Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Berkeley Kids are Alright

Last term, I taught Introduction to American Politics at the University of California, Berkeley. As you can imagine, teaching "Introduction to American Politics" at the University of California, Berkeley during the Fall of 2016 was an interesting experience. Sometimes instructors eagerly grasp at the rare "teachable moment" that falls into our laps; last fall was one long (long) "teachable moment" when it came to American politics.

This term, I'm teaching "Just Political Participation." And of course, what do we get in our first month of term but a scheduled speech by Milo and ensuing protests -- a fantastic illustration of many of the course themes in a class about "Just Political Participation". The academic spirits have blessed or cursed me to be a current events commentator. So this week, I decided to devote class to discussion of Milo's (canceled) talk, and the respective choices of the Berkeley administration, the Berkeley College Republicans, and the protesters (both violent and non-violent).

Berkeley students, of course, have a bit of a reputation on the national stage -- basically, they are presumed to embody whatever the day's shibboleth for radical leftism is. In the 1960s, it was radical free speech, yesterday, it was safe spaces and trigger warnings, today, it unwillingness to engage with alternative views and an outright endorsement of beating up anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders.

This was not my experience. Whenever current events have been discussed, my students have consistently shown a curiosity about the world around them and a willingness to engage with arguments and positions different from their own, and this week was no different. The students leaned left (as college-attending millennials tend to do), but the predominant position in both my classes was opposition to violent protests coupled with utter contempt for Milo and the politics he represented. Some persons took outlier positions on either of these matters, and their views were given respectful consideration. Nobody's views could be predetermined by their personal "identity" background -- there were students of color who had planned to attend Milo's talk because they were curious to hear what he had to say and there were white students emphatically attacking it as hate speech. On that score, alone, what we saw was a testament to the importance and value of diversity in the Berkeley community.

The conversation was wide-ranging and intellectual. People talked about the tactical benefits and drawbacks of protesting (this post is germane), as well as the dignitary issues when persons targeted by Milo's particularly odious brand of bullying are forced to tailor their responses so that Milo doesn't reap benefits (this post is germane). There were differing views on whether the violent aspects of the protests were exaggerated by the media or genuinely reflective of what was going on; persons with these differences engaged respectfully with one another. Persons concerned about violence conducted by the protesters thoughtfully engaged with those who wondered why other forms of violence (such as that by police suppressing protest, or by Milo's own supporters backing him up, or by his listeners harassing targeted minorities in his wake) got less attention. Nuanced positions that often don't get articulated (such as the view that the UC-Berkeley administration had no business shutting down Milo's talk, but that Berkeley students were nonetheless obligated to get out onto the street and make their own views known) received airing and were debated. We got to talk about comparative rules on hate speech, the benefits and virtues of the American rule, the value and the limits of the "marketplace of ideas" metaphor, and many other things besides. And I got perhaps the most amount of nodding when I urged them to resist simplistic solutions that "make a hard question easy." They wanted complexity, nuance, consideration, and thought.

All and all, I came away very impressed. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised, though. The University of California, Berkeley, is one of the world's great public universities. I tell all of my students, at the start of each term, that the fact that they are at Berkeley means they are among the very brightest and most thoughtful persons of their generation, and that I consequently expect all of them to contribute the rare and valuable perspective they possess to class discussions. This week, my students rose to the occasion in fantastic fashion. Kudos to them. The Berkeley kids are, it turns out, all right.

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