Confronting a Source of Contemporary Student Disengagement


  • David Gerber University at Buffalo (emeritus)



Undergraduates, Students, Seminars, Class discussion, Gender, Social class, Adolescence


The author teaches undergraduate seminars on problems of justice arising historically from the freedom of expression clause of the US Constitution’s First Amendment. He began this instruction before the present fraught intellectual climate, with its ideological polarization and its claims, Left and Right, against the traditional arguments for tolerance for opinions different from one’s own. He has long favored confronting what Ken Bain, the author of What the Best College Teachers Do, has called “the big questions,” and in these seminars asks: is it possible for a democratic society to achieve simultaneously the desirable ends of justice and order? Recently he has taught students with strong responses to big questions. The campus is often characterized by vigorous expression of the progressive student consensus but quiescence on the part of the not inconsiderable number of conservative students and students less secure in their opinions. This seminar has maintained proactive conversations, with generally broad participation. In this article, he explains how, through structured discussions, simulations, and the study of judicial processes, historical lawsuits and court decisions have provided frameworks for classes that are explicitly less divisive and more productive of analytical thinking. The article concludes, however, with a discussion of an abiding problem within this generally successful model: the disengaged student whose opinions lie outside the abidingly liberal-progressive campus consensus and who seeks to avoid participation.

Author Biography

David Gerber, University at Buffalo (emeritus)

David A. Gerber is professor emeritus of history at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and a senior fellow in history and disability studies at the University at Buffalo. Within American history, his research and publications have been on race, immigration and ethnicity, disability, veterans of military conflict, and First Amendment law. With Bruce Dierenfield, he is the author of Disability Rights and Religious Liberty in Education: The Story behind Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (2020), a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title. Currently his research is on American general officers who were prisoners of war in the Asia-Pacific during World War II and the utility of the concept of “moral injury” for understanding their reactions to captivity. His articles on instructional practices and curriculum in higher education have appeared in The History Teacher, Teaching History, and the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History.




How to Cite

Gerber, D. (2023). Confronting a Source of Contemporary Student Disengagement. Proceedings of the H-Net Teaching Conference, 1(1), 35–42.