I’m sitting in a Borders…

I'm sitting in a Borders cafe at Union Square, San Francisco. It's a good cafe; I think I've written from here before. It overlooks the Square, which is full of tourists and an art exhibit (mostly various and sundry images of San Francisco (which I admit to being tempted by), but some more interesting art as well). I feel comfortable here; I can relax in this city in a way that I can't when I'm walking around Salt Lake City.

I wonder what the next few years will be like; whether I'll ever really adapt to that city. New England is in my bones; I spent sixteen years of my life there. And I took pretty well to Chicago and Philly and Oakland; all different cities, but all basically welcoming. There were places for me in those cities. Salt Lake is different.

The people are more outwardly friendly, actually. The bus drivers talk to you (the poor bus driver who took me from the Caltrain terminal to downtown today seemed really startled when I said "Thank you"); the grocery store clerks ask you about your day. Everyone I've met in Salt Lake has been polite and friendly, actually. My students are uniformly nice, at least in class. (Okay, there was that *one* girl last semester who was actually a bit of a ... well, never mind. She was in shock from not getting an 'A' for the first time in her life, poor thing...) My colleagues have been friendly and some have gone well out of their way to be welcoming. I'm really not sure why I'm not comfortable in Salt Lake -- but I'm not. There are days when I just want to hide in my apartment, and pretend my apartment is somewhere else entirely.

I think it's partly the conservatism that just permeates the atmosphere. The fascination with family and family values. My eighteen-year-olds write earnest treatises on how we can solve the problem of welfare, of teen pregnancy, of divorce... and I find myself relieved when one of them writes a research paper on legalizing marijuana. Isn't *that* what college freshmen are supposed to be thinking about? And then I remember that more than half of my seniors are married with kids, and at least a quarter of my freshmen are too...

It's not that I think these people are wrong. IDIC, right? I'm mostly a relativist, and I'm definitely aware of cultural standards, and the fact that I'm as much a product of my upbringing as they are. They have every right to their beliefs. And yet...yet I still feel there's something wrong here. Really wrong. I'm still trying to put my finger on what it is.

The nearest I've come to figuring it out is that they don't think enough. At least the teens don't -- do remember that most of my contact with SLC residents is with teenagers, not adults. I'm not sure what the bulk of the adults are like. But these teenagers -- they just blindly repeat what they're told, and you can tell, it's just so obvious that they haven't thought about it at all. They're not preaching family values because it's their considered opinion, because they've weighed the arguments for and against and decided for. So often they're preaching it because it's what they've been told over and over and over again. Gods.

The seniors are much better than the freshmen. It's hard to get through four years of college without learning at least a little critical thinking. That's what it's for, isn't it? That's one of the most important functions of college, and it makes me want to go out there and preach education until every single person in this country goes to college and learns how to think. (Better if they can do that in high school of course, and I count myself lucky for a few of my high school teachers who really pushed us in that direction -- but I know that most high school teachers are lucky if they can hold their students' attention long enough to make them read a few actual books...)

I talk to my little sister, a junior in college, and she tells me about her friends who do the minimum of work to pass their classes and spend the rest of college partying -- what a waste! There must be minds in those echoing heads, minds somewhere in there that just need a little prodding so they can start being really used, for the first time in their lives...

It's one reason I really enjoy teaching intermediate composition, actually. Because I get to introduce these students, for the first time, to the idea of a counterargument. To the idea that if you really want to be convincing in your argument, you *have* to consider the opponent's counterarguments -- and that if you can't counter them, then maybe you need to rethink your position.

If I can convince my students (and I don't get all of them, but I think I persuade most) that without considering counterarguments they're likely to at the very least *appear* biased and irrational in their arguments...then maybe I've accomplished something worthwhile. It's the start of critical thinking for them. It's the start of real thinking. It's a damn shame that they made it this far without running into it, but at least college tries to make sure they learn it here.

Anyway -- you'll probably hear this rant again -- you may have heard it here before. I'll let it go for now. I need to go figure out how to get from here to 848 Divisadero -- I get to meet Hanne Blank tonight, as she hosts a prose performance for the launch of her new book, Big, Big Love! I'll be meeting Jed there; it should be a lot of fun. I think I need to let go of Salt Lake for a week, and just enjoy the Bay Area again. The air is deliciously rich here (with moisture), and the people are colorful. I had yummy Indian food last night, and I plan to eat Ethiopian at least a few times before I leave. If you can ignore the traffic problems and the appalling cost of rent, it's pretty close to heaven on earth. I'll be spending plenty of time in SLC...no need to dwell on it now.

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