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First-Year Disorientation

Campus Week: Let college do its job: Challenge your own loyalties, assumptions, and biases

Ari Y. Kelman
September 14, 2016
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Photo collage by Tablet Flickr Commons

Dear Students,

If you’ve come to college looking for answers, you’ve come to the wrong place.

As you’ll soon learn, higher education is explicitly not about answers. It is, to a degree, about equipping yourself with the ability to ask better questions and then finding ways to address those questions. In all likelihood, you will ask yourself a number of these over the course of the next few months. Some will address the material you encounter in classes (“What was my professor talking about?” or “Was Hegel on drugs?” “Wait, Dickens was paid by the word?”), but the ones that are going to stick with you are the ones that challenge you to connect your courses to the rest of your time on Earth, the parts of your experience that people often refer to, comically, as “real life.”

Should I go on a second date with this person?

What is my gender?

Do I really want to be a doctor, or is that just what I’ve heard my whole life?

Should I have one more drink?

Why do people like football so much, anyway?

Is there a God?

What do I think?

How could I have finished 12 years of school and never learned about _____?

What do I want to be when I graduate?

Will I be happy?

How do I find my classroom?

What is an ombudsperson, for the 11th time?

What is justice?

Why is there an electoral college, and (once you figure that out) what is the process of getting rid of it?

What’s the difference between gender and sex?

What is love?

Uh, am I in it?

Asking hard questions about yourself, the world you live in, and the relationship between those two things is a great job for people ages 18 and up (some folks start earlier, and some never get started at all). Higher education, it turns out, is an exceptionally good environment for formulating and exploring exactly those kinds of questions. The mixture of young people from very different backgrounds, relatively intelligent older people forcing them to encounter new information, and the persistent stimuli of campus life make for a rich setting for good questions to present themselves.

Facing so many questions can be a little scary, and perhaps a little disorienting, but it is OK. You are here to grow comfortable with the discomfort born of asking questions about things that have been passed off to you as “common sense,” about history and relationships and the way that the human body works and how to code so that you can tell machines what to do and not the other way around. That discomfort and dis-ease is supposed to happen when the way you think the world works encounters information that suggests otherwise.

We call this “learning.”


This bit about questions and answers and learning is even more urgent now than ever because the questions have gotten harder and the stakes have gotten higher. In the past few years, students have been arriving at schools that are largely—and now, more obviously—ill-equipped to address the diversity of incoming students’ needs and changing cultures. This is not just about Black Lives Matter, either, though that is one of the most active sites of activism in the country these days. The new wave of student-led activism is centered around police violence and racism, but it is also about poverty, immigration, gun laws, war, global warming, the politics of gender and sexuality, and the past, present, and possible future of religion in America.

For American Jews in higher education in 2016, these issues seem even more complex. On top of questions of race and class privilege, we have seen discussions of Israel and Palestine grow increasingly fractious, contentious, and difficult. Nobody anywhere seems equipped to facilitate reasonable, animated, engaged, or even contentious debate about the issue—to say nothing of productive conversation. In this respect, campuses are no different from other places (especially the Jewish community) where this issue is so combustible that people would sooner avoid talking about it than risk what they fear the consequences might be, should open and honest conversation take place. These all make being a Jew on campus legitimately difficult.


Making this more difficult are bogus charges of anti-Semitism intended to stifle expressions of political opinions.

Making this more difficult is the sometime mobilization of political correctness that becomes a kind of McCarthyism that shuts down some kinds of discourse.

Making this more difficult is the old-line University of Chicago-style objection to addressing the diversity of students’ needs, backgrounds, and sensitivities that shuts down other kinds of discourse.

Making this more difficult is the pressure on students to pick sides between universal human values and commitments to particular communities.

Making this more difficult is a resurgence of genuine anti-Semitism, the likes of which we have not seen for some time.

Making this more difficult is that there is precious little room in organized Jewish life for Jews whose Jewishness might not include Israel or Zionism.

Making this more difficult are the presence and pressure of non-university-based organizations—from the right and the left—each of which approaches students as potential advocates who might represent them, as proxies, in campus battles.

These are all real issues, and they will be brought to life by people on and around your campuses whether you want them to or not. Mostly (at least as far as the few recent studies of Jewish college students can tell us), these do not usually present in classes or curricula, but in activities and interactions among students in informal settings. This means that many of the most challenging moments will not come in class, but from learning from and with other people, most of whom are also trying to figure things out for themselves.

These encounters are real, and they can be disorienting. They can feel scary and intimidating and unfamiliar. And most schools do mostly a good job of maintaining a mostly collegial and safe atmosphere for these exchanges most of the time. But harsh tones and friction-filled exchanges have become an unfortunate reality of the political climate in the United States to which universities, although they play home to lots of really smart people, are not immune.

And some of those smart people, even some of the smartest among them, will disappoint you. They will be unable to answer some questions and charges about why the university acts in a certain way or why certain forms of speech are permitted and others are not. They will not be able to give you answers to the very pressing questions about very urgent matters, and this, too, will be frustrating, confusing, disorienting.

They won’t be able to give you answers because they don’t have them. I know: I’m one of them, and I don’t have any answers, either. I, like you, am also trying to figure them out. And it is complicated and hard and anxiety-producing and chilling and terrifying and unbelievable for all of us.

So if you came for answers, you’ve come to the wrong place—trust me. But if you came to school this year ready to dig in, to deepen your wells of knowledge, resilience, curiosity, empathy, and understanding, then you might have come to the right place. Learning is not easy. It means allowing for the possibility that you have been wrong. It means considering that the ways you think the world works might not, in fact, be the way that the world works. So you start asking questions—of yourself as much as of others. It can be daunting to have to formulate so many of your own questions, but on the other side, you have the gratification that comes from that fact they are your questions. And those are the only ones that will make sense, anyhow.


To read more from Tablet magazine’s special Campus Week series of stories, click here.

Ari Y. Kelman is Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.

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