Why It’s OK to Rat On Other Students

How do you teach people to do the right thing?

by Warren Goldstein

Like many people in the academy, I have found myself uneasily stewing over the murders at Virginia Tech. My students and I have spent far too much time glancing over at our classroom door, wondering whether we would have been able to hold it shut if a gunman had wanted in; would I have had the courage of Liviu Librescu, who students said died protecting them?

I was lucky; I didn’t have to deal with Seung-Hui Cho, unlike my poor colleagues in the Virginia Tech English department, who had formed a departmental task force to discuss him. At least they tried. They resisted the status quo on most campuses, the “live and let live,” anti-authoritarian ethic of individualism that dominates so much of American life, especially that organized around the young.

Look, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool civil libertarian who’s publicly condemned the USA Patriot Act, the FBI, and the trumped-up “war on terror,” and I’ve given a half-dozen speeches (one the night of September 11, 2001) defending civil liberties in time of war. But I’m suggesting that we adopt campus versions of New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority slogan, If You See Something, Say Something.

Some years ago, in the bucolic little college town in Massachusetts where my wife and I raised our three children, some middle-schoolers boarded a school bus carrying a couple of pipe bombs in a shoebox. The wonder, of course, is that those sensitive devices survived the bumpy New England ride. But they did, and when the young engineers showed their handiwork to fellow students, someone reported the bombs to the assistant principal, who retrieved them (what was he thinking?), dismissed school, and called the bomb squad.

Within hours my kids knew the identities of the four students who’d made the bombs, and I soon learned the names from them — not from the school, which showed itself exceptionally attentive to the rights of the boys who had threatened the lives of dozens, if not hundreds, of their fellow students. We never got a report, never had an investigative piece in the local newspaper, only learned in the most distant sort of way that first, the students had been disciplined, and then, that they were back at school. No apology from anyone. After all, they were just juveniles. (This was before the massacre at Columbine High School.)

I ruined dinner parties with rants about my neighbors’ equanimity in the face of near disaster. It turns out that a group of kids had known for weeks, even months, that the bomb makers were practicing in their backyards. Didn’t their parents have some responsibility for knowing what their children were up to? But the highly educated people in our college town did not want to talk about it. Now, I hope, we can begin a long-overdue public discussion about how we encourage and defend our students’ civil liberties — while doing a lot more to enhance their safety.

To start, we need to confront the problem that nearly all our students, like our children, believe that “ratting out” a friend or fellow student is a far worse offense than shutting up and allowing a couple of pipe bombs to ride to school on a bumpy school bus. I tried to talk to my kids’ friends about that, as I did to my own students at the time. I was whistling into a nor’easter. There are more descriptive metaphors.

Last week I raised these issues with my classes, and I heard about a roommate who had turned a pizza box into a dartboard for an X-Acto knife. Laughing as the blade went into a face on the box, the knife thrower told his roommate, “This could be you.” My student and his other roommate “got rid of him” by talking to someone in student affairs. I got the impression they just emphasized the guy’s weirdness, and that they didn’t get along with him. Great. So now our knife thrower lives someplace else on the campus. “Do you think I should report him?” my student asked. “Yes,” I answered, “I do — to someone in genuine authority.”

“It’s easier,” another student said, not to look too closely — and certainly not to “report” anything. Of course it is. The campus cop might not take you seriously; a professor might laugh. “You might be wrong, and they might think you’re a sissy for being afraid,” said still another guy.

In college-student culture, you don’t rat. Not about your fake ID, not about the drug dealer in the next dorm, not about the gun you heard about across campus, not about the fraternity’s term-paper bank, not about an athlete’s no-show “job.” After all, another student explained, the one time she told on her brothers as a kid, her father did little, and her brothers beat her up, yelling “snitches get stitches.” But college students are on their way to becoming adults. (That’s why we don’t immediately call their parents when they stop attending class.) And adults need to move beyond adolescent peer bonding.

Maybe we should talk to them about what that means.

And maybe we should ask ourselves the same question. As academics, we believe in expanding the sources of knowledge as much as possible. To do intellectual work, we need access to books, journals, newspapers, and archives. Why, then, on a university campus, do we not do everything in our power to gain access to all the available information about our students? We faculty members could take a page from the example of those Virginia Tech English professors, and share impressions of our students on a more regular basis.

Oddly, we may need to acknowledge that our students, particularly the 18- to 20-year-olds, are less grown up than previous generations. Our student-affairs officials have been educating us about the “millennium generation,” with their hovering “helicopter parents” who use cellphones to keep psychological umbilical cords connected. Nor are we, when we adopt our role as parents, guilt free. A colleague once told me that “we are having trouble with our daughter’s [a college sophomore] political-science class.” “We?” I asked, dissolving in laughter. But perhaps today’s students do need — expect — something more from us.

In my university, even senior faculty members teach a full load, mostly undergraduates in relatively small classes. But that’s hardly the case in big universities with large lecture classes and lots of teaching assistants. That makes it hard to get to know your students (and admit it, you’re more interested in your own research, right?). Plus we have legitimate concerns about students’ privacy. No one wants a confidential “watch” list in an academic department. We’re supposed to be teachers, not snoops. Still … on most campuses, we could do a lot more than we do.

It’s the students who really know their fellow students, much better than we ever will. They live, eat, and party with them; they hang out with or pass one another in the bathrooms and common rooms, weight rooms, dining halls and the bookstore, the library and local bars. They have an enormous amount of information about one another. As a community, we need to develop ways of inviting them to share that information, especially when it seems to veer in particularly weird directions.

We could even provide some guidelines (as one of my students requested): Tell someone about persistent violent talk. About someone who never speaks. Really oddball loner behavior. Yes, even someone obsessed with violent video games. Fierce racism and homophobia. Calling women “hos” or ranting about promiscuity. Unmistakable “creepiness.” Students have a good feel for that — we need to help them trust their instincts. We need to help female students not be afraid to report harassment — electronic as well as physical. According to my own unscientific survey over the years, too often they would rather let offensive behavior pass than become known as the “bitch” who “reported” someone. Or they’re afraid to be singled out for retaliation by the harasser.

The kind of behavior I’m proposing here may make many of us uncomfortable. But comfort is hardly the highest value of a university. Particularly in the humanities, teaching that doesn’t make our students uncomfortable at some point isn’t really good teaching, since it doesn’t challenge them. Nor ought comfort to be the measure of a community’s achievement. It surely would have been easier, more comfortable, for most African-Americans to continue living under segregation in the 1960s; it took a movement and an exceptional leader to help them defy the status quo and risk their lives for a more just world.

I loathe the endlessly repeated slogan, but I love the idea that we take responsibility for ourselves; that we get nosier — yes, I said that, nosier — than usual. I’m not proposing that we become a nation of campus informers, but if we’re going to have a chance of stopping future massacres, those of us on campuses are going to have to spend as much time talking about community members’ responsibility to the whole as we talk about the right to “do one’s own thing.”

Look, I know we can’t draw a clear line here. But at least let’s debate how we might draw some kind of line.

Breaking out of the prohibition on “ratting out,” and playing a more proactive role as faculty members, will surely result in some, maybe even much, harmless behavior being reported to authorities, some of whom will react in heavy-handed ways. Some colleges may get sued. Or some parents and students may flock to a campus that is rethinking what the safety of the community demands. And we’ll all know each other a little better, perhaps a little more than makes us comfortable.

Welcome to a university that just might be able to stop the next massacre. And maybe not — but we’d be trying harder, and insisting that there are values higher than individualism and “do your own thing.”

A student of mine, I’m just remembering, flipped out before I got to class late one day a couple of weeks ago and stomped out. The other students told me the story, but he hasn’t been back, and I haven’t followed up. Not good.

Warren Goldstein is chairman of the history department at the University of Hartford. He is author of William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience (Yale University Press, 2004).

This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 2007.

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Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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