Oh, August. For academics it is the month of scurrying to polish up syllabi, waving goodbye to summer writing projects, and getting to meet the heaps of new and returning students whose presence and curiosity will grace our classrooms in the coming year. More and more, it is also the time when I hear educators lament the sense of entitlement they feel “students these days” bring with them into the classroom. Perhaps, you’ve seen this year’s U. Chicago letter to incoming students that reads, in part,
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
There is a sense among many U.S. educators that students no longer see academic education as a process that rightly involves intellectual and personal challenge, but rather expect their education to affirm their own ideological commitments. In theological education, this concern becomes, more specifically, a concern that students are merely looking for resources that bolster their personal faith and political commitments while remaining either uninterested in or offended by material that is not relevant to their social identities, personal faith or vocation. This strikes many educators as an attitude of arrogance and entitlement that presses for a disturbing departure from an academic commitment to intellectual curiosity and rigor.
A second concern I hear from theological educators is that students are treating their education more like an opportunity for inward, personal growth and development than as a standardized, academic degree. Presumably, this causes students to expect theological educators to function as pastoral guides, a role that many educators are wary to claim. “This isn’t counseling, it’s a university class” I heard a colleague say last year in a moment of frustration.
And, to a certain extent, that colleague of mine is right. The classroom is not a counseling room, and not all educators who specialize in theology are or should be quasi-pastors. Educators would be failing students miserably if we consented never to ask students to engage material that is uncomfortable to read, talk about or see. And, while I have never actually experienced this happening (and wonder whether it truly does happen as often as some would have us think), it is not acceptable for anyone to invoke trauma trigger language to avoid the discomfort of encountering difference.
That said, all the talk about the current generation of students being largely self-centered, entitled and uninterested in a rigorous education still rubs me the wrong way.
If students indeed are challenging the pedagogies and presumptions of the schools they attend, it seems to me that students today are following in the footsteps of students in just about every other generation. There is nothing new about students protesting that which has become the academic status quo, and it is far from novel for such students to be dismissed by educators and administrators as self-centered, naïve and disrespectful of academic authority. When there is a generation of educators that does not become frustrated with students’ strides for change, or when students altogether stop pushing the boundaries of that which ought to be considered acceptable in the classroom, that, my friends, will be something new.
I also want to spend a moment on the concerns I named that apply to theological education specifically, because I have a hunch that the critical work done across theological disciplines over the last several decades is playing a mighty role in creating the present circumstances giving rise to them.
Womanist, feminist, queer, liberation, and mujerista voices, taken up by systematic, constructive and practical theologies, have advocated powerfully for the once hard lines between intellectual and experiential, personal and political, to be softened or altogether redrawn. They have challenged the notion that there is an absolute difference between the classroom and pulpit. In fact, in most theological schools, there is at least one room that is literally both classroom and pulpit. The very theological paradigms that we offer students for academic education themselves encourage a melding of critical reflection with personal reflection and embodied political commitment.
Both of the concerns that I hear commonly in theological circles – that students are only interested in learning material that is relevant to their experience and that students expect educators to function as quasi-pastors – suggest that students are anticipating that the academic spaces in which they learn will resemble the spaces built in the imaginaries of the texts they are reading. Students are expecting their professors to live what they teach in the same way that students are being taught to live what they learn. I have not found it to be true that the majority of students have no interest in material that challenges their perspectives or in texts that confront them with uncomfortable difference. I have, however, found that students want ways of connecting their identities and experiences with the material studied in class. This is not arrogant. It can be a path toward an integrated education that allows students to learn in ways that transform thought, self and practice, rather than thought alone. For theological educators working in contexts where students are mostly preparing for roles in community organizing, transformative justice and ministry, this ought to be considered a pedagogical win.
Let’s not forget, as well, that there is a degree of urgency that can accompany the process of pursuing an MDiv degree specifically. Those of us who have our whole lives to devote to research and learning can afford to spend a year or two or ten studying areas and figures and modes of thought that are not directly relevant to our own lives. Even in this case, it is impossible for us to do research that does not connect with the work we set out to do in the world because the research is our work.
For MDiv students who will not be devoting their lives to academia, time to spend studying and learning is limited and precious. In only three years, these students need to learn not only the foundations of all the different theological disciplines but how to make these disciplines relevant to the communities in which they will soon be working as well. If a student knows she will be working in a church in which black theology and practice will be a vital resource, she cannot afford to spend an entire year (much less two or three) lacking the opportunity for critical engagement with black theology and practice. Financially, intellectually, vocationally, she cannot afford it. She is pursuing the degree, after all, so that she can prepare for the work that is ahead of her. Therefore, pressing for opportunities to engage material that is relevant to one’s own context is not, dare I say most of the time, arrogant. It is responsible. It might be the only responsible option.
This is not a defense of every student, nor is it a categorical denial that entitlement has anything to do with “students these days.” It is, rather, a plea for educators to extend the same open curiosity to our students that we regularly offer to our research subjects, especially when we find that we do not immediately understand our students’ perspectives. It is a plea, if you will, for educators to offer students a critical but generous read.