Macalester Today Summer 2011

Confessions of a Reluctant Blogger

by Brian Rosenberg

Editor’s note: This column is taken from President Brian Rosenberg’s Commencement remarks, delivered to the Class of 2011 on May 14.

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Despite the fact that I love to write and am more or less perpetually convinced that I have something worthwhile to say, I have until recently avoided blogging.

The world of blogs is not my world. It is an alien place where people with noms de plume like “hypnotoad53” and “yankeesuck” launch diatribes against the United Nations and Derek Jeter.

And yet—when I was invited by the editor of the Huffington Post education section to contribute, I was smitten. Arianna Huffington: the woman is on Real Time with Bill Maher almost every other week. AOL just paid more than $300 million for the Huffington Post, and we know that AOL never gets it wrong. How could I resist?

I did not resist. I blogged: an elegant little piece, I think, on the macroeconomic forces that have contributed to the rapid escalation of college prices. Well-researched, pithy, forceful, but not overly defensive. At the very least it would add some useful information to an important discussion. What could go wrong?

And then the comments started appearing. And I was reminded why I don’t blog. The first one opened with a deft turn of phrase: “Hogwash.” Who, outside the confines of
Masterpiece Theatre, actually uses the word hogwash? Blog readers, apparently. Mr. Hogwash proceeded to blame the rise in college costs on the federal government’s lavish spending, demanding parents, and avaricious administrators. To which I was tempted to
reply, “Balderdash!”

Other comments followed in a similarly jaunty vein: “Mr. Rosenberg, you can’t be
serious.” “Hilarious” (not meant as a compliment), gross misstatements about budgets and student-faculty ratios voiced with absolute certainty, a comparison between American college students and the unemployed youth of the Middle East (trust me). One comment referencing teeth and the working class was just coherent enough to be creepy.

Let’s be honest. Who among us would not at least be tempted to post a response to some of these pseudonymous pundits?

“Dear ‘elite academics know nothing :)’: Warm thanks for taking the time to reply to my piece on college costs. You are, unfortunately, an idiot. LOL.”

Cathartic, true, but well beneath the dignity of a college president. Besides, responding directly to angry comments on one’s blog is generally considered the equivalent of tossing a large piece of red meat to a pack of predators. They will work themselves into a frenzy tearing it to shreds and come back for more, usually by repeating their earlier misstatements in all caps with many exclamation points.

All of this does leave me wondering about the effect this new virtual universe of bloggers and tweeters and Facebookies (my term) has on our public discourse. One hears a lot about the democratization of culture brought about by new technologies and the breakdown of longstanding barriers to communication. Fair enough. But maybe some of those barriers were there for a reason, and maybe not all of them are better off in ruins. Do we as a society seem more informed and productive because of the explosion of unfettered virtual communication? Are we making wiser decisions? Have you ever looked at the comments that follow any online opinion piece?

I find comforting the notion of an editor who will, say, check the accuracy of factual claims before they appear in the online equivalent of print. These days that sentiment makes me feel rather like Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice without the humongous estate.

So my counsel to our graduating seniors is to aspire to a higher standard. Text and tweet and Twitter away, but remember what Macalester has taught you about the use of evidence, the virtue of a beautifully turned sentence, and civility in one’s interaction with others, whether real or virtual. Aspire to a higher standard, and you might, by example, inspire others to follow.

There is of course no going backward, no retreating from the current forms of communication, and certainly no predicting what new forms are around the corner. So what can come of this desire to present an alternative to the “hogwash,” misinformation, and personal attacks that seem to be overwhelming our ability to tune it all out? What, I ask myself as an erstwhile scholar of Victorian literature, would Charles Dickens do?

The answer, alas, is stark and unavoidable. He would, I have no doubt, start a blog.

Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester, writes a regular column for Macalester Today. He can be reached at rosenbergb@macalester.edu.