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Speak up! More student participation on campus

| Wednesday, February 14, 2018

On a cozy cab ride back to campus one November evening, a student leaned over, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Hey, you’re in my education class right? Aren’t you the one who argues a lot?”

To many students at Notre Dame, this comment would probably have been an insult. In typical contrarian style, I took it in stride. I really don’t mind being identified as the one who engages critically with other students in the classroom — that’s how I see it anyways. To everyone else in class, I might just be a nuisance.

As far as I know, laryngitis is not an infectious epidemic wreaking havoc here in South Bend. Yet it seems that more than half the student body has caught a bad case of the “will-not-participate.” Far too often professor queries are met with stony silence or only a few raised hands. Even outside the classroom, I’ve heard one too many stories from people (even seniors) whose peers outright refuse to engage in any conversation beyond the mundane and shallow.

What really confuses me is that every single student in every single class was accepted by the admissions department, which means they were smart and showed serious potential. I know those brains didn’t disappear after high school graduation. So where did they go? Why are the classrooms, dining halls and sidewalks of Notre Dame not filled will invigorating disputes or meaningful conversation? Why don’t more students feel free to speak their minds in class or out of it? Why is it a big deal for a student to argue and debate in class, the one place where those activities are supposed to happen most frequently and zealously?

If it isn’t laryngitis, why don’t more students speak up? My opinion is that there are a few root causes for this silence. I’ll proffer three different diagnoses and let you (the Notre Dame community) accept, reject or apply them as you will. Fair warning: as my cab ride classmate could probably tell you, I’m not one to mince my words. That being said I do not intend to isolate any particular student or group, merely to reveal this issue as a whole with the hope of changing our campus for the better.

As an additional qualification — and to avoid insulting every friend and peer who I’ve had a class or discussion with — I’d like to point out that there are many students who do participate with full heart and voice. I’ve witnessed incredible debates and deep conversations, and I commend all who continue to push themselves and others beyond the surface level.

I’ll begin with my harshest criticism: laziness. Wrestling with sincerely held beliefs and strong personal opinions isn’t easy, especially when attacks seem to be coming from every side. Notre Dame students are also constantly loaded up with classwork and full schedules (more on that later) which makes any additional intellectual endeavor extra taxing. Many classes include heavy reading loads too. But seriously? We are here to pursue truth, and if we don’t begin to do the readings and discuss the important questions now, when will we?

A recent graduate told me about a particularly trying moment of her senior year. When she sat down to a meal with friends, somehow the topic of climate change came up, but was immediately shot down because it was “too serious” for dinnertime conversation. Seems to me like most dining hall conversations steer clear of anything “serious.” I understand that the life of a Notre Dame student isn’t easy — it isn’t supposed to be — but we should all try a little harder to be better than the superficial “Hey, how are you?” “Good, how are you?” exchanges that are repeated ad nauseam on this campus.

Which leads to my second diagnosis, I think campus culture hinders deep and meaningful discourse because we worship the idols of careerism and busyness. No one is safe from this campus-wide phenomenon, personally I find myself bowing to the gods of Netflix and “resume builders” too often, yet for all of our full schedules and career prospects, we can’t lose sight of the present moment, the mere eight semesters we have to fill with as much truth-seeking as possible. If our daily conversations never go deeper than the shallows, or if we force ourselves to put on false masks of perfection — the perfect resumée the perfect interview, the perfect GPA, the perfect social life, etc. — our academic and intellectual community suffers as a whole, and we must take responsibility for that.

In line with this take on Notre Dame’s campus culture, I see self-censorship as a major cause of student silence. Not all students are extroverts; I understand that social anxiety and insecurity play a large role in keeping students silent. I am most concerned with students who self-censor because they believe their views will be insulted or dismissed. So if you’re able, set the good example that we are lacking, others will feel encouraged to join in the conversation (and get over their fears or shyness). Shake off the shackles of self-doubt and outside judgement. Offer contrary opinions and participate. We must pursue truth by speaking up — challenging ideas not people — to create a louder, more vigorous campus.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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