully confronting. I’ll admit that I feel as if someone is looking over my shoulder whenever, for example, I am teaching American literary authors (Twain, Chesnutt, Faulkner, Ellison) who prolifically use the N-word. No doubt, the N-word (even in its abbreviated form, it seems like a violation) is in ordinary conversation off-limits, taboo, particularly for whites. This is as it should be. The epithet carries with it the whole terrifying and disgusting history of racism. But within the confines of the classroom and with those for whom discussing the word does not traumatize them, an interrogation of the word can and must take place: What has made the N-word so radioactive? What is it about the stewardship of language that allows what is normally a slur to be used without offence in certain contexts but makes it inappropriate in others? Who is authorized to say the N-word? These are delicate albeit necessary questions, and to ask them requires me to be as willing to “live and lead with courageous conviction” as my students. While I might have figured out how to have a healthy if also awkward discussion of the N-word in the classroom, what would happen should I, in taking up another fraught topic, misstep?

ATMOSPHERE OF FEAR?

I worry that, with our proper attention to avoiding offensive speech, we are creating an atmosphere of fear rather than encouraging a vigorous while also charitable give-and-take. If we can’t stumble over our words, if we can’t wander off-message, if we aren’t at liberty to express our sometimes wrongheaded and half-baked assumptions, we are not likely to struggle our way through them to new understanding. And unless we are able to engender earnest, truth-seeking conversations, we risk being held together by a thin veneer of acceptable words that mask sharp, at times necessary, differences of opinions and inhibit us from engaging controversial subjects, the very controversies that demand sophisticated responses and make higher education relevant. More problematic from a Christian perspective, our campus correct speech permits us to stop short of the radical morality Jesus is calling us to. In fact, if only mindlessly repeated, the “right” words reinforce a self-congratulatory piety that relieves us of the complexities of genuine discipleship.

Something like this must have been on the mind of the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, for a confrontation of the unexamined life permeates her fiction, and in one example, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” she takes aim at the American university. The story follows Julian, a recent college graduate who is trying to make his way in the world. Early on, we are told that his dreams of becoming a writer are more romantic than realistic; faced with the practicalities of supporting himself financially, Julian has moved back home to what he considers the backward South and settles for a job as a typewriter salesman. Throughout the narrative, Julian battles with his mother, whose largesse he depends upon but deeply resents. Because he has been liberally educated, he is embarrassed by his mother’s overt racism and loathes appearing in public with her, lest her words and actions reflect on him the bigotry he has learned to abhor. Yet his duty as a son requires him to accompany her when she needs to go out at night. The story focuses on a bus ride into town one evening, where his mother’s condescending attitude triggers a violent altercation with a black woman.

A bus, of course, historically speaking, is the perfect place to stage a racial conflict in the American South. And the title, transgressing as it does the 1950s’ separate but equal doctrine, makes clear that “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is unequivocally a story motivated by a social conscience. But what’s most compelling here is that O’Connor does not use fiction to teach the unschooled mother (and those Southerners she represents) a lesson. Instead, Julian is the target of her probing – perhaps because he represents the next generation, the one that has inherited the problem of racial strife and the one that will be asked, with college degrees in hand, to address it. Julian does not allow himself to feel in any meaningful way personal guilt for racial inequities, he will not recognize that he himself might harbor prejudice. Quite the opposite. He uses the issue of race to cultivate his own sense of moral superiority over his unenlightened white neighbors. The narrator reveals that Julian, in fact, delights in watching “injustice in daily operation. It confirmed his view that with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles.” His failed personal attempts to bring reconciliation to the races – “he had never been successful in making any Negro friends” though he sought to do so among the “better types” – indicate that he views his black neighbors not as people but as projects. More telling, Julian has a “momentary vision of himself participating as a sympathizer in a sit-in demonstration” and bringing home a black girlfriend, but as the story unfolds we are made to realize that these gestures turn out to be only fantasies aimed at tormenting his mother.

What I love about O’Connor’s fiction – and what students intuitively grasp – is the way it equalizes everyone under the Gospel. In the racial matters O’Connor addresses, we are all culpable, perhaps especially those most like herself – educated whites –  who believe themselves to be exonerated. Again and again in her characters, it’s the words they tell themselves that give them a false sense of their own righteousness and justify their self-delusion. O’Connor reveals to them – and to us – how ingrained are our prejudices – so ingrained that they cannot simply be rooted out by education. We need the biblical doctrine of depravity and the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the redemptive power of the cross to see ourselves as we truly are.

It is striking that as much as O’Connor understands both history (how, even when our words say otherwise, we perpetuate injustice) and theology (“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”), she resists the impulse to browbeat us with a lesson or to privilege one class of person over another. That would be to succumb to the same kind of moralizing Julian brandishes to chastise his mother. No, O’Connor is keenly aware that sermonizing is not how the best fiction works. As she notes in her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” a story is “a self-contained dramatic unit … that must carry its meaning inside it.” Among other things, O’Connor is saying that, like parables, truthful stories thwart easy paraphrase and refuse to be forgotten. The mystery contained in their metaphors and puzzling details and surprising outcomes invites us not to self-congratulate but to ponder. O’Connor recognizes that the effective story must be complex because humans are complex; it cannot give in to propagandizing.

MOTIVES BEHIND WORDS

In my own journey as a poet and professor, I’ve had to take a hard look at what motivates my words. The more skilled I’ve become in my profession, the more tempting it has become to make the lectern or the laptop into a bully pulpit. But the truth-seeking impulse asks me to do otherwise. The goal of academic discourse is not to be “loud, slick, and seductive” – which is what, if Saunders is right, the media is teaching all of us Americans to embrace. Nor is it to cultivate shallow allegiances to utopian or pragmatic or even Christian agendas if they fail to incarnate the humility and the wisdom of Christ. The aim of the Christian professor is principled nonconformity. So that when watchwords from the latest philosophy or business trend or church movement or political campaign or sociological study or scientific innovation become sacred cows on campus, unassailable and bluntly applied, we have an obligation to test their veracity and resist blithely repeating them with our “braindead megaphones.” Faithfulness requires us to do so.

According to the Apostle Paul, our discourse, representative as it is of our mental and spiritual commitments, must not merely “conform to the pattern of this world” but rather “be transformed” (Rom. 12:2). This transformation, he goes on to say, grows organically out of daily meditation on the Scriptures and other sacred practices that submit our thinking – and speaking – to the mind of Christ. Only when chastened by a renewed understanding of our own sins and our Lord’s grace can we create an atmosphere of openness in the classroom, where all are welcome to ask the questions that trouble them. Only when the double  edge of Scripture penetrates the thoughts and the intents of their hearts will professor and student be empowered to probe deeper into the words they live by – what’s true about them but also how they falsify. At Calvin, getting the language right is fundamental to our task, but, if not expressed with love, our shibboleths (“agents of renewal,” “every square inch,” “discernment,” “from every nation”), like those of the world, can become clanging symbols.

But even as I rehearse these essential passages from the New Testament – and affirm them – I recognize that it takes work for the Reformed academic citizen to apply them. The habit of self-examination, the practice of intellectual honesty, must be cultivated. As the writers of our own document “An Engagement with God’s World: The Core Curriculum of Calvin College” put it, “Honesty in matters of the intellect …  means not dismissing data, evidence, or argument in order to hang on to our favorite theories, not covering our eyes and stopping our ears in order to remain in our mental, moral, social, or religious comfort zones.”

Perhaps it is not too much to say that the truth-seeking impulse in higher education can be squelched by the very things that are inextricable from the educational process. The fact that students receive grades for their academic performance motivates some to do their best, but others wilt under the pressure or seek the security of the “correct” answer while neglecting the risk of trying out something more adventurous or failing to ask the more penetrating questions. The fact that their students are also their customers can lead professors to pander and coddle, lest they lose an important income stream for the college, which, in turn, could threaten their own livelihood. The fact that all of us in the college desire the admiration of our peers can cause us to live complacently, cocooned in the phraseology that we know will be approved. While we are right to find the words that best capture our mission, we have to be wary of oversimplifying our message, dumbing it down, emptying it of its untidy but necessary complexity. Language over time expires; it can become stale, even toxic. It must be refreshed. This is our task. The new wine will always need new wineskins.

 L.S. Klatt teaches English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.