It would not be a stretch to say that we, as college students, are primarily concerned with the academic perspective of the topics we are studying. For instance, a student studying film is not concerned merely with movies, but with learning the tools to be able to analyze and interpret cinema as a language, art form and cultural vehicle.
In other words, much of American education posits it would be impossible to study the entirety of a topic without removing it from its context and placing it into an academic arena. Historic events are detailed in a textbook on the subject. Movies are packaged into discrete units embodying a certain cultural trend or style characteristic of the era.
This kind of intellectualization, however, as much as it is useful, can be harmful.
In one of my class discussions, a classmate compared genocide to the canceling of TikTok influencer Sienna Mae.
For those unaware, Sienna Mae was a TikTok influencer who was canceled earlier this summer for allegedly sexually assaulting another TikToker, Jack Wright, which she denied. The consequences of this act were the loss of thousands of followers, the loss of one sponsorship, at the very least, and a dent to her reputation.
Could it be fair to say these consequences at all compare to the actual destruction of thousands of people, along with their ethnic and cultural identities? Not in the slightest.
I understand the need for freedom and room to explore in an academic setting. Students should not feel constrained to a list of standards or rules when trying to understand a topic. Removing a topic from its context allows students and scholars to be bolder in their interpretations of complex issues, which may be a good thing in certain contexts.
But I feel certain topics — like genocide — deserve the weight and carefulness they carry. There should be certain comparisons people should not be allowed to make.
How can we intellectualize genocide to the point that the deaths of millions of people can no longer bear any weight in what a person is saying? How can we study a subject to the point that we forget it was real?
In that instance, I don’t believe it was the professor’s fault, but rather that we as students have a skewed mindset of what we’re meant to be doing here at college. We are trained to view our material as terms and definitions rather than real things that affect real people.
Moreover, constant exposure to tragedy accessibility of tragedy with the rise of the internet may have made us as a generation more desensitized to violence. A 2011 study from the University of Potsdam found that the more that people are exposed to specifically violent media, the less reactive they are to it.
This does not mean, however, that professors do not play a role in this kind of desensitization to sensitive topics. In two of my classes at this point, a professor went over the topic of phrenology — racist pseudo-science utilized to justify slavery that based intelligence on the shape of one’s skull — without even mentioning the word racism once.
It is disturbing to think that a future doctor could walk out of that class thinking phrenology was a valid basis from which other scientific theories about the brain emerged.
I think this omission was made because many STEM professors, in particular, do not believe there is room to discuss racism in a class about science. Intellectualizing a topic requires you to remove it from its context — and thus, from the problematic ideologies that may have shaped it.
But an actual understanding of a topic requires we consider the very context that shaped it — along with all the details and field standards our classes focus on. A true understanding of psychology or neuroscience, for instance, requires we understand why the field developed the way it did.
A true understanding of history requires us to remember the amount of violence and grief experienced by people when discussing a topic like genocide. These are elemental aspects of the topic that should not be removed from one’s analysis of them — whether by the professor giving the lecture or by the student participating in the discussion.
I believe the over-intellectualization of serious topics prevents us from reaching any kind of understanding on a topic beyond its definition. Moreover, it leaves us without a sense of real empathy for the people involved in the subject.
Acknowledging and respecting the context behind these academic topics can help prevent systemic forms of discrimination beyond college campuses. Future doctors, lawyers, historians … etc. may be walking out of college with these ways of thinking that can be directly attributed to decontextualization.
I understand that it may be necessary to remove a topic from its context to be able to study it under a reasonable time frame and workload. We may never be able to absorb all there is to know about our chosen field of study. But it is necessary that we constantly acknowledge and remember that the academic subjects we are taking tests on, and discussing in class, exist in the real world too, and deserve to be treated as such.