A Version of a Speech I Need to Give My Students Tomorrow

Okay guys, I’m floundering. I need your help.

About the only thing I know about this class is its frickin’ title: How to Combat Online Bullshit. When I came up with it, I had a whole idea about learning all about fake news — how it’s created, how it spreads, what kind of effects it can have — and then teaching you how to combat it.

The problem is, I don’t know if you care about fake news. I want you to feel a sense of righteous indignation toward it, but at least two of you don’t. I don’t really understand why, because my own righteous indignation is so close to the surface.

I make my living trying to get young people to understand and examine certain truths about the world, not truths that I necessarily have access to, but truths that I have received. One of those truths is that democracy is good; another is that democracy is hard; and another is that an enlightened electorate is the only weapon capable of of defending it. If that weapon gets any weaker, then the great experiment that is America will come to an ignoble end.

You two, the ones who are throwing me for a loop in this class, you two are still two or three years away from joining the electorate. But me and him, we’re already there.

And both of us are telling you that the information you find on the Internet is often completely fake, regardless of how real it may sound. I suspect (I hope) you already believe that, but I’m not entirely sure you understand the ramifications of it.

There’s something else I’m not sure about: I don’t know how much you read, or if you do, what kinds of things you might read.

When I conceived of this class, I made (and continue to make) an awful lot of assumptions about you, and I realize now that one of them is that you care (at least somewhat) about some of the events that are taking place beyond your own lives. That may have been a mistake.

Some basic knowledge of current events is necessary if I’m to rile up that righteous indignation I assumed you would already have. But if you don’t have this basic knowledge — if you don’t at least somewhat depend on the news to guide your understanding of reality — then you have no context from which to draw your anger from; you simply have no idea that we are currently being attack by an onslaught of verifiably intentionally-fake news.

Which means we need to go back to step one.

The purpose of a high-school education is, primarily, to prepare the future citizens of this country to continue the great experiment that we call democracy. Anything you learn above and beyond that in high school is just gravy.

But the key ingredient to democracy is, again, an enlightened electorate. And in order to cultivate that, I need you to become critical of everything you read, hear, and watch — I need you to become critical of media.

Because that’s where the battle is being fought now. It’s where democracy is currently being attacked. This is not hyperbole. This shit is actually going on.

Russia, that great enemy of my childhood, is literally attacking our country, and almost everyone has a reasonable suspicion that Russia may have even compromised the Chief Executive of our government, a possibility that is being diligently investigated by an incredibly powerful — and by all accounts, highly ethical — civil attorney, as well as by some of the more patriotic members of Congress. Reality is now literally a bad 80s movie that has been reboot for the 21st century, where the writers have replaced nuclear bombs with information bombs.

I shit you not.

My question to you is, “What character do you want to play in that movie?” Do you want to be someone shoveling your own shit in the background, or do you want to be someone driving the enemy all the way back to its capitol?

In the 21st century, heroes may not jump out of helicopters; they may work quietly and furiously on a laptop; but the dangers are just as real. The same menacing villain, a former high-ranking officer in the menacing KGB, is directing the same group of menacing bastards to train their sights on America. Behind it all stands a shadowy group of menacing rich bastards, luxuriating in the arrogance of their wealth, while in front of it all, the same innocent victims fall prey.

It’s up to somebody to stop them. Why shouldn’t that someone be you?

If it’s not, that means you’ve opted to become just another victim, and that  means America’s great experiment in democracy has failed.

I’ll say it again. Our democracy is really and truly under attack — not by some shadow terrorist, but by another sovereign nation whose military may not be as evolved as ours, but whose ability to engage in information warfare seems to be operating on a completely different level.

You’re both going to be 18 soon, which means, first, you’ll be eligible to participate in our democracy, and second, that you’ll be eligible to fight for it.

I want to teach you what the fight is actually about, and then teach you to defend yourself and throw a punch. I have the skills to do that.

But first, you have to show me what you know.

Notes on a Bullshit Class

I’m teaching a course this quarter called “How to Combat Online Bullshit.” I have three students in it, at least one of whom is a deep thinker, and all three of whom are genuinely interested in the topic.

In preparation for the class, I’ve found just an ungodly number of resources on the Internet, thanks to Pres. Trump’s somewhat casual relationship with what most people call “truth,” the proliferation of Russian-generated “fake news” during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, and the renewed commitment of most schools to teach students to be critical consumers of both corporate dominated and independently generated media. I read a lot of those resources, bookmarked a bunch more, and started scanning for common threads.

I also read an academic treatise titled On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfort, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, to provide a more theoretical perspective on the topic. Frankfort argues that “bullshit” differs from “lies” in that lies have some concern for the truth (if only to better integrate with it as a lie), whereas bullshit could not care less about what is true and what is not — it’s only motive is to convey an impression of the bullshitter, to provide the listener with the understanding that regardless of whether the bullshitter is correct, he or she is, at the very least, being sincere, and his or her sincerity is more important than whether he or she is right.

One can’t help but think of Pres. Trump again, whose every public appearance seems designed to convey a sense of authenticity and sincerity but whose every word and action only demonstrates the opposite. He doesn’t care if you fact-check him, because it doesn’t matter if he’s right. What matters is that he believes it, and that his audience believe he wouldn’t lie to them about that.

But my students have more to worry about than bullshit. An entire industry of willful miscommunication exists: headlines, articles, videos, tweets, Instagram photos, fake friend requests…there’s an entire economic niche of bot programmers, media copywriters, religious hucksters, and political malefactors whose financial futures depend on their ability to trick other human beings into believing things that are demonstrably false.

As media consumers, we charge face-first into these well-funded armies of bullshitters and liars each time we turn on the news or scan our feeds for headlines. If the truth is to be victorious, we must fight the bullshit and lies with everything we’ve got, and that doesn’t just mean rage and fervor; it also means with an understanding of how beliefs work, and how opinions can best be changed. It means respecting the dignity of people who have been hornswoggled, and sympathizing with the difficulty of admitting that one’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. It means understanding the modes of logic, and knowing when to include healthy doses of ethos and pathos in your argument. Finally, it means recognizing when the continuation of a discussion does more harm than the ending of it.

We all have responsibilities in this battle for the truth, but the goal for all of us must be the same. It isn’t to establish “our truth” as the dominator of discussions. It’s to re-instill the right of truth in the abstract, to remind people that words and deeds and facts and numbers matter. It’s our duty as critical consumers of information to respect the experiment that can be verified, the mountain that can’t be moved, and the logic that makes an argument valid and clear.

The process of doing so is not always simple. It can be time consuming and frustrating to chase after the truth, and even more frustrating to explain to someone else how they too can find it. But the difficulty does not release us from the duty.

It is a just war that we fight, and fight it we must.

Otherwise, and I don’t say this lightly: all that humanity has gained will be lost.

Using Dungeons & Dragons in the Classroom

This post is for teachers who are interested in using Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom. This is not to convince you that doing so is a good thing. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of articles on the web to persuade you of the educational value of roleplaying games; we don’t need one more of them.

But we do seem to need an article where a teacher takes the time to explain how he actually uses Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom — not the why, but the how.

I’ve been using Dungeons & Dragons as an educator for three years now, but until I started using it in the classroom, I had never played a single game. Two of my co-teachers used it one quarter, and I was lucky enough to share a corner of their classroom at the time. Through observation, I was able to learn the dynamics of the game without having to play the game.

The following quarter, I took over as Dungeon Master. It would be my first time at the table.

What I learned during my observation period was that Dungeons & Dragons is based on storytelling. It doesn’t really matter if you know the rules because there are plenty of ways to look them up, but it does matter that you understand the rules of storytelling.

For the past three years, instead of asking my students to learn about storytelling from reading works of literature, I’ve embedded them in the very fabric of it, asking them to make their own heroic decisions instead of reflecting on the heroic decisions of some third-party character. Through the effects of their actions on the story, they’ve experienced when narrative tension is working and when it is not; they’ve experienced the way a character’s motivations bring them into conflict with other people; and they’ve developed an appreciation for imaginative details, sensing when too much is too much and when too little is not enough.

In addition, playing the game increased their sense of self-worth. When their characters succeeded in the fantasy world, they received the same flood of accomplishment as their characters, which provided them with a visceral understanding of narrative catharsis and the chemical reward that comes from fulfilling a goal.

I didn’t do anything special during these first three years; all I did was play the game. I didn’t attach the game to any academic standard or break it down into a series of lessons. At the start of each course, I didn’t waste time explaining to the students why we were doing this. I greeted them as they walked in the door, opened our two copies of The Players Handbook (5th Edition), and asked them to follow the steps outlined in the book to create their first character. I didn’t ask if they knew how to play the game. I just told them to get started.

The first few times I ran a campaign, I found pre-designed quests on the Internet. I didn’t know much about campaigns, but I learned that there’s something called The Adventurer’s League, an official venue of Dungeons & Dragons. Restraining my search to campaigns that carried the seal of the league, I found enough (free) campaigns to get us started.

(The company behind Dungeons & Dragons recently launched a website called The Dungeon Master’s Guild, where players from around the world can share campaigns and resources, review each other’s work, and earn their reputation as DMs; you can think of it as an App Store for D&D — and it makes it a heck of a lot easier to find pre-designed campaigns nowadays).

After our first few campaigns, one of my students asked if he could be the Dungeon Master for our next game. I immediately agreed, told him how to find a campaign on the Internet, and a week later, off we went. This would be my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons from the characters’ side of the table. It was great. I didn’t push an agenda on either the DM or the other players. I simply sat with them as a peer and played the game.

A few months later, when I returned to the Dungeon Master’s chair, I didn’t want to use a pre-generated campaign. I had played enough times, I’d decided, to attempt a campaign of my own. I did not bring an educational agenda to this process. I imagined something I thought would be fun, and then I set out to create it.

At the time, I was reading several books on the French Revolution, and I decided to create a campaign where the player-characters would assist in a political revolution. I dressed the story in the obligatory accoutrements of medieval fantasy (instead of the peasants rising up against their king, a town of dwarves would rise up against their human overlords, the highest of whom would be a ). I then developed major plot points for the story and prepared a few battle encounters that I suspected the player-characters would want to engage in.

After about five or six hours of solid preparation, I was ready to lead what became a six-month long adventure. While the students didn’t have any homework, I found that I did. To stay at least a few steps ahead of them, narrative wise, I spent about an hour each week crafting the next few days’ worth of adventures. It was a creative prep for me, however, so it didn’t feel much like work — I wasn’t planning a lesson as much as writing a story. Prepping for class took time, yes, but the time it took was fun.

Last year, I taught two sections of Dungeons & Dragons. The first group had played together for a while, but the second included students who had never played before. To reduce my prep load, I taught my advanced students how to design campaigns on their own, showing them various topics in the Dungeon Masters Guide, advising them to consider the motivations of their non-player characters, and asking them to reconsider various details of their worlds, but mostly, I taught them how to be efficient with informational texts and how to stay a few steps ahead of their characters.

One student didn’t get to finish his campaign. Unfortunately, I’m only running one section this quarter and some of the players haven’t developed the social-emotional skills to be led by another student. So instead of letting him lead a campaign of his own, I am working with him on an independent project where he will prepare a campaign for publication on The DMs Guild. This student is a graduating senior, and I’m trying to show him how he can make a little bit of money if he’s willing to follow his passion.

The other section is a mix of experienced players and beginners, and because of that mix, I’ve decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of having the students spend the first few days with their heads in The Players Handbook (a necessary stage when creating a character), I’m going to have them play the experience of creating their characters.

I’m not going to tell them about any of the races or classes. I want them to birth their characters with their imaginations. If they imagine a crocodile with wings who can also weave magic, I want to honor that personification and ask them to honor it as well. We’re going to dramatize the process of developing proficiencies and skills, gaining gold and equipment, and earning the power of magic. They’re going live the experience of their backstories, and through that, they’ll learn how to develop themselves and their characters into daring adventurers. My students are rural and mostly poverty-stricken, but they’re going to experience, if only in their fantasies, the process a person must go through if they want something more out of life.

If you’re a teacher who is already persuaded to try roleplaying games in your classroom and you’re wondering how to do it, this is what worked for me: I simply sat down with the students and played.

Now, a little caveat. I teach at an independent school in Vermont, so I’m not accountable to the strict array of standards that apply to most public schools. My school’s standards include a large variety of social-emotional skills — e.g., cooperation, creative problem-solving, leadership, ethical decision making, the ability to empathize, etc. — and almost all of them can be satisfied by playing a standard game of Dungeons & Dragons. Thankfully, I don’t have a curriculum coordinator breathing down my neck.

But I imagine with just a hint of ingenuity that a motivated public school teacher could connect Dungeons & Dragons to whatever standards they are required to follow.

If you’re an English Language Arts teacher, I’ve asked my students keep a journal of their character’s adventures. I’ve asked them to write original backstories for their characters. I’ve quizzed them on their ability to find, read, and comprehend the sometimes-complex information in the text of their Handbooks. Dungeons & Dragons is a communications-based game; there’s enough in for the English Language Arts.

This year, as part of the experience of playing their backstory, I am going to ask each player to consider the social contexts of their hometown. They’ll decide on a governing structure for their town, detail its economy, and populate it with a greater or lesser sense of political diversity. Instead of analyzing existing societies, the students will create ones of their own.

My idea is to expand the range of skills the students develop by including a deeper connection to the social sphere. This will have the added benefit of increasing the academic value of the course because I’m targeting some of the standards my school has for Social Studies (most of which apply to any school’s standards for Social Studies).

The difficulty will be in integrating one character’s sphere with another and all the characters’ spheres with each other, but it’s necessary if they’re to experience the narrative catharsis previous students experienced. School starts tomorrow and I haven’t quite solved this one yet, but I trust the solution will come before its absence becomes a challenge (teaching, after all, does include a bit of faith).

But in the meantime, I’m just excited to get started.

I hope, sometime in the future, you will be to.

There’s More To Sex Ed Than Just Sex

How do you teach 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys not to objectify women?

I suspect the answer lies in empathy. You have to get them to understand what it feels like to become an object. That’s the only thing that would work. They’d have to step outside of their own lust and imagine being the unwilling object of that lust.

But you couldn’t approach something like that head on; they’d  laugh you out of the room. You couldn’t approach it from a perspective of media criticism either, because the concept would be too abstract for them to grasp it. You’d have to come at it on the sly, sneak it in under the cover of something else.

The something else couldn’t be academic, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones whose ignorant state of objectifying women could eventually lead to the criminal stage of assaulting them.

An easy answer is literature and film, since the best lessons are often communicated in the language of story — but again, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones who don’t read and who can’t sit still long enough to watch a whole movie.

So what is the hard answer? How do you teach 14, 15, and 16 year old boys not to objectify women?

Is it the kind of job that requires a woman to lead it, or maybe two women in tandem, or maybe a combination of the sexes, one to speak from the experience of the object and the other from the experience of the objectifier?

And if, for want of the students’ maturity, you can’t approach it head on, then how best to approach it?

Or maybe, in this instance, you just have to push past the maturity question and treat the subject as honestly as you’d treat math. Not by hiding it in something else, but by saying, straight up, “We’re going to talk about objectifying women,” and let the conversation go as it may, immaturity and all, until you finally get enough buy in on the seriousness of the topic that even a 14, 15, or 16-year-old boy will know enough to pay attention.

One out of every six women in America will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Nearly one in every two women will be the victim of some kind of sexual assault other than rape in her lifetime. Nearly 25% of rape perpetrators are under the age of 20.

This part of a young man’s education matters. And because it affects the way the person treats 50% of the world’s population, maybe it matters more than most other elements of their education.

If we’re to stop the violence on women, we need to do it by curing the systemic causes in our 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys. They are tomorrow’s college students and criminals, and they need to understand the difference between biological lust and the interpersonal violence that comes from sexual objectification.

It’s too important to leave out.

Freedom Isn’t Easy

I could tell you a lot of cool things about my school, but yesterday, the sheriff’s department escorted one of our students out of our school in handcuffs; and earlier this year, one of our former students (who had dropped out) was shot in the head while sitting in a parked car at two in the morning; and one of the people in the car when the gun went off was also a former student, and he went to prison soon after because, by being in the car that night, he violated his parole; and earlier last year, two other former students were accused (though not convicted) of stealing from their employers, with each incident independent from the other.

No matter how cool our school might be, the truth is that we attract some difficult kids, and while we try to provide them with every opportunity to take control of their education and, in the process, gain control of their lives, too many of them find the freedom too difficult to handle.

One of my students told me yesterday that they feel like they’re living in a role-playing game because even for the simplest of decisions, they sometimes roll a die to decide what they should do. When the student told me this, they were thinking of episodes in their life where they actually, physically rolled a six-sided die, but they were not connecting this anecdote to their immediate reality, wherein they were seated on the floor, consulting a new-age ripoff of Tarot cards for insight into their current predicament. They honestly didn’t see a connection between their inability to make simple decisions and their desire to seek out answers to life’s problems in a deck of commercially produced and professionally marketed cards.

Earlier in the class, for reasons I don’t need to go into, I found myself having to explain to this same student the market forces that lead to SPAM phone calls and emails, a conversation that resulted in the student returning a SPAM phone call they had received earlier in the day to demand an answer from the telemarketer as to how her company acquired the student’s phone number. The conversation did not go well; my student was being earnest and the telemarketer refused to budge from her script, leading me to have to provide explicit instructions as to how and why my student should simply hang up the phone, regardless of whether the telemarketer was done speaking on the other end.

All of which is to say that most of the students who come to my school have difficulty with the simplest things. It’s not that they are dumb — in fact, most of the kids I work with are incredibly bright — it’s that some simple but important things about living in society do not click into place for them like they do for you and me. They just don’t get it, and unfortunately, some of them never will.

We designed our school for one mission: to provide every student, regardless of their abilities, with the opportunity to be interested and engaged in their own education (including their social-emotional education). But so many of our students come to us without being interested or engaged in anything beyond their own drama, or what’s worse, their own trauma, which makes them unable to stay out of their own way.

Our tactic to overcome this is both simple and incredibly hard: We try to make them feel safe. At bottom, that means safe not just from something, but also to become something. The kids who come to us have rarely heard an encouraging word; they’ve been told they are worthless, and in some cases, they’ve been abandoned by their dearest family members, literally left alone in the world with no one to protect or care for them.

It’s no wonder they have trouble making decisions. They have zero self-confidence, and so they don’t trust themselves. Every decision they’ve ever made has led them to where they are now: kicked out of almost every school they’ve ever attended — some residential, some not, some institutional, some not — told that they don’t belong, told to get out, told that they’re a freak of some kind. Their parents, if they’re around, are rarely worth much, and what they are worth is often compounded with negative interest in their kids, which can often mean verbal, physical, or sometimes even sexual abuse, resulting in the child experiencing incredible pain and suffering at the hands of the people society tells them are supposed to love them more than anyone.

Why would they trust themselves? Why would they trust anyone?

And then we come along, offering these students with incredibly acute social-emotional needs a true progressive model of education — one that is student-centered and student-driven, where they’re asked not to do as they’re told but, instead, to do as they think they ought to.

What do we expect will happen? That they’ll all start singing kumbaya, and butterflies will descend from the heavens, and within days, they’ll each be as happy and as engaged as the students on a college brochure?

No. What we expect to happen is what happened today. One student will be escorted from the building in handcuffs. Another will have such an emotional crisis that they will collapse to the ground shaking and in tears. Another will scream so loud on the drive to school that their driver will have an actual panic attack in the car and be unable to feel her hands and feet. Another will refuse to comply with even the simplest of requests, choosing instead to physically wrestle with their teacher. Still others will actively avoid your best advice and refuse to work on the projects they need to exhibit publicly in just over two weeks.

Trying to give kids conscious and moral control over their freedom is a struggle. It’s a real struggle.

Thankfully, I’ve had enough days that were the complete opposite of yesterday to know that, with most kids, the struggle is worth it.

And so while I should expect days like today, I should also be ready to celebrate success whenever I can find it. Like the fact that yesterday two of my students donated their time to complete the duties of a staff member who had to leave early due to a family emergency. Or the fact that the day before, one of my students consulted with a professional in the student’s field of interest to verify the quality of their homework, and the student did so with only the most minimal of supports. Or the fact that, earlier in the week, another of my students, despite being incredibly tired and out of sorts and despite having a history of verbal diarrhea, found enough self-control to be respectful with their peers, their teachers, and the public for longer than I thought possible.

All of them did those things not because they were told to, but because, as free thinkers, it was what they thought they ought to do.

Some days are a struggle. But the struggle really is worth it.

A Serious Mistake

I had a moment with a student this week. It was early in the morning, and this student was not feeling up to it. I entered the classroom and already I could tell that something was wrong.

But for some reason, I didn’t do anything to help him. I was in my own head, feeling self-important as I entered the room and focused on my own agenda for how the next sixty minutes would go. While I saw him and knew something was wrong, I did not let that deter me from accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.

In my school, teachers share classrooms. While we are a one-to-one school, very few of our blocks are truly one-to-one. Even if we have one staff member assigned to one student, we often group students and staff together in the same space, even when they’re not working on the same subject. This allows the students and the staff to play off of each other in fruitful and often serendipitous ways.

So that morning, as I entered the classroom, I saw this student having a real problem, but he wasn’t my student for the next sixty minutes, so I passed him by and moved on to what I imagined my responsibilities were for that block, a combination of administrative obligations and student supervision (not teaching, per se, but supervision; my assigned student works independently that block). There were two other teachers in this shared space, so I assumed he was one of theirs, and hence, his problem was their problem.

About twenty minutes later, I noticed that the student was still sitting there, without any adult’s undivided attention, so I asked him, “Hey, who are you supposed to be with this block?” He looked up at me and said, “You.”

And then it hit me: he was absolutely right. It’s just that, until this day, he had worked side by side with the student who was working independently, and so I forgot he was assigned to me. And then, on this day, when it really mattered, I wasn’t there for him.

As soon as I realized my mistake, I immediately left behind every obligation I imagined I had and sat down with this student, made direct and clear eye contact with him, and asked him what was going on. Within moments, he had tears in his eyes, and for the next 30 minutes, we just talked. We didn’t talk about the problem directly (he doesn’t yet trust me enough for that), but we did talk about something else that was bothering him, and by helping him process that more minor problem, I believe I helped him talk about the real problem later on in the day with our school counselor (not to take anything away from the incredible skills of our school counselor, who is perhaps one of the most analytical and yet most present listeners I’ve ever met).

But that’s not the point. It’s not about the twenty minutes he and I spent together, having what I felt to be a meaningful conversation; it’s about the 35 minutes before that, when I told him with every fiber of my being that he didn’t matter (not enough for me to stop focusing on my goals anyway).

Unfortunately, at my school, there’s really only one thing our boss completely expects from us (most staff members have other obligations, but this is the big one), and that’s to be present with the kids we are assigned to. When a staff member is having an issue connecting with one of our kids, they can blame whoever does the schedule, but I’m the guy who does the schedule, so there’s no one left to blame but myself. In my capacity as the scheduler, I chose this student for this block; I knowingly committed myself to him; and that day, I forgot he was mine.

As I said, I didn’t solve my student’s underlying problem that day. And the truth is, I’ll never be able to. It’s a systemic problem that originates in the home, is diffused and exacerbated by society, and spilled onto the floor for everyone else to deal with. It’s the problem of being (or at least feeling like) an unwanted child.

Most of the students in my school have come to us as the last stop. There really isn’t anything after us except a bed in a state-run institution, and there’s not always enough beds. They’ve been told by almost every single adult they’ve ever interacted with that they’re not wanted. Many of them are in some kind of foster care, or living with non-parental relatives, or shuttled off into quasi- or state-paid-for apartments. They’ve been kicked out of every school they’ve ever attended, and sometimes they’ve even been kicked out of other schools like ours.

We are the last stop, and when they don’t make it with us, the next stop might not just be a state-run institution; it might actually be death.

I’m not trained to handle that kind of responsibility. But honestly, who is?

You might think, “Um….psychiatrists? psychologists?…you know…doctors?”

Okay, fine. But do you know how much doctors get paid? How much are you willing to pay in your taxes for some other kid’s education? Would it be enough to pay for a school full of doctors? And just one school or two? What about seven? What about 250? What about 98,271?

Until society decides to pay teachers like doctors (or pay doctors to be teachers), who are we willing to pay to be present with those kids whose next step might include a noose, or even worse, holding a loaded machine gun?

Me. That’s who.

You’re willing to pay me.

An adult who sometimes forgets what kid he’s assigned to. But also an adult who is willing, every single day, to sit down with any troubled young person and ask, with all my heart, “What’s going on?”

Expect Resistance

In the last week or so, there’s been a story going on in Vermont that, I’m told, has stirred a bit of national debate. Vermont Public Radio even dedicated over an hour of virtually uninterrupted discussion to it yesterday (including a re-run of the show in the evening), which was when I was told that its become a national story.

Last week, Middlebury College’s American Enterprise club (which is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute) invited a political scientist named Dr. Charles Murray to speak at the college. They reasoned that, with all of the conversations about how President Trump was elected because of the grievances of the country’s white males, it would be interesting to bring to campus the author of a recently published book about class divisions within that white demographic. However, the author of said book has been accused of “using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to the fight against racism and intolerance in all its forms and a recognized leader when it comes to keeping data on both local and national hate mongers. Due to the author’s designation (not to mention the published words that led to said designation), a sizable number of students and professors at Middlebury College challenged whether he should even be invited to campus, let alone given a stage and a microphone from which to disseminate his ideas.

It sounds as if reasonable efforts were made by the college to address the grievances of the protestors. The Political Science department that sponsored the invitation fully intended to prepare their students to understand the controversies surrounding Dr. Murray and to help them develop the skills to challenge the man’s ideas in public. It seems they even disseminated pamphlets on every chair in the auditorium to help the students speak their mind during the event, and when the President of the College introduced him, she stated that she “profoundly disagreed” with the man.

The Political Science department also prepared one of their colleagues to serve as a moderator during the talk, giving her specific instructions to challenge the speaker to his face.

Staff members throughout the college discussed the controversy in their classrooms in the week leading up the event and redesigned their syllabuses to give their students time before and after the visit to process their ideas and their feelings surrounding Dr. Murray’s talk.

On the day of the event, the protestors planned and staged an organize response. Just as Dr. Murray began to speak, students throughout the auditorium stood up in unison, turned their backs, and began to chant, and not in a “Hey hey, ho ho, Dr. Murray’s got to go”  kind of way (though some kind of similar chant did occur later), but rather, in a monotonous, considered, and dead-eyed kind of way, the product of what must have been at least half a dozen planning sessions in the days and hours leading up the event, including at least one or two full on rehearsals (please note that I’m making assumptions here).

Dr. Murray eventually left the stage. He and the moderator tried to continue the discussion in another room, sharing it with the audience via livestream, but the protestors began to act a little more chaotic at that point. It seems they may not have imagined that the event’s planners would develop a tactical response to their coordinated protest, and so, as will happen with a crowd, a lot of people had a lot of different ideas on what to do next .

The end result was that after the interview was finished, the college tried to escort Dr. Murray, the faculty moderator, and some others to an awaiting car, but the protestors wouldn’t let them pass, and push literally came to shove before Dr. Murray and the others could get into the car and drive away. In the scrum, the moderator was injured enough to go to the hospital and come out with a neck brace. And Dr. Murray, who is an elderly man, told the Boston Globe that he feared for his life.

It became a national story for the same reason Milo Yiannopoulos became a story when Berkley protesters prevented him from speaking on campus: the students of a highly reputable liberal college forcefully prevented a conservative voice from finding a safe space on their campus. It’s a story rife with irony, due to liberal stances regarding the sanctity of education and the sanctity of free speech.

If you believe that education is, first and foremost, about the development of a student’s critical thinking skills (as most liberals ultimately do), then why shield them from the real world’s marketplace of ideas, which includes millions of ideas that they will find offensive?

If you believe(as most liberals seem to) that words and ideas are the only things that should change the world (rather than, say, guns and money), then why respond violently when faced with words and ideas that offend you?

Both sides of the issue had strong points. I’m an absolutist when it comes to free speech, which means I completely believe Dr. Murray  had the right to speak, but it also means that I believe the protestors had the right to respond with whatever words they saw fit. In addition, Middlebury College has the right to invite whomever it wants to its campus, and the students of Middlebury College have the right to disagree with the college’s decisions.

With that being said, one of the guests made an interesting point. He is a sociology professor who was invited onto the radio show to defend the protestors. When the show’s moderator asked him some question that implied that every viewpoint deserves equal access, the professor remarked that the college already doesn’t provide equal access to all viewpoints because not everyone has the same amount of money to invite speakers to campus, and hence some voices are never heard simply because of differences in economic class.

This is the same as the argument behind campaign finance reform. If money = speech, then those who have more money have more speech; and if in a democracy, speech = the right to vote, then more money means more votes.

I don’t know a ton about the inner budgeting processes of private Vermont colleges, but what I’ve seen makes me think that the Political Science department at Middlebury College probably receives better funding than its Sociology department, if only because political science majors probably make more money than their sociology counterparts (which goes for those of both types who later go on to teach at a college). [But again, I’m making a lot of assumptions here].

According to the representatives on the radio, one of the things the protestors would have preferred about the event was for someone else to be standing on the stage who had equal footing with Dr. Murray, someone who was there with every endorsement of the college to challenge Dr. Murray’s ideas and teach the students some of his or her own — to stage the evening not as a moderated lecture, followed by questions (challenging or not), but as a debate between equals, and challenging all the way.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way, and what went down went down.

But what intrigues me about it is that — at least in the way its become a national story — it’s all about the concept of a safe space.

Conservatives claim that liberal colleges no longer provide a safe space for the expression of conservative ideas; liberals, meanwhile, claim that conservative speech offends them, and they ought to have the right to protect and defend themselves from any more violence (spoken or otherwise) coming at them from conservative quarters.

In other words: Conservatives want colleges to be a safe space, while liberals want the individual mind to be a safe space.

I agree with both of them. The trouble is that, for many liberals, college is where the mind first meets the road. They’re no longer protected by their parents or guardians, and they have to negotiate whatever comes at them on their own. That’s the whole point of thing.

But they’re also kids, and they’re gonna screw up once in a while, and sometimes when they do, someone’s going to get hurt and come out of the hospital wearing a neck brace. That’s what happens when kids screw up.

What’s important is what happens next. How do the adults around them model  what they could have done instead?

It sounds to me like both the protestors (staff and students) and the event planners (staff and students) handled the pre-game perfectly. They discussed the controversy with each other in a rational manner, and when they saw they would never persuade the other to do exactly what they wanted, they made plans for a potential conflict. The protestors considered the situation and decided a combination of “simultaneous dialogue” (i.e., using their numbers to speak over Dr. Murray) and general protests would be best. The event planners anticipated the protestors’ moves (to some extent) and reacted accordingly, hiring outside security and preparing alternative ways for Dr. Murray’s speech to continue (retiring to a quieter room and broadcasting his words to the audience via livestream).

This is where character and leadership comes in. The Middlebury protestors, like the Berkley protestors before them, are trying to convince the media that “outside agitators” started the violence. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I suspect in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. I’m sure at least one Middlebury student partook in the violence, as I’m sure at least one person who is not a student at Middlebury partook in the violence.

Regardless, the protestors claim this because they want to believe that they have character, that Middlebury students wouldn’t resort to violence when they find themselves as part of mob. Again, this may or may not be true.

But it provides the college with an opportunity to have the students practice the art of remaining an individual when standing in the middle of a mob, and then the art of leading that mob to achieve positive ends in a positive way. What should a Middlebury student have done when the protest grew beyond its planning committee’s control?

With the Internet and social media, mobs move too fast for anyone to control them. That’s how you get the Arab Spring. That’s how you get Ferguson.

I think liberals everywhere would agree that the Arab Spring and Ferguson definitely needed to happen. And that more of them need to and will happen in the future.

But how can tomorrow’s liberal leaders thrive in such an incredibly dynamic environment, where for every organized march on Washington, there’s three dozen half-organized, mob-overrun affairs?

The next generation must be able to navigate the grassroots world they’re moving into, a world where even the President of the United States bypasses traditional channels of communication in favor of Twitter. It may be true that, unless you’ve got millions of dollars (not necessarily your own), you can’t stand at a podium and have a microphone all to yourself; but its also true that for a few dozen bucks a month, you can stand with your smart phone and have a microphone the size of the Internet.

But in that world, how does someone lead when everyone is talking at once?

That’s what our youth activists need to learn, and that’s what our colleges need to teach them (interestingly, the sociology professor who was invited to defend the protestors on the radio dedicates at least part of his research to “exploring how anarchists organize online”).

Should Dr. Murray have been invited to speak on Middlebury’s campus? Should the protestors have been able to outshout him? Those questions are beside the point.

The question is: what should they have done next? The event planners planned to face resistance. In the future, youth activists should plan to face it too.