Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Tunnel of Oppression

I've recently gotten an email about a new program that Mall University is setting up for our undergraduates to undergo entitled The Tunnel of Oppression. At first, I childishly imagines a giant vagina. It's more like a museum tour that gives students a feeling of what it's like to be the target of hate speech. Apparently, they do these things at a number of universities. I've found webpages here, here, here, and here. And there are a number of critiques of them on-line, mostly by people who think that they are too "PC", or "therapeutic", or "multicultural". Paradoxically, they've also taken flack for being too graphic and shocking. Some of them sound like they're based in the museum model, and others sound like they're modelled after Halloween haunted houses.

Anyway, I've been thinking about why it is that university programs like this irritate me, and I've decided that it's not the projects in themselves that bother me. In fact, I think universities might as well keep them. I imagine that some students do get something out of these programs. And, as my social worker wife would point out, many of these kids will actually experience oppression in the outside world. So, I think it is healthy, or at least, not particularly unhealthy.

I think my irritation at these programs is that they're intended to make the students more well-rounded, and they could; but, it's not like most students come into university, or leave, overdeveloped in any particular area. In fact, they often have serious academic deficiencies, in addition to whatever insensitivities they might have. What I'd like to see is the continuation of programs like this, and the addition of academic programs that focus on those fundamentals that nobody seems particuarly interested in right now.

At our University, I've suggested a semester-long course in grammar, for example, because I'm constantly grading essays in which the student doesn't know what a paragraph is, or how sentences work. Often, they don't know what very commonly-used words actually mean. And I've seen very troubling problems with reading comprehension as well. But, when I suggest that we focus on these things, the administrators don't seem particuarly interested. I've been told that a grammar course would be insulting, or that students wouldn't sign up for it. And then, they usually complain that students should know these things already, but that they aren't taught them in High School! Which, apparently, is true.

But, I also see a real disconnect between the students and any sort of cultural tradition. And I don't point these things out to complain about the students, because they really aren't to blame. But, since so many TAs that I know see these things, and complain about them, I don't really understand why it's so easy to get programs like the tunnel of oppression off the ground, and funded, and not rigorous academic programs in the fundamentals going as well. I mean, maybe these things are generally run by volunteers and students can volunteer to go through them. I don't know. I know that ours is run by the University. So, maybe they figure that a Tunnel of Grammar wouldn't go over well with the students! Which is probably true.

But, I think that people who complain about "the PC University" might be missing the point a bit. Kids are going to test out new ideas, and political stances, and beliefs in university; they always have. And so what if they want to stage the Vagina Monologues, or chalk pro-gay statements in the parking lot, or stage a tunnel of oppression! Those things aren't the problem in themselves. The problem is, if they want to have these 'experiences', it should be in addition to the fundamentals that make up a university education, and in most cases they aren't as far as I can tell.

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