Brown U. Needs to Check Its Privilege

“Maybe we could talk about the American Dream and whether that even exists anymore – whether it’s for everyone, for just a select few, whether it’s dead or alive, that sort of thing”, I said. “We could even talk about why Sonia Sotomayor is where she is and why her cousin Nelson ended up dying so young.”

“Oh yeah, what did he die from again? A drug overdose?”, the professor responded.

“AIDS, actually.”

“Ohhhhh right right right. That must have been in one of the parts I skipped over… OOPS! Did I say that out loud? (Laughter.) Yeah, I read most of this book when I was semi-conscious on a plane at the beginning of the summer, and the rest I just skimmed.”

What you just read was a small excerpt of the most troubling meeting of my academic career. This year, I volunteered to facilitate First Readings Seminars – Brown’s summer reading and discussion program for incoming freshmen – with faculty and staff who had also volunteered to facilitate. The book selected for the Class of 2020 was Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World (a fascinating and very personal read that I would highly recommend). But my story isn’t about Sonia Sotomayor, what she wrote, or even what I thought of her book.

My story is this: academia is squandering their intellectual responsibility and replacing it with egotism, elitism, and manipulation. In this meeting in particular, I had a front-row seat.

The fact that this particular professor didn’t actually read the assigned text is only the tip of the iceberg. She also:

  • Demeaned my socioeconomic status (“’Impostor Syndrome’ is when minority or low-income students feel like they don’t belong at colleges and universities, even after they’re accepted… though we don’t need to talk about that because I find it hard to believe anyone at Brown comes from anything but a place of high privilege.”).
  • Candidly admitted that she didn’t care about the assigned text (“I mean, why should I even care about Sotomayor’s personal life? Who cares if she got a divorce?”).
  • Insulted and degraded students’ responses to the text (“Oh yeah, that kid whose name sounded Jewish but was actually Hispanic? I couldn’t believe what he said… I put a big ‘X’ right through his paper.”). And:
  • Openly admitted her intention to use this discussion section as a means to advance her own political beliefs (when talking about her own opinions of criminal justice reform: “I’m sorry, I’m rambling again… I shouldn’t be doing that, seeing as this *air quotes* isn’t about me forcing my beliefs on you (laughter).”
  • (And yes, these are all actual quotes).

I could have dealt with someone who was honest about their intentions for the discussion. I could even have dealt with a co-facilitator who wanted to use politics to drive the discussion section. That certainly would have sparked conversation and debate! I have no qualms with good-natured, wholehearted disagreement: isn’t that what these exercises are for?

But I have a problem with a professor who rejects an honest investigation of the truth in favor of political indoctrination. This professor had no intention of ever discussing the book. She hoped to be paired with an intellectually timid student, one who had been coddled by the same “safe spaces” she lauded at the beginning of our meeting and who had been taught what to think rather than how to think. Once that happened, she could twist, bend, and contort Sotomayor’s words (the few of them that she read) to advance her own particular political agenda under the guise of a free and open discussion. And, in doing so, another class of students could be exposed to the same kind of watered-down, mediocre experience she calls “education”.

I have a problem with a professor whose flippant remarks insult anyone who does not look or think like her. To assume that “nobody from Brown comes from anything but a place of serious privilege” denies and further marginalizes my experience as a low-income student. To have the audacity to cross out an entire student response – to the book that this professor, mind you, did not read – shows arrogance and a disregard for dissent. I cannot say for sure whether this elitism is a product of her position as a professor, but my best guess is that the intellectual isolation afforded by the post certainly contributes.

I have a problem with the fact that this professor will continue to prey on unsuspecting students. In underhanded ways, she will continue to seek out unsuspecting, unsure, and uneducated students. Whether they simply do not know enough about the topics to have an informed conversation, are adjusting to a new environment and are looking for something to latch onto in the face of their deracinated identity, or are in newfound positions of power and are not sure what course to chart, these students will fall under the gaze of this professor. Many of them will, in turn, emulate the trendy elitism and disdainful confidence they see displayed.

Some will not. Some will have the intellectual fortitude and the confidence in reasoned discourse to withstand the effects of manipulation – being ignored, being ridiculed, being disrespected, discredited, and finally discarded. Some will stand up and refuse to be parrots for elitism, will refuse to accept the given narrative and will question with boldness for themselves. Then, while holding to the truth, they can speak without fear.

I stood up. She backed down. And on Monday, when it’s time for our discussion, I’ll be taking the lead.

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