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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Audacity of Action

A classroom in the Bell Athletic Center is found with a homophobic slur on the blackboard that references the desks turned upside down as a seating arrangement for gays. A Black Student Union flier in a residence hall has the word is defaced. A ROTC student gets jeered when he walks on campus in uniform. The "N" word is posted on a electronic message board. A neighbor calls the Dean at his wit's end about the behavior of Trinity students on his block while an alumna writes to complain about the drunken comments (including dropping the F-bomb) by a fan at a Trinity football game.

The Commitment to Excellence in the Student Handbook states that "the University strives to create an atmosphere in which basic civility and decency are expected, mutual respect are fostered, and sound religious faith and expression are encouraged."

Some have apparently not gotten the message. That's too bad, because the outliers do not reflect the general goodness in the souls and consciences of the majority of our students. Now more than ever our students show through their speech and action a genuine caring for the community and the world, and a global perspective absent just a decade ago. But as any team, company, college administration, political party, profession, or fraternity is judged by the negative actions of a few, then our students will be judged, at times, the same way.

So where is the disconnect between what is expected in this community of scholars and the actions of a few? Perhaps it is just simple mathematics. In any sized group a certain percentage will be knuckle-heads. Maybe it is the nature of the millennial generation, raised on Reality TV and shock radio, anything goes and well, its only words. Perhaps people are de-sensitized by the media they are constantly fed and only want sensitivity when they are the ones being offended.

Hate-speech codes have been shot down by the Courts because they take away the free speech of others. Colleges and Universities, espousing values of diversity, openness, civility, and care desperately want to create an environment where all students feel welcome to share perspectives and to feel comfortable where they live and study. But creating rules to demand respect never work. As with those who protest tasteless art, the attention then is drawn to that which deserves it the least. On campuses, the argument becomes about speech, not inclusion. (Note that at Trinity there are no restrictions on speech or even assembly, which often are detailed in time, place, and manner policies.)

So does the institution set up workshops, conferences, and meetings to try to wring the incivility and insensitivity from students? It might help, but more often than not, the audience who needs it the most is nowhere to be found.

It is the general responsibility of the Student Affairs staff to promote and cultivate the values of civility, citizenship, and caring in the student body. It is paramount that the faculty educate students about sexism, racism, homophobia, and more. But mostly, it is students who need to hold one another to a higher standard - to not accept that "boys will be boys," as former Dean Coleen Grissom oft stated - to hold one another to a higher standard of respect and care. It was the students who developed the Trinity Honor Code after all.

Until yesterday it seemed all that many people in the country had was hope. Now it is time for more. Our students who exercised their civic responsibility to vote need to see that this was only the beginning. It is time now to hold one another accountable, every day, in every setting, to make this place collectively better and to accept nothing less than civility and honor. It is time to act.


Anil Bakshi said...

Good behavior and Tolerance begin at home. Parents inculcate (or are supposed to) these values by word and deed from infancy onwards.

In college, most kids will remain true to type, with some variations because of peer pressure. Enforcement of Good Behavior normsis of limited efficacy.

VMS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VMS said...

Be careful Dean...."""knuckle-heads"""....they may think you are calling them a name (hehehe - cute!).

I also agree with Anil; however, I do not care for the word "tolerance" as it is being taught today. Every time, I say the word, it's like I'm having to "tolerate" saying it! Have we taught our children to just "tolerate" others (definition = to suffer to be or to not judge) instead of instilling a value of holding in high estimation and honor others because they are humans! I much prefer the grand word "RESPECT". If we could truly respect that each of us are unique, specially designed (look at our DNA), and classified as human (which is defined as having the feelings and dispositions proper to man; kind, benevolent, tender, and merciful) then we wouldn't have to teach tolerance. But woe, the other aspects of "human" seem to push there way to the surface of our life. As Anil says so nicely, these values should be taught and demonstrated through-out the lives of our students starting at a very young age. Many students have not been taught in this manner. They could honestly lack the instructions and understanding of even tolerance because of their own personal history. Many are so conditioned (set in their own way) by this time, that trying to "re-condition" them toward tolerance or respect" may be useless.

Yet, there is always hope. Just as Anil says, it really is not the responsibility of the college to instill these values, but by the (as you said) examples of others students who have had instilled in them a heart of respect, that (maybe) "knuckle-heads" would be able to understand. The most useful way one changes heart, is when a similar situation happens to them, then usually their eyes are opened and their "life-value-system" is revisited.

So encourage a "battle-cry" of respect and encourage Trinity students to stand-up for others through their deeds and words.