Radical History Review 84 (2002) 149-165
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Teaching Radical History
Teaching Eighties Babies
Georgina Hickey and Peggy G. Hargis
Professors are often stymied by today's generation of college students. But for those of us who teach courses in which the issues of power, privilege, and opportunity are of central importance, the outlook of the eighties-babies generation can be a particularly painful source of frustration. 1 We learned firsthand in an interdisciplinary honors seminar on collective action and social change in the twentieth-century United States just how different our students' views of inequality and social mobility were from our own. 2 All of us struggled with the implications of those differences. When students are unwilling or unable to recognize the workings of power, privilege, and inequality in their own lives, they cannot imagine alternative ways of organizing society. Our goal was to help students understand how hierarchies of power and position shaped their assumptions and worldviews. We wanted to motivate them to question the "taken-for-granted" aspects of everyday life. Along the way, we began to identify and question our assumptions about our students and the ways in which we were teaching them to think. This essay describes a journey—one that we took along with our students. (For more specifics on the course, see the course description.)
Although not all students fit the mold, the eighties babies' notions of inequality are perversely narrow. They talk about power and privilege as if they are referring only to individual characteristics and achievements. The belief that inequality is woven into American social structures or tied to group identities—race, class, and gender—is alien to most students, but it is especially true for those who most enjoy [End Page 149] the benefits of privilege. To help make the subtle aspects of structured inequality more visible to our classes, we employed a variety of strategies that encouraged students to step back from their personal opinions and experiences and to reflect on how their worldviews colored their learning and behaviors. We measured success in terms of our students' willingness to actively explore ideas and views that did not mesh well with or necessarily reinforce their personal opinions and beliefs.
Teaching students to think critically was a fundamental component of our course objectives, as it is for most of us. 3 It was also an essential ingredient for making the sometimes invisible aspects of inequality and privilege visible. The set of intellectual skills and abilities often called critical thinking requires that students give fair, reasoned consideration to evidence, context, and methods. Becoming a critical thinkers also necessitates that people be open-minded enough to subject their personal opinions and beliefs to the same sort of analysis. Self-scrutiny and intellectual flexibility are the linchpins of critical thinking, but asking students to question their personal beliefs and to imagine other ways of thinking about the world invites feelings of uncertainty, frustration, and resistance. It also takes time.
When it comes to cultivating critical thinking or monitoring students' sense of frustration, speed kills. Lecture may be an efficient method for delivering substantial amounts of content, but talking to students prevents us from hearing what they have to say. We cannot correct faulty assumptions, point out other ways of seeing, or push them to make their position clearer if we are busy telling them what they should know. In designing our seminar we opted to slow down, giving up breadth of content in favor of achieving depth of understanding. We expected students to give reasoned consideration to evidence and content, but it was our discussions of how they connected their personal lives to the larger public concerns that helped make the process of critical thinking less threatening and more likely to lead to intellectual flexibility.
As we discovered, the process of learning to think critically about behaviors or opinions that we take for granted should not be reserved for students alone. 4 Teaching about power and privilege stimulated us to examine our classroom habits and encouraged an enormously rewarding, and frankly somewhat unexpected, exchange...