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Degrees of Separation: Helping Our Students Find Safe Spaces for Thinking and Being


Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal, taking a deeper look at current events, ideas, and trends. He feels that it is clear that we–Americans–are being challenged to examine ourselves, re-assess our principles, values, and ideals; to challenge our pre-conceived notions of ourselves; to then perhaps move towards a fresher perspective.

"Can you help me?" she asks. She looks doleful, head tilted to one side. She hints a smile.

It's work for her, getting out a smile - I can tell.

"What do you need?" I respond and smile for her. "Tell me."

"I don't know. I'm not sure," she says shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head no. "I wish I knew. I don't know what I'm doing, I guess. What happens next? I mean: where am I going? Only the kids going to Wall Street seem to know what they're doing. What about the rest of us? I have no idea."

Living in extreme compression, as we do in academia—12 to 14 week semesters, which are more like 10 and 12; the ever increasing complexity of disciplines and their idiosyncratic literacies we're asked to master; the weight of the ongoing mantra: succeed, excel, achieve, be noted, and all this in an affronting socio-economic-political climate where opportunity and resources are shrinking - we all know this, students especially; the added burden of the great cost of a college education, mounting debt—it's not surprising that students, faculty too, are desperate for safe spaces to explore their place in what we experience as a progressively hostile, indifferent world.

But safe spaces are few and far between in the academy—or anywhere else it appears; they've been squeezed out by excellence and efficiency, harbingers of an always ongoing anxiety students know comes in merciless waves, continuously. Nose to the grindstone, head down—How are you? Busy, busy, busy, way too busy—we keep fighting for distinction, for efficacy, productiveness. It's a conveyor belt whose narrative says that if you just hang on, there will be a place for you somewhere down the line. And nothing else matters.

This is how humanity lost its footing—in a grand illusion. And the day comes when the student looks around and it's over. It's a desperate moment, one of many students face during their academic journeys.

The only safety net are a few professors, a few mentors students must work to find. A needle in a haystack that helps alleviate the anxiety; that tries to give understanding, and softens the landing into a world of false promises and beyond what students have been told about inclusiveness, multiculturalism, identity politics and tolerance - and never about the primacy of justice, which is, after all, what students are hankering for. Are we not all?

"I don't know what I've learned," she says. "I don't know what I know. I certainly have no idea what I want to do. What do I do now? It's over. Can you help me? Can you help me with that? How do I know what to do next?"



Students are looking to realize themselves—who they are and how they want to live. How they might "fit in." But fitting in no longer seems plausible. Our ancient wisdom, our institutions, private and public, our government, education—all of it has gotten us to this point. And what is this point?

Lisa M. Dolling, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology, in her article, "To Help Students Succeed Professionally and Personally, Teach the Art of Being Human," says that,

Among the many false dichotomies fostered by the continuing debates surrounding higher education, one that I find especially disconcerting is that which pits the professional against the personal. While it is expressed in a variety of ways, it boils down to this: Either you believe the purpose of going to college is to be able to secure a (preferably high-paying) job, or you think there is something more intrinsically valuable to be gained from the years spent earning a degree. My question is: When did these become mutually exclusive?

When did these become mutually exclusive? indeed. But a better question might be: When did the University lose its soul so much so that we now find ourselves having to teach an art called Being Human? When did the University lose its humanity? Has the University contributed to our inhumanity?

Bill Readings, in The University in Ruins, places the change at the moment "Americanization" takes hold, which he defines as "less a process of national imperialism than the generalized imposition of the rule of the cash-nexus in place of the notion of national identity as determinant of all aspects of investment in social life. 'Americanization,' that is, implies the end of national culture." And, I'd say, the rise of the ideology of the corporation. Corporatism.

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, American Universities become corporations like any other. We lost the sense of forging ideas in impure spaces and metamorphosed into a place that carries forth the illusion of purity and perfection, efficiency as a recipe for hope. Any idea of change, of progressive thinking, even of creative disruption, in this new corporate-academic space, is already seen as delusional and deliberately deceptive by the modes of "Americanization."

Because of this narrative line, the American University has become the envy of the world; parents see admission to great schools as recognition of their children's achievements and enrollment as a guarantee of a bright future. But, as Harry E. Lewis remarks in Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, "universities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students. They succeed, better than ever, as creators and repositories of knowledge. But they have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen—and nineteen-year-olds into twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings."

Can you help me? means I want to be a better human being; it means I want a larger purpose for my life—but we've failed to provide the adequate—and messy—room for this inquiry into the self to take place. And even the student heading to Wall Street is unsure of her purpose. Lewis calls this "hollow excellence."

The place that in bygone days was about finding yourself, no longer is—and finding oneself in this world, today, is harrowing. Finding oneself and coming to the realization that perhaps you want to go another way, a larger purpose for my life, is even more frightening since it requires questioning ruling ideologies.

Students are aware of this. For many it is easier to go along because it's not surprising that this level of questioning, for students, and all of us, is difficult terrain psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.

For me—and many of us in the academy—we've experienced this change by actually changing into guides; we open spaces for students to enter and examine themselves, the ideas they're wrestling with, their confusion. My curriculum is about the heart and soul of the student - her humanity, who she is, why she's confused, what she sees. I purposefully seek material that will compel students to look inward, then speak out. I purposefully ask students to write about themselves—Yes, "I" is to be used. I'm involved in helping eighteen and nineteen year-olds turn into twenty and twenty-one-year olds. This is an honorable form of community service; it composes a civilization, humanity.

We're a loosely connected group of faculty-mentors-guides, primarily because the challenges we face with our students are so varied. So we must rely on stories. We have to put these together, use them as guides ourselves, forms of light and advise since, for the academy, this is uncharted terrain. We've never worked in such conditions.

So I'm telling you a story of one such moment of confusion suffered by a senior, standing in the middle of the Davis Family Library, at Middlebury College, in Vermont, with just a couple of months to go before the (false) security of campus life is over. A trap door opened and she fell through. She's looking for another door to open so she can walk through. She accepts the difficult that comes with this action—and she's frightened of it.

"I don't know what I should do," she says.

"Should?" I ask.

"Yeah. Should. I don't want to make a mistake. We always should do something right, right?"

"I'm sorry to say that it's all about making mistakes. Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem about it. Ode to Failure. There's no owner's manual telling us how to live, which paths to follow, what to do," I tell her.

This singular statement opens her up. I can see her glow suddenly. Smile effortlessly.

"There isn't, is there? Huh." It's as if a new world has opened up - there's a door open.

"No. There's nothing that says you should go to Wall Street - or to do anything else, for that matter. No one says, Join the military."

"Yeah," she says, her mood changing. "Yeah. I don't have to do anything I don't want. That's right. I can be who I want to be."

"You're a kind, generous person. So many people come to you for guidance," I tell her. "You're an excellent guide to your friends. You give them great advise. You give a lot of yourself. You've worked hard on yourself these last four years. You doubted yourself and you've come through to the other side and you have endless possibilities," I say. "Trust that you're instincts have been right on all along. They have. Trust yourself."

"I can do something with that," she says. "You're right," she says emphatically as if responding to a coach's half-time locker room talk. "Yeah. I've done well in this place. It's been hell. But I'm a different person now. Yeah. I've done something. I can tell."

"You can do something with what makes you feel good, what fulfills you, what connects you and people. That's who you are," I tell her.

The first step is to "abandon" something or other—yourself—which is required of all of us searching. This needs a partner, someone that can guide, that can listen for the soundings deep inside a person; in doing so, this changes the person - and the guide, the mentor, too. Students today are looking for these relationships to unbound the tightness in their chests, to undo the feeling that their futures are precarious, and to find the courage to take that step into an unknown and strive to be good, to be tolerant, to continue an ongoing life of introspection with an eye towards justice.

Courage, Aristotle wrote, is the highest of human virtues because without it we're unlikely to practice any other virtue. The University, "Americanization" and corporatism have created fear in all of us; we fear making hope visible—it's formidable work against an ideology that says we must fear the Other, that by design separates us. But courage leads to hope - and hope is what students are looking for; its strength is uncanny because it refuses to give up, it is revolt, a refusal to be enslaved. Human nature refusing to be classified.

This story is an opening, a first step towards other stories, which we must share, about hope and courage and the development of creative spaces in education that will remove students from the false promises of a conveyor belt defined by excellence without a soul; this story is about the need to empower many more voices to speak from within the compressed spaces we inhabit in our society. With guidance from these stories we can find our way back to humanity. We don't need to teach Being Human, we merely have to take back being human.

Read More from Hector Vila here

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