Empathy, Not Apathy

An open letter to my students.

Karla Jay

Dear Stu­dents,

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think that blogging or texting will get hundreds of thousands of people out in the the street. The Internet has turned you away from the world.

Where have we – your elders-failed? 

Last year marked the 40th anniver­sary of the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty upris­ings. The stu­dents had many griev­ances, includ­ing the university’s attempt to build a pri­vate gym in a pub­lic park and its involve­ment in the war in Viet­nam, as well as the war itself and the unpop­u­lar draft. This year marks the 40th anniver­sary of both the Stonewall upris­ing and Wood­stock. My involve­ment with a rad­i­cal fem­i­nist group, Red­stock­ings, also began four decades ago. I emerged from these events and groups as a rad­i­cal les­bian, fem­i­nist and paci­fist, com­mit­ted to a life­time of glob­al strug­gle and local issues.

Reflect­ing back on these cat­alyt­ic events, I won­der why you, my beloved stu­dents in women’s and gen­der stud­ies at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty, aren’t out at the bar­ri­cades in the fight against the inter­minable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wide­spread geno­ci­dal acts against women, the lack of equal­i­ty for the queer com­mu­ni­ty and evil­do­ing by the bank­ing industry. 

I have tried to inter­est you in local crises through involve­ment in com­mu­ni­ty out­reach cours­es in which you work two hours or more per week in bat­tered women’s shel­ters, at food pantries, in home­less shel­ters and with under­priv­i­leged chil­dren. I want you to become the next gen­er­a­tion of activists. About one third of you enjoy your stint and get over feel­ing that com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice is for felons. You stay on because you’ve bond­ed with your new com­mu­ni­ty, know­ing deep down that some­how you got more out of it than they did. (When I lost most of my eye­sight and became a recip­i­ent of social ser­vices myself I found out that it’s eas­i­er to give than to receive” is not a cliché but a hard truth.)

It seems to me, that many of you don’t see cur­rent issues” as con­nect­ed to you. That noth­ing is real” unless you’ve seen it on real­i­ty TV. The vio­lence in the world can’t match the lat­est hit film. Since there is no draft, attend­ing col­lege is no longer a pre­lude to going to Iraq or Afghanistan, except for those on ROTC schol­ar­ships. You think fem­i­nism is passé. For those of you who are white, racism is over, too, because Oba­ma is pres­i­dent. There is no gen­der or racial gap at your min­i­mum wage jobs at Aber­crom­bie, The Gap and as stu­dent aides, but you haven’t entered the real work force yet. There’s a Stonewall Coali­tion at the uni­ver­si­ty, but you don’t need that because New York City has so many queer bars and you have the fake I.D. to get in. You’re oh-so-out, though most of you can’t apply the LGBTQ words to your­self in my queer courses. 

I observe your lives. You are smart and can do things via com­put­er I can only dream of. But few of you read a news­pa­per or even online news sites. How­ev­er, you are con­stant­ly tex­ting and twit­ter­ing – open­ing e‑mail seems too dat­ed. You want the news to be as brief and fast as Twit­ter; you would like class­es to move along in some more amus­ing for­mat like ani­mé. You avoid doing research if it involves books; the text you read is on your cell. 

Call me old-fash­ioned, but I don’t think that blog­ging or tex­ting will get hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple out in the street. If Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. had blogged I have a dream” on Face­book, how many would have twit­tered back, Yeah, dude, I had a dream last night, too.”

Life online has turned you away from the world around you. This vir­tu­al life is more real to you than plan­et Earth. As Tay­lor McHugh, one of my activist stu­dents put it, Stu­dents feel apa­thy, not empathy.” 

When I was a stu­dent, the mimeo and dit­to machines were the clos­est thing we had to going viral. Maybe some of us went out because we had noth­ing else to do, but there was only so long we could stay inside scru­ti­niz­ing our Ché Gue­vara and Madame Binh posters. It was also so much less dan­ger­ous back then to risk los­ing a col­lege degree over an uprising.

I under­stand how dif­fer­ent your world is from mine. I know how much hard­er many of your lives are than mine was 40 years ago. My total under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion at Barnard cost approx­i­mate­ly $16,000, which my schol­ar­ship cov­ered part of. Accord­ing to US News and World Report, for exam­ple, the aver­age indebt­ed­ness of a 2008 Pace grad­u­ate was $29,622. The min­i­mum wage jobs that I worked at for $4.00 per hour should be $16 by now, not $7. 25. I shared an apart­ment on the Upper West Side with three oth­er stu­dents for under $75 each per month. 

I know that some of you have one job on the week­ends, anoth­er at night; some of you work late as wait­ers, show­ing up the next after­noon to class hard­ly able to stay awake. (I know one of you worked all night at a super­mar­ket, study­ing by sit­ting between the plas­tic bag hold­ers when there were no customers.)

Some of you help sup­port a sin­gle moth­er or sib­lings, but most of you sim­ply have oth­er pri­or­i­ties. You want things: brand-name clothes and shoes, iPods, iPhones, flat-screen TVs, fast lap­tops. Acquir­ing them takes weeks of work. Your drug of choice is con­sumerism, and you are its slave: You are Gen C, not Gen Y. 

If I blame any­one, though, it is my col­leagues and those of us on the Left who fail to lead and involve you. 

I could blame the reces­sion, but even in times of pros­per­i­ty, most fac­ul­ty mem­bers teach and go home. For most, there’s no sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty to stu­dents out­side the class­room. Some, most­ly from the human­i­ties and social sci­ences, sup­port­ed an SDS upris­ing against Pace University’s for­mer pres­i­dent a few years back and helped oust him. It’s eas­i­er and more lucra­tive for fac­ul­ty to research, teach extra cours­es or become a con­sul­tant on the side. For some, teach­ing IS the oth­er job.

We on the Left haven’t done our jobs. Some orga­ni­za­tions, such as the Left Forum, Third Wave Fem­i­nism and NAR­AL, encour­age on-cam­pus recruit­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion. But we prob­a­bly would be appalled if our stu­dents want­ed to do more than sim­ply sup­port our efforts. We have not encour­aged them to become lead­ers, instead of fol­low­ers. In our ear­ly twen­ties, many of us found­ed or led orga­ni­za­tions. Now we are still lead­ing them, while the young remain pow­er­less. They are the new women, rel­e­gat­ed to mak­ing sand­wich­es and answer­ing phones or e‑mail rather than tak­ing charge. The more Left groups became orga­nized, the less the young were to be found in the hier­ar­chy. Many groups suf­fer from founders’ syn­drome,” in which the orig­i­nal lead­ers are still there and not plan­ning to step aside any time soon.

If we cher­ish our goals more than our own prowess, it is time for activists and tenured rad­i­cals to see our­selves as men­tors and part­ners rather than lead­ers. This is how I now approach edu­ca­tion, but shift­ing my atti­tude meant that I had to relin­quish much of my pow­er in the class­room. And that in turn has forced the stu­dents to take charge of some of the teach­ing, to aban­don their com­fort­able pas­siv­i­ty. It was and still is scary for all of us to some degree, but my bat­tle-wise col­leagues and com­rades need to under­stand not only how much we can teach the young, but also how much we can learn from them if we will only listen. 

Kar­la Jay, is Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Wom­en’s and Gen­der Stud­ies at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author and/​or edi­tor of 10 books, includ­ing Tales of the Laven­der Men­ace: A Mem­oir of Lib­er­a­tion (Basic Books, 1999).

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