I heard the muttering come from somewhere in the back of the classroom. We’d been at this for about ten minutes when the frustration started to come out. Apart from the swearing, it was obvious on their faces and the sideways glances they’d give me when they whispered to the person sitting next to them.
Good. This is where I need them.
It started after I presented a simple question to one of my undergraduate journalism classes. We’d been having a discussion on bias in media and like everywhere else, my students had their own opinions of who was telling the truth and who wasn’t.
The question revolved around a chair that I had placed on top of a table at the front of the room. I asked the class what it was and they said it was a chair. I asked them how they knew that it was a chair.
That’s where the problems started.
I taught journalism at small university in rural Arkansas that was founded little over a hundred years ago as an agricultural school. In the 16 years that I taught there, student enrollment went from roughly 8,000 students up to 12,000 and back down to 6,000 when I left. Students mostly come from small, conservative communities and working-class families. They come from places where dry counties are surrounded by county line liquor stores and Dollar General filling the spaces in between. Public schools tend to be the largest employers for those with a college degree in many communities, but the really ambitious people move to Bentonville to work for Wal-Mart, Tyson or JB Hunt. Around here, if a news station is on in a waiting room or restaurant, it’s either going to be tuned to FOX News or someone is going to tell them to change it there.
While I won’t deny that a lot of the faculty lean left, the university tends to spend more time trying to find funding and recruiting freshmen than it does pushing any particular ideology. Skirmishes over political matters occasionally flare up, but seldom last long. Those who wish to battle over ideology often leave within a couple of years for greener political pastures.
For my part, I tried to stay true to one of the original tenants of a liberal arts university and mimic the best professors I had as a student. And that is to simply expose my students to ideas they may not have encountered, help them navigate the discomfort, offer a little inspiration, and give them the tools to come up with their own opinions. It’s not always comfortable, but growth seldom is.
Which brings me back to that goddamned chair.
Me: How do you know it’s a chair?
Them: Because you can sit on it.
Me: But, I can also sit on this table.
Them: Okay fine, it has a back.
Me: I have a back.
Them: It also has legs.
Me: A horse has legs.
Them: Fine, it’s made to sit on, has legs and a back.
Me: So does a couch.
Them: It has…. wait… shit… never mind.
Me: Geeze, people it’s just a chair! You know it’s a chair! I know it’s a chair! We all know it’s a chair! All I’m asking is for you to prove it.
Them: We hate you.
Me: I’m okay with that. You’ll get over it.
Them: Fine, just tell us.
Them: We give up.
Me: Listen, we’ve been talking all week about truth in journalism, media bias, fake news, and what you think constitutes “real” journalism. But, if you can’t tell me what makes this thing a chair, how in the hell do you think you can tell me what “truth” is?
Me: I’ll see you on Monday.
Truth is a tricky business.