I remember Tuesday, Feb. 11, 1975 well.
It is the day I was a coward.
I was sitting in a lower level government class at Sacramento State that was focused on constitutional law.
The professor opted to start his class that day be asking for a show of hands of students that were registered Democrats. I knew what was coming. It was only my second semester at Sacramento State and I had become jaded.
A number of hands were raised. Then came the question: How many of you are registered Republicans?
A smaller number of hands went up. Mine did not.
The professor them proceeded to do his preach and bash act at a feverish level that would have made a circuit preacher playing to a revival tent crowd envious.
Finally when he took a breath, he zeroed in on a guy seated by the window who was dressed in Wranglers complete with belt buckle, cowboy boots, and ranch-style shirt who had placed his farmer’s cap on his desk top.
The professor pointed at him.
“And what does your father do for a living?” he asked.
The reply was akin to dangling red meat in front of a pack of starved hyenas.
“My dad is a rice farmer in Colusa, sir.”
The tirade — it wasn’t a lecture — lasted for several minutes. The exact words of what the professor spewed out escape me today but the main points haven’t. The professor’s crucifixion points were as follows: It was obvious he was a Republican from his attire and his father’s occupation. And because he was a Republican from a small town he was probably small minded.
Then the professor asked — I’m not making this up — whether his father drove a new pick-up truck.
A response in the affirmative lit up the professor’s face as if he were an 8-year-old boy ripping apart gift wrap on Christmas morn when he realizes he had gotten a politically incorrect Daisy BB gun. The lions were no longer circling in the forum arena. They were moving in to finish off the Christians.
When the professor finished, he asked the student what he had to say for himself.
I scanned the room. A few other students had a semi-cowering look on their faces, stunned at the outburst. Most had a disconnect look vacillating between the look of a prisoner of war at their umpteenth indoctrination lecture and the look of a young kid whose face goes blank as some out-of-control adult screams at him over a small transgression.
The rice farmer’s son stood up. His face showed neither anger nor fear.
He explained how his father had to pay cash for things because he got only one paycheck a year. If the crop didn’t fetch good enough prices and he borrowed money to buy his pickup truck or a Butler building he paid cash for several years ago, he’d run the risk of losing things to the bank and not being able to support his family. He added his father would give someone in need the shirt off his back and that his father was active in several efforts that helped struggling families. As for why they were Republicans, he didn’t really elaborate.
But then, at least for me, he didn’t need to. My family had the same similar rural background and believed it was their role to help others when they could and not assume the government would.
I regret that by the time that day rolled around, I had decided to play the game whenever a professor would delve into using their classroom not as a bully pulpit to sell their ideas and get students to consider other options but as a way to hammer you into submission. The game, simply put, was not to rock the boat. It required that when you took a Blue Book exam and the essay question was open ended that you made sure the conclusion mirrored the professor’s beliefs.
To not do so — no matter how well you may have supported your conclusion with well-thought out arguments and facts — you ran the high risk of losing a letter grade or two and being targeted in class. And by target, I mean used as a verbal punching bag.
By far, not all professors lapsed into such tirades. It’s pretty tough to do so in disciplines such as the sciences and math. Those in government, literature, and philosophy have much looser parameters as they should in trying to cultivate critical thinking, problem solving in the arena of social and government issues, and exposing students to cultural differences as well as how history beyond cold statistics is often not viewed the same by all people.
My downfall — if you can call it that — after the Feb. 11, 1975 exchange was not to shirk away from jabs delivered by those professors who didn’t simply espouse views different than mine but who tended to believe their sole purpose in teaching was battering those who think differently into submission.
There is a big difference of being aggressively challenged as was the style of perhaps half of my professors and the relatively small minority among them who took it a step beyond and embraced indoctrination and not critical thinking.
Today the pendulum has swung the other way. A week doesn’t go by that some professor isn’t being driven out of a university for saying something that supposedly “traumatizes” or “marginalizes” a student or students.
College students shouldn’t be coddled. Nor should they be treated as if they are the loyal subjects of Dear Leader Kim Jong II.