Friday, August 12, 2016

Perspective on Campus

Last time I described perspective as the ability to distinguish the important from the trivial, to put proper emphasis where it belongs to help make sound decisions and to keep calm in the face of an apparent crisis.  Taking a careful, but realistic approach to the annual health-related news that the media is eager to turn into an annual crisis was only one example.  Perspective has more to it than health scares.  Lack of perspective is widespread.  Each time advertisers, the news media or advocacy groups beat the drum about some new must-have product, new crisis or societal injustice, we need to be grounded to avoid falling for the hyperbole and emotional excesses that usually accompany these complaints.

Here comes a story from University of Wisconsin at Stout about two “harmful” paintings on the interior walls of one of their buildings.  “The paintings by Wisconsin-born artist Cal Peters were created for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression” in 1936 and recently restored.  The paintings show trappers and Native Americans in canoes on the Red Cedar River and a frontier trading post.  After complaints from some Native American students that viewing the pictures kept students in the past and “stood in the way of an effort to create an inclusive and comfortable environment for everyone,” the Chancellor agreed to put them in temporary storage until they can be moved to a more appropriate location.  (The paintings seem to depict trappers and Native Americans working together.  How this stands in the way of "inclusion" is puzzling.)

The Chancellor insists that this is not a concession to political correctness.  (The chancellor doth protest too much, methinks.)  After meeting with several campus groups, he decided to move the paintings to a location where people would be exposed to them only if they chose to be.

One of the professors got anti-censorship groups involved explaining, “moving the painting[s] does not educate anyone or stimulate any learning or dialogue,” and “hiding them doesn’t change the past or the future."  The chancellor, however, apparently believes that the feelings of each student or group of students should carry precedence over freedom of expression.  This is not unusual.  Many campuses are establishing safe zones where students don’t have to hear or see anything that might upset them.  As the NY Times puts it, “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints."

What does this have to do with perspective?  As Americans have gotten richer over the last few decades with bigger houses, more conveniences, more technological advances (and toys) and generally more leisure, Americans have become more sensitive, touchier and more on guard against anything they find offensive or uncomfortable.  It’s a trend, a fad, a hobby, even a contest – I can get more offended than you can!   People are programmed to look for offense around every corner.

These are supposedly mature, responsible college age students.  (Remember the arguments back in the 70s for lowering the voting age to 18?)  They are being educated, among other reasons, to allow them to take their places in an adult world, a world without safe places, a world that unfortunately doesn’t always provide a comfortable environment for everyone.  They are privileged enough to be receiving a college education and don’t appreciate it unless it’s also safe and gentle. 

Instead of looking at these pictures and deducing some hypothetical slight – the fear that these pictures will somehow inhibit efforts to create an inclusive environment, they should look at these pictures, one of trappers and First Nations people in canoes and the other of a crude frontier fort, and reflect on how lucky they are.  When they finish college they will likely work in an air-conditioned office with indoor plumbing.  They will take their smartphone home to a place with these same conveniences plus modern appliances, cable TV, Internet access and all the other things we’ve come to expect.  The only time we will find them in canoes or living in the wilderness will be by choice on their vacations – not for survival!

Are college Chancellors working to educate students to grow up and see the world through the eyes of perspective or are they encouraging them to continue their childhood of isolation and protection from the real world?  Are they creating an environment where every student who is offended by a piece of art or a book or a comment by a teacher, is expected to organize a protest demanding changes and apologies?  As enough of these children graduate, will these values continue to be forced upon the rest of us until we are all walking on eggshells, censoring ourselves for fear of offending, unable to air and debate hard subjects to reach tough decisions.  Look around; it’s already happening.

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