“That’s just the way it is,” one of my students said recently. “We can’t do anything about it, so why worry about it?”
We were talking about privacy issues. I had mentioned that there are many new search engines on the internet that promise not to “track your searches,” and I wanted to make a point about why that matters.
The first answer the students came up with was privacy. “The search engines track you and sell the information to third parties, who then start sending you advertisements.”
When I let the students take control of our discussions, I learn from them. My intent was to talk about how engines that track searches so they can tailor the results to meet your interests assure that you never have to deal with conflicting ideas. They are one of many reasons that our public discussions are filled with hyperbole and venom — why we are losing the ability to engage in civil debate.
But my students were more concerned about their privacy, which I hadn’t really considered until then. My privacy does mean a lot to me, but I really hadn’t considered it as an issue. Perhaps part of that comes from growing up in an environment where my neighbors knew what I was up to before I did. Or perhaps it comes from the fact that we assumed we had a right to privacy in spite of the gossip we endured, and it was hard to imagine that we would ever have to defend that right. “That’s none of your business,” was a standard reply that most people accepted.
We couldn’t imagine there would come a time when it would not only be acceptable for our neighbors to know what we were up to, but we’d think it was okay for large corporations and the government to pry into our private lives?
So, with a new-found concern, I asked my students, “Do you think it’s okay for others to track what we do on the internet?”
Most of the students shook their heads. They really didn’t like the idea even though one did suggest that it was okay for the government to track those who were checking out websites that explained how to build bombs.
Once again, it struck me how different the world these students grew up in is from mine. Most of them were in pre-school when the 9/11 attacks took place. They’ve grown up hearing that the world is a dangerous place filled with hate and violence. They’ve learned to avoid conversations where others may disagree and to remain silent if something makes them uncomfortable. They’ve learned to accept the exchange of their freedoms for security.
I grew up in a world where there was hope for the future. Yes, WWII was still fresh in American minds, and we knew the fear of the Cold War. We lived with the knowledge that we had created weapons so powerfully they could destroy all life on earth several time over, and our school classes were interrupted for “Nuclear Attack Drills” where we would stick our heads under our desks and believed that would save us.
And amidst that fear, we responded by looking towards the heavens and competing to reach the stars. A month after I turned five, President Kennedy announced that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Growing up during the 60s and 70s taught me that we should stand up for the things that we believed in, that protests lead to change – that if you felt something was wrong, it was your responsibility to stand up and let people know.
When I was a student in college, the goal was to expand our minds and introduce us to possibilities that we would not be aware of if we didn’t go to school. My students reminded me that in their world, individuality has been trampled by the push for conformity and standardization. Creativity is shunned while practicality is worshipped.
Now the goal of education is to produce workers for jobs that don’t even exist yet in a world that measures success by efficiency.
I don’t believe we can’t do anything about it, but even if we can’t, we still have to try. Sometimes it’s not about winning the battle. Sometimes it’s about standing up for what you believe in even though you know you’re going to lose. Because that is who we are. That is what we do.