Earlier this month, Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman, wrote an essay in reaction to often hearing his professors (and some fellow students) tell him to “check his privilege,” a comment frequently used to tell someone that their presumed bias is showing (http://tinyurl.com/oumqr7q).
The professors have a point. So does Fortgang. Unfortunately, they are talking at cross purposes, never acknowledging the other’s concern. Professors rightly attempt to raise students’ consciousness by pointing out how fortunate circumstances can affect one’s perspective. But I think professors are also obligated to keep open the lines of communication on campus and in the classroom.
“Check your privilege,” in essence, constructs a wall that can ironically prevent us from working toward further understanding. Opinions or points of discussion–however erroneous they may be–would rarely, if ever, be raised or even valued because past personal history could never be changed.
Isn’t enlightenment a main goal of higher education–an amalgam of ideas, where no one will be shamed into silence for who or what they are? Once the phrase is uttered, where does the classroom discussion lead? Is it a launching point for valuable insight and learning? Or could students become intimidated, shrinking away from opportunities for understanding others?
More fundamentally, we need to ask: If we all–students and professors included–have our own affected outlook, are we ever able to understand anyone who’s not like us? Why would we try if we’d be knocked down before the conversation has a chance to start? Are institutions of higher learning still able to provide critical thinking skills?
The larger point here is that anything can cloud a person’s perspective. Not just privilege. Our world view will always be filtered through the prism of our own background and experience.
We all have a bias of some kind to check. What’s yours?