Social Media, Fear, Change and Love

It has been a rough past few days.  Even though I thought I had thinned my social media friends to a group of more reasonable people, you still end up seeing the most ridiculous comments come up under friends’ threads in regards to the Syrian refugee situation.  And still there are others that you feel obligated to keep as friends, but at this point I just feel like I can’t do it anymore.  While I feel that it is important to not isolate myself intellectually, what I see through social media does not present me with intellectual diversity, only differing opinions.  Opinions not based on any evidence, but simply fear and rhetoric.  Is it important for me to know that such viewpoints exist?  Sure.  But I know they exist now, and I think it’s time to be done with it.  Let’s face it.  Social media just isn’t the place to change anybody’s mind.  There was one person whose opinion I influenced in my entire 7 years or so on Facebook.  I remember it fondly.  It was a beautiful moment.  Perhaps I hoped I could relive that moment again somehow, but either I’m utterly awful and changing people’s mind, or social media just isn’t the place to do it.  Or maybe it’s both.  Either way the result is the same.  My sanity and well-being is more important, because being bombarded with the kind of people there are out there just drains me of my strength. And I’m not talking about ISIS.  I expect evil to exist, but I also expect us to fight that anyway we can.  Not just with guns, but with the most powerful weapon we have against hate and that is compassion and love.  And I just don’t see enough of it right now.

A lot of the impetus for this e-mail came from reading an article this morning here about fear.  Something I knew, but I reminder of how fruitless the battle is on social media is no matter how many studies or facts you post, ultimately what you are fighting is fear.  People who don’t want Syrian refugees are afraid.  Whether that fear is unfounded or not, this is the culture we live in.  Politicians (especially on the GOP side) and the media love to make people afraid.  People who are afraid are easier to control, the less likely they are to think critically, and the less likely they are to use reason to get them out of that state of fear.  I must ask myself the question then if engaging someone in an issue directly isn’t working, how do I make people less afraid?  I can find no way to easily do that on social media, so I’ve decided that ultimately maybe it’s better that if social media is going to be relaxing and enjoyable than I just need to make it a community that I want to be in.  I’ve thought about dropping Facebook altogether, but with family far and wide, and good friends I want to stay in touch with I know that’s not realistic, but maybe it’s my own weakness, or maybe it’s just age, but I can’t keep getting bombarded with bigotry and hatred every time a tragic event happens and we have the compassionate reaction continues to get treated as the worst idea ever.

To those of you who are afraid.  I wish I could take that fear away.  I wish I could help you realize that statistically, the real things you should be afraid of in this world have nothing do with refugees fleeing for their lives, black people, or gay people.  I wish I could convince you that nobody is coming for your guns, nobody is persecuting you for being Christian, nobody is turning your children autistic or trying to poison you with vaccines, and the anthropogenic climate change is a real problem and not a liberal agenda by scientists.  I wish I could convince you that most people really do want to help you and that most people want to simply enjoy the same feelings of freedom and safety that you have even if you do live in too much fear to really enjoy the life you’ve been given.

Many of you who live in fear, live in a land of what ifs.    I wish I could ask you to ask a different set of what ifs too.  What if things actually get better if we help people?  What if by embracing the unknown it becomes known and we aren’t so afraid anymore?  What if instead of creating more enemies, you gain more friends.  What if defeating an enemy is actually done through compassion than hate?  What if those people who you dehumanize are not that different from you?  What if the difference in whether the outcome of a situation is good or bad, depends mostly on your attitude and that you can make things better simply facing a situation with courage, love, and humility, instead of running and hiding?  And since history teaches that empires often crumble, what I really wish is that you seriously sit down and ask the question what if that destitute Syrian refugee who once had all the comfort in the world but who is destitute, scared and has lost friends, family, and love ones was you?  Really think about it.  Really think about what kindness would mean to you at that point.  Really think about how desperate you might be to even have a remote chance of feeding your children.

And finally to those whose concern for the homeless and impoverished in our own nation have come to the fore.  Assuming you are not just making excuses, then bravo.  We have a lot of people who suffer here too.  We have growing income inequality, a shrinking middle class.  We have a high cost of tuition that prevents many people from getting educated unless they start off life in a great deal of debt.  We have a lack of sex education, we have a lack of social support for families who need more maternity and paternity leave.  We have disparity in public education K-12, and many states that lack funding, accurate historical textbooks, and are forced to not teach strongly supported scientific theories like evolution, the big bang and anthropogenic climate change.  We have a corrupt political system that favors money over serving the people.  We have incarcerated far too much of our population for minor crimes, and a tilted justice system against minorities that prevent them achieving the equal status that law guarantees them.  We have spent vast sums of money on foreign wars that haven’t seemed to make us feel any safer, and have most likely bred more harm in the world than we have helped.  And if this compassion that is overflowing in your heart for your fellow man or woman here in the U.S. I encourage to fight for it every day, not just on days where we talk about Syrian refugees being let into the country.  I encourage you to always be politically active and vote for those people who can bring about the change we need to help our own people.  I even have a presidential candidate just for you. 🙂

You live in a country that over time has helped many impoverished people from other countries.  You have helped women, blacks, and LGBT’s become more equal and gain more freedom.  These are all things to be proud of.  Compassion requires perseverance as well, so don’t ever think you are done.

Why are you here?

There are many things I don’t understand about my college students.  In my 13th year of teaching as a professor I think I can at least make some solid observations.  Much of what I observed leaves me with more questions than answers.

My undergraduate experience was perhaps not typical in any way.  My parents paid my tuition, which was heavily subsidized by the Canadian government.  It is still a decent $3.500 for the year, which was a decent sum of money was back in the early 90’s.  I lived at home though, the university was about a 50 minute transit ride.  I am sure the fact that my mom got me a part time job at the university signing student loans was important in realizing how fortunate I was to not have to go in debt to pay for tuition.  My parents instilled in me that education was important and that doing well was also important.  That being said, despite the work I put in, I still ended up with only a B+ average in my undergraduate.  It was a lot of math and physics, and it was hard.  I wasn’t the perfect student either.  I cut a number of classes, but I was always aware when things were due and when were really important days to be there.   I never missed a deadline or a test.  If poor attendance led me to a less than perfect grade, there really was no one to blame but myself.  Sometimes you did get a bad teacher that discouraged you from wanting to attend that class.  But sometimes there are bad teachers.  You can complain, but it’s probably not going to make them a whole lot better.  Everyone was in the same boat and you did your best.  I never drank alcohol as an undergraduate; neither did most of my friends actually.  Which is perhaps a bit odd considering the legal drinking age in my province is 18.  I still have lots of fond memories of those days, and think it was a rather fun period of my life.

I held that dedication throughout my time in graduate school and it was that view of university and college life that I held as I became a professor at a small university in Pennsylvania.   I have found that my views about what college is about vary vastly from most of the students that are here.   Look, there are a lot of societal problems at work here too.  Perhaps the fact that guidance counselors try to convince every kid they should go to college when in fact they would be much better off in a trade school, or just taking some time off and working a low paying job to really understand what it takes to be successful in life and manage your time and money better is part of the problem.  Perhaps the fact that student loans are given out with alarming ease, with little time taken to really explain to the 18 year old how it will affect their life is the problem.  Nevertheless I have just seen a lot of baffling behavior among students since I have been a professor and it just makes me want to ask the question:

 “Why are you here?”

I have seen students spend the whole class text messaging, reading a novel in class, doing makeup, showing up 20 minutes late to a 50 minute class, or show up to class drunk, high, coked up.  And then there are the ones who don’t

From http://images.collegemagazine.com

show up.  The class is too early, too late, they are too hung over, it’s too cold, too nice, raining, etc all serve as excuses not to make it to class.  I have seen students make it to only half the classes in the semester.  I have seen students who seemingly only realized they missed an exam 3 weeks after the exam was given.  I have had students complain that I made a test for the day after their birthday, the day after St. Patrick’s day, the day after homecoming weekend, or worse yet Fridays.  Apparently Thursday nights are just party nights in general so having an exam on a Friday, especially in the morning is seen as a cruel thing for a professor to do.  All this is considered part of the “college experience”. Yet none of the people who are hired to teach or work at staff are hired to support this experience at a college, because the institution is designed to help young people further their education for the purposes of a career. Once again:

“Why are you here?”

So many students enter university undecided.  Spend an extra semester or 4 getting a 4 year degree because they switched majors and dropped classes so many times or had GPA’s so low they had to repeat courses.    The cost of

From http://www.studentloannetwork.com

tuition, even at this modestly priced public institution that I teach at, with housing, costs about $10,000 a year.  After 4 years you will start out $40,000 dollars in debt if you complete your degree in the standard time.  While it is sad that the government doesn’t emphasize education more and subsidize the cost more, from a practical point of view it is difficult to justify attending college without at least some clearer picture of what you want to do, and to simply do it as quickly as possible.  The student loan system in this country is terrible and sometimes it’s your only choice to getting an education and a career that you want.  That being said, it IS money you will have to pay back, and if you are going to be in that much debt it behooves you to also choose a career path that will allow you to pay back that money as efficiently as possible.  If you aren’t think of the financial reality before entering college then I have to ask:

“Why are you here?”

Please don’t get me wrong as I have met many mature students.  I would easily say that half of the students that I see, even ones that might not be doing particularly well in my classes will graduate and hit the ground running.  I hesitate to say too many numbers as my observations are only anecdotal, but I would say after teaching over 200 students a semester in 12 years that there are, conservatively, 20% who really don’t care and really would prefer to not be in college (or rather not be in college for the purposes of education).  Given how competitive it is to get a job, given how expensive it is to get an education, and given how salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation, why spend $50,000 on an education, to get a mediocre to poor GPA (especially when you’re field of choice has a low amount of jobs available)?  Isn’t there a better way to spend your time, money and resources?  For some people it is loan money, for some it is their parent’s money.  Interestingly I have never met a student who was paying for their own tuition who didn’t understand the importance of doing well and make the most of the money they were spending.

So ask yourself the question “Why are you here?”  And think about whether you might not be better off somewhere else.  Somewhere that was better suited to wear you are in life.  Somewhere better suited to what you want to do.  Somewhere that will give you a chance to figure out what it is you really want so that when you do enter college you are ready to get the most out of that environment.  College is an immense challenge in terms of your time and energy.  You will expand your mind and your heart.  You will meet great people from different walks of life. But, like it or not, university is about learning and education.  You can party anywhere like a rock star any where.  But think about the fact that your country needs you.  Young people are the ones with the energy, the ability to learn at a faster rate and think outside of the box.  Young people are the ones who are most needed in a democracy to be educated about issues.  Issues that they will face in the many years ahead of them.  There is a surprising amount of time to still have fun, but also start being a positive part of society and perhaps not getting wasted every night.  I love my job because of all the great young people I’ve met over the years, I just want to see young people also think critically about their decision to go to university.