Questions and Answers with Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman

Marjorie Malpiede / December 16, 2016

As a former student activist and current education historian at the University of Pennsylvania, Jonathan Zimmerman has something to say about higher education’s role in social change. His new book, “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know,” raises questions about the effectiveness of a new form of student activism sprung from what he calls the “psychologizing of politics.”

His concern that political correctness is inhibiting change-producing dialogue on campus may appear anti-progressive; but at a time when liberal activists on and off campuses are feeling besieged and defeated, Zimmerman’s words may serve to reactivate a new social change agenda for which he is so obviously committed. With this as context, we talked about a variety of related topics, including how colleges address and perhaps shape student mental health and the way teaching and campus culture affect the type of graduates we are producing.

How have you seen student activism change over the years, and what have been the values and drawbacks of those changes?

I think that students learn a lot by engaging in political activity both on campus and off. As always in history, the questions are about how and why? In this regard, some things have changed and some haven’t.

In the ‘60s, students were deeply concerned about racism, both on campus and off campus. I think that concern has been steady through the years and has even gained momentum, which I regard as positive, but I think there are some differences too, which I see as problematic.

The first one is in the area of what I call the psychologizing of politics. Many, though not all, of the student protests today are phrased in terms of psychological idioms. We’re against racist speech or a number of other offenses because of what it does to the individual psyche. The reason I think it’s problematic is that I don’t think it plays very well in political dialogue. In the political sphere, to protect the sensitivities of one individual is often and unfortunately taken as excluding another. We certainly saw this play out vividly in the presidential election.

I think that psychological idioms are conversation stoppers rather than conversation enhancers, specifically because they are so subjective. If you said to me that you were traumatized by something that I said, how could I respond to that? I can’t say if you were traumatized or not. I don’t know what you’re feeling. Should I question that feeling, perhaps I’m re-traumatizing you, so perhaps the proper response by me is to validate you. These are all idioms of psychology and I just don't think they promote discourse very well.

These idioms aren’t new. We can see them and hear them from earlier eras, but I think they’ve become much more prominent in recent years – in some ways, for genuine and good reasons. There is so much more awareness about mental health in our culture, and I regard that as entirely positive. But I do think we have to grapple with some of the problematic outcomes, even if they are unintended.

What would you do differently?

One thing I would like to see is a separation of the psychological and the academic. I think the psychological idioms are inhibiting the kind of discussion we need. If I’m teaching in a class and I make a comment about slavery and someone is so traumatized by this that he or she wants to drop the course, I think that person needs mental health services. But I don’t think that person’s subjective experience should have anything to do with the academic decisions we make and the moral discussion about the purpose of school or even the presence of racism. All of these things are real subjects of discussion, but when we mix the academic and psychological, when we make mental health a measure of academic propriety, we can’t really have the discussion we need.

Do you think students consider themselves more like consumers these days? If so, what are the implications of that?

Yes, especially in the goods and services that universities provide. Some of these services, let’s be clear, I think are entirely legitimate, like mental health. But come on, have you seen some of the new dorms? The new gyms? The new dining halls? They’ve become a metaphor for this problem. I don’t think it’s new but I do think that as tuition has risen and as universities have stepped up their competition with each other for tuition dollars, I think that it’s become enhanced.

There are some of us who are old fashioned enough to believe that what college should do more than anything else is to force you to grapple with the question of what a good life is. My fear about some of these goods and services is that, prima facie, we’re answering that question for the students. What’s a good life? A life with lots of nice stuff? That’s one answer. And frankly, I wouldn't begrudge someone who gave that answer. It’s not mine, but it’s an answer. My problem isn’t with the specific answer, it’s with the institutions answering the question for the students.

Do you think colleges have an obligation to create better people?

Absolutely. I would question anyone who is involved in this enterprise who doesn’t think the same way. Why are you here? To help them get a better job? Is that your goal? It strikes me that some kind of moral improvement has to be at the heart of your mission or you can’t be an educator.

Now, moral improvement can take a million different forms and also, let me emphasize, people can disagree. I’m not saying my vision of moral improvement is yours or should be yours. What I’m saying is education is empirically a moral act. Aristotle said that education is both political and moral because every educational act or statement involves an implied vision of what life is worth living.

I don’t think it behooves us to pretend otherwise. But to go back to your question, I think that we’re at this moment where there are moral questions that in some ways have been diminished. Students today are taking a very instrumental view toward education. It is something they do to get from A to B. I understand that, and I don’t begrudge them that because they're coming of age in a different economy than the one I grew up in.

Because of this moment and these economic anxieties, I think that there is somewhat of a moral crisis in higher education. I know those are pretty big words, but I do believe it. If we’re all charging after individual riches, how do we create any kind of collective ethos surrounding the search for truth? How do we get kids to think about larger questions of meaning and purpose when the purpose in life is to get a lot of stuff? I don’t think that’s a sustainable vision.

How do you think colleges should address mental health? What should colleges be focusing on?

Look at the numbers and rising incidents of stress and other things on campus. Is that because people are more willing to access the services and there is less stigma surrounding them? If so, that’s a great thing. Is it, on the other hand, a function of some of the decisions we’ve made as a community about what is valuable, or a function of the academic and social environment that we’ve created? If so, that’s on us.

I think this is one of the key research questions, for all of us.

I think that part of the problem of this mental health metaphor is that it also runs the risk of socializing students to feel injured. Sociologists talk about “feeling rules,” insofar as feeling is a subjective thing, it’s personal, and yet we know from research that the social rules we set up surrounding the feeling do affect peoples’ subjective states of mind. They do so in each differently because we’re all subjective beings, but the rules do have biases, as a sociologist would say. These rules bias us toward feeling a certain way even though they don’t determine it. What I worry about with these metaphors on campuses is that we’re socializing people to feel trauma, to feel injured, to feel insulted, and I just don’t know if that does them any favors. I also worry, as somebody whose family has seen a good deal of depression, about emptying these terms of meaning by stretching them beyond where they should go. If everything is a trauma, then what is trauma?

Some of these students say they were traumatized by a statement in a class, and sometimes I feel like saying to them, ‘I want you to go to a Syrian refugee center and I want you to tell the people there with a straight and honest face that you were traumatized by a professor’s remark.’

We are reducing the meaning of these terms. When I hear someone describing something really bad as a “lynching,” I just want to scream. Whatever it was might have been terrible, but it wasn’t a lynching. If you think it was, you don’t know enough about lynching.

Personally, I am willing to entertain the idea that part of the mental health problem on campus is in some way related to the fact that the students are not particularly engaged in their classes and their learning because some of the professors aren’t. Look, this is no secret. At every level of higher education, the best indicator of your advancement both financially and in terms of your title is the percentage of your week that you devote to research. It’s also inversely related to the amount of time you spend on your teaching.

I think this has had some very troubling consequences. It has diminished the important role of teaching. If what we want is to engage our students in a more informed and wide dialogue about the purpose of life, we won’t do that unless we enhance the importance and status of the teaching function.