Dear Students, I Don’t Care What You Think

Posted in: Education

There has always been a lot of conservative handwringing about brainwashed college students, but the criticism has ratcheted up since October 7. So, I thought it was time to let my students in on a secret: I don’t care what you think.

Let’s say you believe Israelis are committing genocide in Gaza. OK, a lot of people say they believe that. I don’t care. In fact, I can’t see why any professor would. But if you express this view, I would expect you to know, for instance, the legal definition of genocide contained in the Genocide Convention (or more properly, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide). Likewise, if you claim that people in the United States are committing genocide, I would expect you to know the legal definition of genocide contained in federal law. And you should know how the convention and law have been interpreted and applied.

More than that, I would expect you to be able to articulate clearly why the conduct you describe meets the definition you quote. After all, you have just leveled an extremely serious charge, and a serious thinker (we’re in college, remember?) ought not throw around allegations of this sort without care. And in meeting these expectations, I’m not going to help you. It’s your opinion; you support it. In fact, far from helicoptering to your defense, I will challenge you to explain and defend your belief, no matter what it is.

Before the reader jumps to any conclusions about my own views on the matter of Israel and genocide, let me assure you that I would insist upon the identical showing if you told me you believed Israel was not committing genocide. Before you exonerate all Israelis, do you know the meaning of the crime? Do you know the range of conduct that can constitute genocide? Do you know, from reliable sources, what is and has long taken place in Gaza and the West Bank? Do you know Israeli intent?

I do not teach classes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so this particular example is not likely to surface in my classroom. But I teach about the criminal legal system, which provides an endless supply of hot-button topics. You think prisons are obsolete, channeling your inner Angela Davis? Good for you, a lot of people share that view. In fact, I expect most people would like to live in a world where people are not in cages; the question is whether you have a sensible vision for how to get from here to there.

Or maybe you think crime is out of control and that we need more prisons. Lots of people agree with that too. I don’t care. But you have to reckon with the criminogenic and destabilizing effect of most incarceration. You have to reflect on the fact that the most enthusiastic supporters of prison are least likely to be the victims of violent crime, and the least enthusiastic supporters are most likely to be victims, which ought to make you wonder about the politics of imprisonment. And you have to reflect on the staggering moral and financial cost of incarceration, and ponder which alternatives work better.

I have also been at the forefront of litigation about the rights of people detained in connection with the so-called war on terror. I’ve had three cases in the Supreme Court on behalf of detainees—one involving prisoners at Guantanamo, another involving prisoners in Iraq, and a third involving a prisoner tortured in CIA black sites. This is material I know better than most people alive. So, let’s say you think the prison at Guantanamo is a moral obscenity, and you expect I’ll agree with you because of my work. But do you know why the Bush administration created the prison? Do you know the history of its operation and how it has changed since the first prisoners arrived in January 2002? Do you know how many people have been released, how many remain, what their alleged connection to terrorism might be, and the current conditions of their confinement? I do, but don’t assume I’m going to help you find the answers or that I agree (or disagree) with your opinion. On the flip side, maybe you think the United States was completely justified in torturing prisoners. I don’t care what you think, but you better come prepared before you say that to me.

You might think I don’t really mean what I say and that there are limits to my indifference. I suppose there might be some, but I’m hard pressed to find them. Suppose you say that the Holocaust is a myth and climate change is a hoax. I don’t care. I’m pretty sure you’re a cretin and a dupe, but the fact that you hold these views literally matters as much to me as the color of your socks. Yet, if you express them in my classroom or my presence, expect to be challenged.

All of which is to say, while I don’t care what you think, I care a great deal that you think. I care that you learn to defend your ideas, respect the meaning of evidence, and appreciate the difference between good evidence and bad, reliable and bogus. I care that you learn how to identify the assumptions on which your opinions are based, and acquire the tools to test whether those assumptions can bear the weight you have placed on them. I care how you think. I want you to develop the capacity to express your thoughts clearly, simply, and directly. I want you to learn to write a sentence, then a paragraph, and then an essay. And perhaps most of all, I care a great deal why you think. I want you to envision the world your thoughts will make, and ask whether that world is decent, just, and humane.

I do not care what you think, but I want more than anything for you to become a thinker.

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