"I Just Think, I Just Feel, I Just Believe": Passivity, Irresponsibility, and the Death of Intellectual Freedom

Stephen G. Sylvester
Montana State University-Northern "I Just Think, I Just Feel, I Just Believe": Passivity, Irresponsibility, and the Death of Intellectual Freedom Stephen G. Sylvester History Montana State University-Northern

Note: A slightly different version of this paper was given at the Third Annual Conference on Intellectual Freedom, April 1997, Montana State University-Northern

Twenty-five or more years ago I supported a growing family and the persistent bad habits of youth by writing two columns for the student newspaper at New Mexico State University. I have misplaced my string book, and age and the rose colored glasses of time have dimmed memory and reality. But my very first published column, the fifteen inches of timeless prose that launched my mildly successful career--as a teacher, not as a journalist--comes to mind today as fresh now as I thought it was then.

The topic was grades. I noted that students who received A's took credit. "What did you get in Professor Fruitloop's class?" "I made an A." "What did you get in Professor Looney's class?" "He gave me a D." The implications are clear. Students are responsible for A's, professors are responsible for D's. So few F's are awarded that I had, and have, no research base. I found that very odd, if not surprising, at the time.

Fifteen years later I delivered the faculty address, "What Happens," at the University of Minnesota-Crookston's Student Convocation. My topic was academic responsibility. "What did you get in Fruitloop's class?" (Note the absence of the academic title). "I made an A." "Cool." "What did you get in Looney's class?" "D." "Shit Happens." Passivity par excellence. In fifteen years we moved from professorial responsibility for poor grades to no responsibility at all. At least four students in the audience were wearing "Shit Happens" t-shirts. Their attitude was widespread.

Over the past several years I have dealt with a legion of student complaints about grades, virtually none of them either valid or accepting of responsibility.

My proposition is simple. Students no longer understand that education is their own responsibility. They have not arrived at this unfortunate conclusion alone. Student support mechanisms friends, parents, college administrators, college student support services, even sympathetic (emphasis on pathetic) faculty, American presidents have joined together to blame virtually everyone and everything else for students' failure to learn. It is a complicated process, often unconscious, always self-serving, and extremely damaging to intellectual freedom.

George Will points out that evidence is not the plural of anecdote, and I recognize that, since all of my evidence is anecdotal, I am risking falling into the abyss. My defense is simple. I am attempting only to alert receptive audiences to what they will recognize is familiar and accurate: passivity and emotion have replaced responsibility in higher education.

I have already provided the examples: "I just think, I just feel, I just believe...," next to "I don't know," the most common student responses to difficult questions, are both passive and emotional. Such responses do not necessarily indicate ignorance, stupidity, unfamiliarity with a particular topic, or even unwillingness to discuss. They do, however, indicate a singular unwillingness to have what they say challenged, questioned, or discussed. I think, I feel, I believe, are ways of saying "this is part of me, my inner psyche, my being, and you must not invade my private self." It is at once passive and an invasive attack on intellectual freedom. Those who refuse challenge soon forget how to think, if they ever knew.

This part of the equation, if you will, is simple. Each time I read a student's paper containing "I think, I feel, I believe," I am aggravated, acerbically critical, and given to outbursts of invective: "Why do I care what you feel?" I write, roaring with claw-like red pen. "This is not an emotional experience. Believe? Why would you think you can base an argument on unsubstantiated belief? You don't know enough to believe much of anything. Think? You don't think at all. This is mental masturbation. Without evidence you have said exactly nothing!"

"I think, I feel, I believe" are passive, just as "shit happens" is passive. All four terms remove responsibility to somewhere or someone else, which is exactly what passive construction is intended to do. A few anecdotes. If they add up to evidence, so much the better.

The prosecution in the O.J. Simpson murder case lost what appeared to be an airtight case. Mistakes were made by the Los Angeles Police, by Christopher Darden, by the forensic lab technician, by Marcia Clark.... In the criminal case O.J. appeared to be immune from responsibility, immune even from being on trial. He was replaced by the aforementioned officialdom. Granted, it is difficult to sympathize with officialdom in any guise, but the civil trial, which established, of all things, not guilt but responsibility in some indeterminate way and granted some $30 million in damages to the surviving families, indicts the California system of justice, Judge Lance Ito, Mark Fuhrman, Marcia Clark, Cris Darden, ad nauseam just a bunch of people trying to do their jobs. Many of them will get rich as O.J. gets poor, so there is some justice, and your average student, who has no idea who wrote and supported the U.S. Constitution, can quote the O.J. trial, names and all, chapter and verse, despite it being one of the least intellectually challenging trials of modern times. No, it is not comforting that I can do the same. I am saved a bit because I have a frame of reference. I can discuss the Scopes case, which concerned education and became the most famous trial of the 1920s; Fatty Arbuckle and Sam Shepard, both Hollywood/O.J. type trials; even Leopold and Loeb, two University of Chicago graduate students who, in 1924, murdered Bobby Franks just to see if they could get away with it. They did not. Sentenced to life in prison, Nathan Leopold was released in 1958. Loeb was murdered in 1936 by a fellow inmate he had propositioned, prompting Daily News reporter Eddie Lahey to write: "Richard Loeb, the well-known student of English, yesterday ended a sentence with a proposition."(1) Students understand neither the pun nor the excellence of the line as a lead.

Presidential politics and Hollywood trials serve to help convince students, among others, that responsibility is, after all, only that which can be proved in court, by appointment of a special prosecutor, or that which has to do with dollars.

But there are no guarantees. In 1991, three square miles of very expensive real estate in the hills of Berkeley and Oakland, California, burned to the ground. Many of the more than 3,000 residents joined together to face the tragedy.

Many homeowners discovered after the fire that they carried woefully inadequate coverage one policyholders' group named themselves the Unexpectedly Underinsured Allstate Policy-Holders but by drawing on the force of their unified, well-connected voice, as well as on the support of the state's populist insurance commissioner, they wrung an astonishing concession from their insurers. Policies were upgraded retroactively, boosting the amount a homeowner could recover by an average of $200,000. (2)
As difficult as it is to be sympathetic towards insurance companies, it does seem extremely unlikely that the irresponsible homeowners had been denied the opportunity to buy more insurance. There must be more to this responsibility thing.

Forgive me for ignoring certain areas as I cast about for ways to assign culpability for the decline of thought and, with it the demise of intellectual freedom. Music, for example, may be vital in the formation of young minds. Certainly the Beatles, Elvis, Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel affected my thinking. My parents may have had some concerns about hair length, pomade, and the occasional reference to drugs, as in "Puff, The Magic Dragon," but they left me to discover the evil in music by myself. It never occurred to me to play "Sergeant Pepper" backwards to catch the Satanic messages. But today, the responsibility for ferreting out profane or violent or sexual lyrics has shifted from the innocence of youth to fundamentalist watchdogs. Tipper Gore and her ilk have pushed successfully for warning labels on CDs no one sells records any more so children need not so much as talk with each other. They simply buy the labeled CDs, thereby preserving their intellectual freedom, even if it means that Nine Inch Nails and Two Live Crew become better known than Paul Simon.

I shall also ignore sports which, despite the habit of such conservative writers as George Will to annually point out the similarities between baseball and life, are not conducive to intellectual activity of the free and unfettered kind. Sports are privileged and besides, such "sports" as Dennis Rodman, whose athletic ability I admire but whose behavior I deplore, should be jailed, not presented as viable role models.

If we can agree that neither music nor sports are likely to be roads to success for most people, then we may be able to discuss responsibility and the more certain, if not guaranteed, path to success that education offers.

In the not-too-distant past, students (and perhaps their parents) were generally expected to be responsible for their own educations. Right on up through college, homework assignments were student responsibilities, and those who failed, well, failed. I recall how victorious I felt as a fourth grader knowing the multiplication tables better than anyone. And this was long before Sesame Street's Count taught numbers to pre-schoolers. I learned my tables because I had an older brother who was drilled mercilessly two years before it was my turn. "How much is six times seven?" my father would demand. "It's about...forty," came my brother's timid response. "It's about nothing," roared my father. "It is exactly 42." Tears. Fear. Loathing. But we both remember six times seven. We also remember that "the reason is because" is redundant, that to, too, and two mean different things, and that I-t-'-s means it is, not belonging to it. As cultural diva Martha Stewart would say, I think this is a good thing. But it is a thing no more.

I am not sure where it went. Sometime in the 1960s the world of education began to tip, and John Dewey, the Victorian who stressed evidence over all else in education, fell off the map. Precise thinking gave way to introspection. Forget the evidence. Emote, emote, emote. What do you think? What do you feel? What do you believe? Splash it all on paper in whatever form. Every opinion is of value. Feel good about yourself. e.e. cummings did away with capitals. Mind-expanding drugs replaced real thought, not for everyone, but for enough to enable the free-thinkers to replace the formal ones. Philosophy disappeared from college curriculums. Narrow history, relevant history women's history, black history, Vietnam, replaced Western Civ and World history. This was not all bad, of course. Western Civ ignored three quarters of the world and world history examined the Mediterranean and Europe. But the lasting effect? The decline of a shared knowledge base, once called the B.A. line, and the slow but too comfortable death of intellectual freedom on campuses across the country.

Accrediting agencies have noticed this decline, spurred not by interest in intellectual freedom but by the demands of political entities for documentation. The old money question. Outcomes assessment, the bane of education today, is required of all institutions, the clear result of education's need for self-justification. We must define what we are doing and quantify it. Until recently, educators and legislators alike have been reluctant to establish a clear definition of effective teaching. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's statement on hard-core pornography, "I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it,"(3) educational quality was eye-of-the-beholder stuff. Today, at what one hopes is the peak of administrative control of education, virtually every college president, many of whom have co-opted the title Chief Executive Officer, is an expert on so-called outcomes assessment. Administrations generally, including the aforementioned accrediting agencies, subscribe to the axiom that "If it exists, it can be measured. If it can't be measured, it doesn't exist." Faculty members who refuse to hop on the assessment bandwagon are threatened with the gates of Hell, without knowing what, exactly, constitutes outcomes.

Part of this relates, of course, to modern definitions of students. Students who, like the aforementioned examples, have paid tuition and therefore "believe" they have bought a guarantee of academic success, are of the "student-as-customer" type. Students who are to be measured are of the "student as product" type. Neither has any particular responsibility for his own education.

A few months ago, a national furor began in California over the Oakland, California, school board's announcement of "ebonics" as the primary language of African-Americans. On December 20, 1996, the Board declared ebonics to be a second language, then declared this second language to be the "primary language" of many of Oakland's students. The intent was to elevate street slang to at least the level of a second language, thereby freeing up federal funds earmarked for bilingual programs. Money, as usual, was the impetus, but board members tried mightily to make the effort entirely positive and student interest-based. Toni Cook of the Oakland School Board: "African-American students come to school with a home language other than English. We're going to bridge that gap and make sure our children learn."(4) This is a singularly odd position in California, which has worked so hard to remove perceived advantages for immigrants and has regularly refused to recognize the difficulty that Spanish-speaking students have in California schools. Nevertheless, the Board subscribed to the position that schools must take students as they are and do whatever is necessary to elevate them.

Opposition rose immediately. California Governor Pete Wilson promised not to fund any such ridiculous effort. Secretary of Education Richard Riley proclaimed black English a dialect, not a language. Jesse Jackson first called it "an unacceptable surrender bordering on disgrace," then later lamely took a student esteem position, saying ebonics would "...detect the problem without demeaning the students, and would build a bridge to English proficiency."(5) Linguists around the country joined the fray, generally muddying the water with their technical definitions and posturing about those things that constitute a language. Pundits inquired about teaching profanics, the primary language of men and women of all colors.

The Oakland School Board backed off furiously, as one would expect. Hardly equipped to withstand the attacks of educators, the press, interested but uninformed amateurs black and white, dozens of public surveys were conducted to discover how the public "felt" about ebonics, the Board ultimately retreated into the comfortable falsehood that its intent, pure as the driven snow Oakland never sees, was "to provide teachers with the tools to better understand students' language patterns so that a bridge can be built toward helping them read, write, and speak proficiently in standard American language."(6)

All of them missed the point. The central argument about ebonics revolved around black students and their chosen language. That is the key. Ebonics is a chosen language, like Spanglish, the concoction of English and Spanish that we spoke in the primarily Mexican-American community of my childhood. We were exposed to standard English then, despite a paucity of television sets in most homes. We liked our language. It gave us a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and a sense of separation from our parents and teachers. This is the source of ebonics as well. Far from trying to learn Spanglish, our teachers and school board members simply outlawed Spanish in the schools. While that may have been a bit extreme, it was hardly effective in ending the use of Spanglish. But we learned standard academic English or we failed. Period.

Oddly enough, a number of school districts in Orange County, California, have won state approval to drop bi-lingual education in order to "steep" Spanish-speaking students in English. They claim that teaching students in their primary language first, then moving to instruction in English, has proved to be a failure.(7)

Young blacks have certainly been exposed to standard English. There are so few homes without television sets today that statistical treatments deal with homes having multiple sets or cable, and ignore as statistically insignificant homes with no television at all. One suspects that homes without television are likely to be those of middle class, highly educated whites who choose not to have television. Nonetheless, the point is the same. Ebonics is largely a matter of choice, a language learned from one's peers, not from one's parents, families, or adult cultures. In short, responsibility for standard English should be squarely on the shoulders of the students themselves, not on school boards, or teachers, or federally funded bilingual programs.

The responsibility shift characterized by the ebonics debacle and the other examples I have shared with you is generalized. The "I think, I feel, I believe" attitude is not declining. One has only to glance at the Montana Professor. Paul Trout, in "What Students Want: A meditation on Course Evaluations," writes that "...students complain proudly about being easily bored by the excessive intellectualism of higher education ('thoughts and ideas'), that they just love being entertained, that they want a 'comfortable,' 'relaxed' learning environment free of anxieties, invidious comparisons, and uppity professors, and that they want to read fewer and shorter books."(8) In short, students do not want to be challenged. Unfortunately, a growing number of faculty do not want students to be challenged, either, at least in courses outside of their own narrow disciplines.

I have no ultimate solution for this demise of intellectual freedom. It is entirely possible that nothing can be done. Certainly, Connie Newton, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, even the Rodman have scant reason to accept responsibility. They will continue to serve as role models, I suppose. Tobacco companies today announced their willingness to discuss billions of dollars worth of settlements with states, and their intention to finally end the Joe Camel and Marlboro man ad campaigns.(9) But they will continue to sell tobacco. College chancellors will continue to attempt to stifle dissent, and some faculty will support that. Such is the world.

But Leopold and Loeb, two students whose thoughts led to action, had to accept the consequences of their actions. They thought they could commit the perfect crime. Persons in authority proved them wrong.

That is, I submit, the only way students will stop surrendering their intellectual freedom. They will have to be forced to take responsibility for their own education. They must be forced to think, to support their conclusions with evidence, and to experience the liberating joy of accomplishment. And that, my friends, is up to us.


  1. Manoff, Robert Karl. Reading The News. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. 147.
  2. Kipp, David L. "There Goes the Neighborhood: After the Berkeley fire, an architectural disaster." Harpers March 1997: 48.
  3. Greenberg, Edward S., and Benjamin I. Page. The Struggle for Democracy. 3rd edition. New York: Longman, 1996. 561.
  4. "Hooked on Ebonics." Newsweek 13 January 1997: 78.
  5. Ibid., 78-79.
  6. Menand, Louis. "Johnny Be Good." The New Yorker 13 January 1997: 5.
  7. Los Angeles Times 13 April 1997: A1 col. 3.
  8. Trout, Paul. "What Students Want: A Meditation on Course Evaluations." The Montana Professor Fall 1996: 3.
  9. Great Falls Tribune 17 April 1997: 1.
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