A Socratic campus

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

On Tuesday night, I was sitting in a room with 100 other people watching President Obama’s State of the Union Address. Though the speech was inconsequential, meandering and anecdotal, it engaged the small crowd gathered in Independence, OH. Throughout the speech, audience members, some louder and more boisterous than others, reacted with questions about statements the President delivered. However, and perhaps obviously, those questions would never be answered. The impetus one needs to ask those questions, though, separates the content and sedate among us from the active and engaged.

Another example—while sitting in class this week, I was presented with the opportunity to hear from Robert McChesney, a world-renowned scholar in the study of journalism and politics. Though McChesney’s talk, much like the President’s, was meandering and anecdotal, he finally settled on a theme that truck at the heart of modern society and increasingly, campus life. Speaking about media and its perceived “allegiance” to government, he said that journalists have become afraid to ask questions. There are certain questions that aren’t asked, and cannot be asked.

But giving an example of when that was not true, McChesney highlighted that through modern technologies and individualism, some questions get asked, depending on the impetus of the questioner to ask them.
This extremely philosophical discussion becomes central to modern life for college students. Living on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, there is little I do that is not controlled, managed or overseen by some level of university administration. Weekend activities aside, I would imagine this statement is true for most students.

Walking across campus, students complain about food, living space, classes, etc., directing their problems at the university. The administration, to use a grammatical explanation, is the subject of these sentences. The gag has grown to such proportions that it permeates social media and the internet. Self-endorsed comedians utilize photos of President Barbara Snyder (the de facto face of the administration) to satire the university’s decision to close school, keep school open, provide shuttles for students and not clean sidewalks. And that was this week alone. It appears that the student body knows exactly who is in control of university policy, and has direct questions for the administration.

However, those questions don’t get asked. For example, as the snow fell and sidewalks were covered in a layer of grey slush, as students slipped and the university narrowly avoided a series of injury-related lawsuits, those same students complained about the lack of preparation and the pitiful efforts the university took to clear walkways and roads. However, I would venture a guess that none of those complaints were aired to those with the ability and authority to get something done. (To those interested, that would be Vice President of Campus Planning Stephen Campbell and Facilities Maintenance Director Eugene Matthews.) Instead, students went about their days continuing to fall, continuing to complain about the horrid conditions.

This is an extremely obtuse example, but the sentiment remains clear. Disinterest and apathy run rampant on our campus, a community where apathy about our university overlords is perhaps the most dangerous of student activities. Just in the last few weeks, more opportunities arose for dialogue, with no results.

How many students questioned, or even read, the email released by the President’s Office over our winter holiday? It concerned the academic boycott of Israel, and detailed President Snyder’s adamant and swift condemnation of this endeavor. How many students read the Daily? As propaganda-esque as it appears, occasionally it announces notable events or speakers. But with notoriety comes controversy, and controversy begets dialogue. Somewhere in the last equation, our university got lost.

It’s not just in these small things though. For years, talking heads have lamented the complacency of our generation. We just do not care, they say. Last year in a political science class, I was asked “What it would take to have a march or rally on campus?” A 10 percent tuition hike? Longer school years? More mandatory general education? The abolition of student organizations? The magnitude and scope of the possibilities vary, but I cannot say that any of them would result in a student protest.

Protest begins with questioning. Perhaps the talking heads are right. We have gotten complacent. However, I then talk to other students who are trying to make a difference on campus and in the world. Then I even question our own complacency. Perhaps we spend too much time actively questioning the things we should not. Spending too much time considering the benefits of Denny’s vs. Jimmy John’s for our all-important midnight meal. We should spend less time in that realm and more in the realm of possibilities. Expanding the horizons and making our community, as small and dictatorially-run as we can imagine, more palatable for all of us. That always starts with questions.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, Vice President of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity and former Chair of the Case Western Reserve Constitution Day Committee.