Tag Archives: liberal arts

Finding our Voice in a “Post-Truth” Era

Steve Volk, December 12, 2016

Where to begin?

(Photo: Judy van der Velden/flickr/cc))

(Photo: Judy van der Velden/flickr/cc))

Why not with a definition of “post-truth” from the Oxford dictionary: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oxford has selected “post-truth” as its “word of the year,” narrowly besting “bigly.” (OK, that last part was my own rocket into the post-truthian universe.)

Or perhaps we should start with a New York Times headline from the December 7 edition:

as-fake-news-spreads

From there, it’s but a quick hop to this clip from a CNN interview with a small group of Trump supporters on December 1. You’ve probably seen it, the one where Paula Johnson, a Trump enthusiast from New Hampshire, informed CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that at her (Johnson’s) polling station in Nashua, she caught people voting illegally who told her: “The president said I could vote, I’m here illegally.”

Taken from the perspective of what we naively referred to as “reality,” you’ve got to admit that Johnson’s statement is, well, nuts. I mean, why would someone expose her illegal activity to a total stranger? But let’s leave that aside and go on because the entire panel of Trump backers agreed that President Obama told undocumented people (“illegals” as they prefer to call them) that they could vote. Camerota asked Johnson where she heard that President Obama said the undocumented could vote. “Google it,” Susan DeLemus said. “You can find it on Facebook.” After “Googling it” on her phone and finding a video that had been falsely edited, the CNN reporter observed that Obama “had said nothing of the sort.” This was not a problem for Johnson who, with the endorsement of the other Trump supporters, clung to the belief – now known as “fact” – that “there is voter fraud in this country.”

“There’s no such thing…[as] facts”

scottie-hughesCome along next to the Diane Rehm show from November 30, 2016. Among other guests including James Fallows of The Atlantic and Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, Ms. Rehm spoke with Scottie Nell Hughes, described as a “former Donald Trump surrogate” who is a political editor of RightAlerts.com and a contributor to the aforementioned CNN. Hughes joined the program about 20 minutes into the show and was brought into the conversation by Rehm in the following manner:

Rehm: Now I know you’ve been listening since the top of the program, and I’m sure you’ve heard James Fallows talk about lies that Donald Trump has put out there in tweets, in things he’s said. What do you make of that?

Hughes: Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s — on one hand I hear half the media saying that these are lies, but on the other half there are many people that go, no, it’s true. And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.

There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up. So…

When the other journalists gathered their “jaws up from the floor” — and one could fairly ask why Ms. Hughes was given space at a table of journalists — James Fallows, concluded: “I think it actually is an intended result of this campaign and administration to think, well, really there aren’t any facts, it’s all opinion, so we’re going to sort of manipulate the things that we care about.”

The Past of Post-Truth

post-truth

Is post-truthism a peculiar and ugly side effect of the 2016 presidential campaign? Yes and no. Certainly, anti-intellectualism has long been an observable part of U.S. history: the road from the Know Nothing Party to McCarthyism has been well traveled. Nor is the rejection of observable facts (only) a contemporary malady. As educators trained to pay attention to historical realities and to raise critical questions about them, we should keep in mind that for many members of the U.S. community, the willful and persistent denial of facts all too familiar.

To cite only two examples: On December 6, 2016, a jury of six white men, five white women, and a one black man was unable to come to a unanimous decision that a police officer unlawfully killed Walter L. Scott, a black man who had been pulled over for a broken taillight. This is the case despite the existence of a video that recorded how Scott, who was running away, was shot in the back some 17 feet from the officer. If this stirred memories of the Rodney King trial, it should have. A video showing Rodney King being unmercifully beaten by the Los Angeles police in 1991 was not accepted as fact in the officers’ trial for assault; all were acquitted. As Jelani Cobb recently observed, “Taken in total, the reluctance of juries to hold police accountable is an inversion of the ‘fake news’ crisis in the Presidential election. There, a gullible public believes outrageous claims that reaffirm its world view. In the criminal-justice system, as black America has long known, an indifferent public sees evidence of outrageous actions but chooses not to believe it in order to preserve its world view. We have moved far beyond facts.” Large parts of white America have never accepted many of the facts that smack black Americans in the face every day.

In a similar vein, Elizabeth Kolbert observed that the current political climate suggests not that “too many people do not seem to care about the truth (though this is certainly a huge problem); it’s that a lot of people—an increasing number of them in high government positions—insist that their ravings are true, and try to act on them. This naturally brings them into conflict with those whose job it is to distinguish fact from fiction; hence the subpoenas and attempts to intimidate [journalists and others seeking the facts].”

Post-Truth and Our Responsibilities as Teachers

If journalists are having a hard time rethinking their role under the coming Trump Presidency, what does the post-truth era that he has ushered in mean for educators, we who are tasked with helping students recognize and appreciate the difference between facts and opinion, between informed and uninformed opinion, and between all of the above and a steaming pile of poop? We chuckled when Stephen Colbert invented the idea of “truthiness,” but have stopped laughing in an environment where facts are scorned “because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.”

Here’s a reality check: We are teaching – or attempting to teach – at a moment when the scientific consensus that climate change is both caused by humans and poses a massive threat to the planet’s future is ridiculed by half the population including the incoming head of the EPA.  We labor with our students to insure that they are able to craft evidence-based arguments at a moment when Republican-controlled state legislatures (as well as  the incoming Attorney General and the President-elect who appointed him) cite articles which claim that “millions of voter registrations are fraudulent or invalid.” This although evidence points to incident rates of voter fraud as lying somewhere between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent. Why trust social science research when you can reference an article in the Federalist which discloses, “stunningly,” that in Colorado, “a woman named Sara Sosa who died in 2009 cast ballots in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013”? (What are the chances of two people named “Sara Sosa” living in Colorado? Just saying…)

Pew Research

Perhaps we can take a small morsel of consolation from the fact that the truth-crisis that surrounded the election of 2016 can’t be deposited on higher education’s doorstep. After all, Clinton carried college graduates by a 9-point margin. And yet I have felt unnervingly at sea writing this post because my arguments, conscientiously authenticated by links to authoritative sources, would only serve as proof of their irrelevance, if not contemptibility, in the eyes of millions of voters. If Mr. Trump were to tweet that he actually received more votes from the college educated than his opponent, his claim would be accepted as truth by many, if not most, of his supporters.

What is to be done?

So, what is our role as classroom teachers, members of institutions of higher education, and intellectuals who are also concerned citizens?  The past few weeks have produced a profusion of commentary about how those of us in academia should situate ourselves in the post-truth world of President-elect Trump. You can read some general propositions about the stance to take here, here, or here. You can read statements that many college presidents, including Oberlin’s, have signed on to. You can investigate the sanctuary campus movement (which we are a part of), or take advice as to how we should react to threats to academic and intellectual freedom that can emerge when Trump takes office (and have already emerged in the transition period).

Beyond that, here is my own list of 7 propositions that those of us in higher education can do to challenge the threat of post-truthism in a time of Trump:

(1) Take even more seriously the task of helping students evaluate sources of information. Nicholas Lemann, a professor of journalism and former dean at Columbia, recently made the case for a new kind of core curriculum that includes “information acquisition” as the first item in the list.  We can argue about the value of a core curriculum later – an argument I’d relish – but now the focus is not just on our long-standing responsibility to teach “information literacy,” but on the consequences of not taking that responsibility seriously.

For those who seem to think that our students have no trouble identifying credible information sources, think again. Stanford University’s History Education Group recently tested nearly 8,000 students for “civic online reasoning” skills, i.e.  the ability to assess the credibility of information served up by smartphones, tablets, and computers. From January 2015 through June 2016 the group collected and studied responses from 7,804 students from 12 states. The schools ranged from “under-resourced” inner-city schools in Los Angeles to “well-resourced” suburban schools in Minneapolis. Testing in colleges ranged from large state universities with near-open enrollment, to Stanford University. What they found was that more than 80% of the tested students couldn’t tell the difference between real news articles and fake news.

For those of us who teach at selective liberal arts colleges, our concern as educators is not – or not solely – that our students are likely to be sucked into the dark vortex of whole-cloth fabrications whose most recent poster child is the Comet Ping Pong insanity (although the fact that such invented conspiracies are being circulated by an important member of the incoming Trump administration, should lead to much concern).

Most of what our students absorb via social media or other internet sites is usually of a lesser order of preposterousness (one hopes).  But to the extent that the flow of pixels is constant and constitutes the largest part of the information ocean in which our students (and we) swim, we need to pay attention to how they (and we) are navigating these waters. Take the following tweet which was evaluated as a part of the Stanford study:

moveontweet

The authors of the study found that:

Only a few students noted that the tweet was based on a poll conducted by a professional polling firm and explained why this would make the tweet a stronger source of information. Similarly, less than a third of students fully explained how the political agendas of MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress might influence the content of the tweet. Many students made broad statements about the limitations of polling or the dangers of social media content instead of investigating the particulars of the organizations involved in this tweet.

Faculty have work to do, in close partnership with the library, about basic online information literacy and cannot assume that our students have a sophisticated understanding of how information is generated in a content zone that has developed outside academic or journalistic oversight, as limited as that might be. Nor is the problem lessened because our (largely progressive) students aren’t likely to submit as evidence data that originate on white nationalist sites. We need to ask whether we are we equipping students to bring the same critical eye to more progressive media sources. Do they know what questions to ask about information sources and how to answer them? We need to develop new and sustained ways to help students navigate this information world. We need new courses in information literacy and the funded development of media literacy segments for on-going courses in the regular curriculum.

2) Help students understand (and question) the unspoken authority of the text. If we are not to spend the next 40 years wandering around in an epistemological desert, where all utterances are judged to be as valid (truthful, factual) as any other, we need to help our students understand where the authority that underlies knowledge comes from – and that means being able know on what grounds that authority can be sustained or challenged. And we need to empower students to question authority when necessary.

Especially as liberal arts institutions, we need to build into our courses not only a greater ability to assess information, but a deeper understanding of the ways in which knowledge is generated and the legitimate grounds on which it can be challenged. Acknowledging that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity reworked Newtonian physics does not prove the scientific method of knowledge-generation to be untrustworthy and that, in consequence, anything that Rush Limbaugh has to say about climate change is as valid as the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The above may be a handy exaggeration, but I would argue that we often fall short on one of the central tasks of liberal arts colleges: engaging students in the central (and different) ways our disciplines produce and authorize knowledge, and that a critical and historical approach towards knowledge-generation is a fundamental part of the on-going work of disciplines. For those who maintain that critical views towards “established” knowledge areas only enhances the arguments of “post-facters,” I would counter that not to question where and how knowledge is generated and established not only leaves the door open to those who would freely invent realities to further their interests, but leaves us poorly positioned to defend the work that we do in colleges and universities. At the end of the day, the best way we can enhance our students’ understanding of the difference between fact and crap is to make them aware of how knowledge is generated, and the ways it can be legitimately challenged.

(3) Be the critics that we are trained to be. Emphasize, at every turn, evidence-based reasoning and the importance of transparency regarding sources and information. Help our students (and our colleagues) question not just the assumptions of others, but their/our own assumptions as well. As Cornel West observed, “It’s not a matter just of having the courage of our convictions, but the courage to attack our convictions.”  We need to challenge arguments based on blind appeals to authority. We need to do this not just in our classes but in the broader decisions we make as an educational institution; not just in our institutions, but, as a national community of educators, from early childhood to higher education. And, as a community of educators we need to demand that local, state, and national governments make evidence-based decisions, are transparent about the evidence they bring to decisions making, and are open to discussion, information, and challenge.

(4) Fight ideological and political blacklisting. A variety of news sources have reported that the Trump transition team “wants to know who at the Department of Energy attended domestic and international climate talks. It wants emails about those conferences. It also asks about money spent on loan-guarantee programs for renewable energy. … The Trump team questionnaire also asks… for the 20 highest paid employees at the department’s national laboratories.” The educational community is painfully familiar with ideologically inspired firings and the blacklist, and even the hint of retaliation against those who come to fact-based but inconvenient conclusions cannot be allowed to be normalized. It’s not enough to challenge false news in a “post-truth” environment, we must strongly defend truth and evidence, and those in the academy and outside who produce them.

(Image: Federico Calandria - Flickr cc)

(Image: Federico Calandria – Flickr cc)

(5) Understand why many are pissed off at higher education – and do the work to show what is generating the most serious problems in higher education. Higher education leaders and the faculty in particular have not been forceful defenders of the transformative purpose of higher education, allowing the image to coalesce of college as a snobbish club where it costs a lot to get in,  students spend all their time talking nonsense and hiding from ideas they don’t like, and, when finished, move back to their parents’ basement without a job or any “real” skills. We shouldn’t be surprised by the growing anger directed at the higher education sector. Like a carrot dangled in front of a donkey but always out of reach, a college degree is both a necessary means to a more secure future, and increasingly out of reach for a growing percentage of the population. One consequence is that the total outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. is $1.2 trillion, the second-highest level of consumer debt behind only mortgages.

The problems of the the public higher education sector (representing over 76% of all students), we should be very clear, are rooted in many factors including the growing income inequality produced by stagnating wages, the decline of unions, the growth of an insatiable gazillionaire class, and the increasing unwillingness of state legislatures (i.e., “the public”) to fund post-secondary education. State funding of higher education is down by almost 50% from 1975 to 2011. There are many ideological reasons for a retreat from the very notion of education as a public good, but new research suggests that, “As the population has grown more diverse, support for grand efforts like the GI Bill to open doors to higher education has dwindled. Coincidence?” Anthony Carnevale, a well-regarded educational researcher at Georgetown, found that,

Since the 1990s, the number of black and Latino high school graduates who enroll in college has more than doubled. But three-quarters of that increase has been at open-access colleges. Meanwhile, white college enrollment has increased only at the nation’s top 500 universities. [There are about 4,600 institutions of higher education.] Thus, American higher education has evolved into a two-tiered separate and unequal system that fuels the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.

Put simply, as both the public K-12 system and the public higher education system become progressively non-white, they are increasingly starved of funding. If we support diversity in higher education, as we must, we also are called upon to support funding for that diversity, whether in state funding of higher education or federal funding of Pell and other grants. Whether at public or private institutions, we must fight for the right for higher education for all; fight to sustain the understanding that education is more than skills; fight to make K-12 and higher education a public good; fight to make higher education something that lessens, not increased, inequality in this society.

anti-intellectualism(6) Be humble. With the rise of the Tea Party and the advent of the Trump campaign and his victory, many commentators have returned to Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1963 study, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. One of the more insightful recent reviews was written by the previously cited Nicholas Lemann in the Columbia Journalism Review. Lemann highlights two quotes from Hofstadter we should consider.

Anti-intellectualism — Hofstadter wrote — is founded in the democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country. The intellectual class, whether or not it enjoys many of the privileges of an elite, is of necessity an elite in its manner of thinking and functioning . . . . Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: They have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.

At a moment when the in-coming President staffs his cabinet with the very same billionaires and Goldman-Sachians he savaged during the campaign, we should not be surprised (as my wife continues to remind me!) that his supporters don’t (yet) see them as the “elites” against which they turn their anger. That anger is still directed at us, the pointy-headed intellectuals. Never mind that power doesn’t reside in Oberlin, Berkeley, or Cambridge. We can tear out our hair over the ludicrousness of this… or we can take to heart another Hofstadter quote:

Intellectuals dwell in the realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life.

Our task is not to make ourselves likable to those who have turned their anger against us. Our task, as critics, is to lay bare the reality of what is happening and at the same time make what we do as educators both relevant and accessible, financially and intellectually, and doing it with humility and a sense of our own limitations.

(7) Insure that our campuses are welcoming, diverse, and supportive. The post-truth environment poses many problems for all of us, but it presents particular threats for the most vulnerable among us, those, as Parker Palmer recently put it, who are at “risk of being bullied, harassed, publicly maligned, physically threatened, denied opportunity, or deported.”

Our campuses must remain not just welcoming for, but fundamentally protective of, these communities. Whether becoming sanctuary campuses or underlining our opposition to racial or religious bigotry, particularly if such attitudes receive a covert or overt support from the highest offices in the land, our job as educators is to defend the inclusiveness of our project and to call out any attempts to challenge or undercut it.

Conclusion

Courtney E. Martin, a prolific author and recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, recently wrote a column titled “Where I’m Turning to Be Comforted and Challenged.”  It’s a stunning piece of writing in which she concludes that she needs art to “cut through the noise” to be the “fact-check from hell.”

I need it — she continues — to disrobe the emperor in a way that all the pundits in the universe cannot. I need it to knee me in the back. I need it to humble and embolden me simultaneously. I need it to paint new worlds that help me understand this one. I need it to yank me out of the haze of the Internet and plop me smack dab in front of another human being staring into my eyes and making me uncomfortable. I need it to reacquaint me with truth. I need it to put marrow back in my bones. I need it to be fearless and maybe even earnest and I need it to come from…a place beyond strategy and semantics, a place of calm indignation, a place of spiritual redemption. I need art to remind me of the immediate danger and convince me of the safety available in collective rebellion.

While it is art that Martin looks toward to find her voice and her community, it is to the liberal arts and to teaching that I look to “put the marrow back in my bones.” We don’t need to stop what we’re doing to confront the challenges of a post-fact world, we need to do what we’re doing better. We need to defend the task of liberal education as a means of creating an “intellectual engagement that fulfills our nature as thinking beings,” as Ramesh Ponnuru recently argued. But we also need to insure that the opportunities to do this are available and accessible to all. At the end of the day, the best way to confront a “post-truth” environment is to continue to do what we do, but to do it better, to do it with humility and conviction, and to do it with the knowledge that failure is unthinkable.

Back-To-School Lit

Steve Volk, September 13, 2015

They arrive on our electronic (or real) doorsteps as punctually as the back-to-school adverts, and seemingly in the same quantity. Late August and early September in the United States is the season when the public is called on to contemplate the world of higher education… most often, what’s wrong with it. Today’s (Sept. 13) New York Times is devoted to higher ed. It includes an insightful piece on college tuition by Adam Davidson, a thought-provoking article by Annie Murphy Paul on whether college lectures discriminate (“A growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students”), a terrific essay by Edward E. Baptist on the challenges of “Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners” (“Whenever we dredge up the past, we find that the rusty old chains we rake from the bottom are connected to some people’s present-­day pains and others’ contemporary privilege”), and Syreeta McFadden’s contemplation on “Teaching Martin Luther King Jr. in the Age of Freddie Gray.” Read them.

Eva Hesse - Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Eva Hesse – Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Along with these types of stories in the New York Times one encounters a raft of articles that chronicle a student arrival at college for her first semester, describe high schoolers teetering on the cusp of the college-decision-year, follow parents unsure of whether they can afford the university that has plucked their daughter’s heartstrings, and sermonize on how higher education has sold it soul.

And then there is the burgeoning journalism (back-to-school lit, I call it) that falls into the subgenre of “What’s-The-Matter-With-Kids-Today,” a nod to “Bye, Bye Birdie” of Broadway fame (“Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”). These are the articles that lament the “The Coddling of the American Mind”, the rise of intolerance on campus, or, in the latest to appear, and in which Oberlin takes pride of place (The Atlantic, Sept. 11, 2015) , the spread of a new “victimhood” culture, an argument first described in the research of two sociologists.

There is much that can be said about the issues raised in these latter articles, and I would hope that faculty, staff, and students can discuss them further in a variety of settings. Here, I will only say that while many of us are confused or upset or angered by what not only appears to be, but is in specific instances, a fundamental disregard for the principles of academic freedom, we should also be aware of the context in which these articles continue to appear. Not to discount some of the arguments made, nonetheless the tendency in some of the reporting to generalize a relatively few examples of specific behaviors into a new student culture raises the question of how widespread these trends are within higher education. Similarly, to dismiss what scholars have found to be real and significant barriers to some students’ learning (what scholars have termed “microaggressions” ) by decrying or ridiculing the fact that a few students have deployed the concept in ways that are no longer recognizable or defensible, does not encourage a deeper understanding of what are important issues, and principles, for those of us who teach and interact with students on liberal arts campuses. Nor do these articles open the way to a productive discussion of the subject, something which is desperately needed. (Those looking for a well-researched introduction to the topic of microaggressions, for example, should consult the work of Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University – you can start here and here – or Kevin Nadal of John Jay College, CUNY – try here.) There certainly is much which we can, and should, discuss, including what I would term the emergence of a “safety” narrative on some campuses (usually elite, selective colleges or flagship university), but the seeming intent of the back-to-school-and-the-liberal-arts-colleges-have-all-gone-crazy articles to ramp up outrage against the education that takes place in these colleges should be interrogated along with the behaviors they describe.

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

We (the approximately 130 residential liberal arts colleges that remain) are a tiny percent of the overall higher education framework in the United States today (just over 2%, to be exact). There are nearly 20 million post-secondary students in the U.S. today, and many are struggling with debt, thinking about future employment, juggling studying with jobs and families, and just trying to learn in a political environment which disparages teachers and belittles actual knowledge. While writers in the Atlantic enjoy skewering liberal arts colleges as hotbeds of “political correctism” and left-wing students run amuck, and while we can share the anxiety of those wondering how any but the very rich will be able to afford a university degree, we are, in fact, doing many things right, and the back-to-school season is a good time to remind ourselves of this. Even researchers who have launched the most serious critiques of higher education for not adding to students’ capacity to think critically (Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift, for example) have concluded that liberal arts colleges are getting it right.

So, what is it we do (and, I could add, why does it seem to make our detractors so angry)? To help answer this question, I turn to my polestar in these matters, John Dewey, and to a lovely article that the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1989 (“Education as Socialization and as Individualization”). In the article Rorty offers an explanation of why liberals and conservatives see the purposes of education so differently. Conservatives, he suggests, stress the importance of education for socialization while liberals argue in favor of education for individualization. (Interestingly, he observes, in the United States, education up to the age of 18 or 19 is mostly a conservative stronghold; it’s mostly about socialization, “of getting the students to take over the moral and political common sense of the society as it is.” Higher education, on the other hand, has been mostly a liberal’s domain, about encouraging Socratic skepticism, a place where “we hope that students can be distracted from their struggle to get into a high-paying profession, and that the professors will not simply try to reproduce themselves by preparing the students to enter graduate study in their own disciplines.”

Ernest C. Withers, The "Little Rock Nine" first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Ernest C. Withers, The “Little Rock Nine” first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Dewey’s approach, Rorty writes, wasn’t based on either conservative or liberal precepts. He offered “neither the conservative’s philosophical justification of democracy by reference to eternal values nor the radical’s justification by reference to decreasing alienation.” For Dewey, the promise of an education was its democratic value as an on-going experiment engaged in…by us. Dewey asks that we “put our faith in ourselves – in the utopian hope characteristic of a democratic community…” For Dewey, hope, “the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past – is the condition of growth.”

We, on campus, have been thinking much about both the value and valence of hope, as we pondered the words of Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, who was on campus last week and continue to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in our reading groups.

For his part, Rorty sadly observed that there now are certain aspects of the U.S. educational establishment that Dewey couldn’t have foreseen, but that we should not hold this against his vision of hope. Dewey “could not have foreseen,” he wrote, “that the United States would decide to pay its pre-college teachers a fifth of what it pays its doctors. Nor did he foresee that an increasingly greedy and heartless American middle class would let the quality of education a child received become proportional to the assessed value of the parents’ real estate.”

Rorty is a Deweyan, and, as he put it, “We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the student see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centered is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to make themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts, as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Susan B.] Anthony, [Eugene] Debs and [James] Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings. With luck, the best of them will succeed in altering the conventional wisdom, so that the next generation is socialized in a somewhat different way than they themselves were socialized…To hope [this way] is to remind oneself that growth is indeed the only end that democratic higher education can serve and also to remind oneself that the direction of growth is unpredictable.”

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

There are politicians and pundits, and, yes, some administrators, who, when reading the back-to-school lit which will make its way to their desktops, think that higher education is too important to be left in the hands of professors, let alone allow the students to have a voice in it. But I think of what it is that we have done and what we should continue to do. And I am reminded of what the Civil War historian, James McPherson, pointed out in his 1975 book, The Abolitionist’s Legacy (Princeton): an extraordinarily high percentage abolitionist leaders were shaped by their colleges. In a sample of 250 antislavery leaders, nearly 80% either had college degrees or spent time in college. This, at a moment when less than 2% of the overall population was college educated. If we are doing what we should be doing, our students, even those who might not get everything right as they attempt to cope with the world around them, what they bring with them, and what they are learning, will succeed in “noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surrounds” – and try to change it.

One Big Motrin

We have been going through a difficult time. One of the signposts of that difficulty, for me at least, came when I hesitated after writing the very first word of this posting: we. I wasn’t about to put it in quotes, but I have been realizing just how tenuous that “we” has become.  I know I don’t speak for a “we,” nor can I say what that “we” is feeling. Neither am I willing to abandon the hope embodied in the we.

As an intellectual, one who works with words and ideas and attempts to make them relevant in an environment in which learning occurs, I turned to literature as offering a way into this conversation (and I hope it is a conversation). To Virginia Woolf, in particular, whose 1925 essay, “How to Read a Book,” I was recently reminded of in a lovely blog entry by Maria Popova.

“The only advice … that one person can give another about reading,” Woolf writes, “is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.” [The essay is in the public domain .]

With Woolf’s advice in mind, and with Oberlin’s turmoil in mind rather than the challenges of reading, I start again:  We have been going through a difficult time, both individually and collectively. I know there are many of us in the Oberlin community thinking hard and talking constantly about the road ahead. My intent here is to add to those conversations.

Over the past week, I’ve been nursing a muscle I pulled in my leg when I slipped on the ice. I asked one of the coaches what I should do and when I could start to exercise again. He recommended ice and ibuprofen, so the damaged tissue could quiet down from its inflamed state before attempting any exercises designed to strengthen it. I dislike organic metaphors, but it seems to me that we desperately need a healthy dose of Motrin in order to rest our jangled nerves before moving on to strengthening our community. Understanding that pulled muscles impact people differently, that those who are more conditioned can come back faster than others…still, we need an ice pack.

It’s what Woolf recommends as “letting the dust settle” after reading a book before passing judgment on it. “We must pass judgment upon those multitudinous impressions [received in reading]; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep.” I can only hope that we are in the process of letting the dust from the recent weeks settle before passing “hard and lasting” judgment. Again, each of us will have different ways to do that, but just as it is hard to run with a pulled muscle, to deliver informed judgments the moment we put a book down, so it may not yet be time to know exactly what is the best way forward.

I have no doubt that students, faculty, staff and administrators all have a number of concrete steps that can and should be taken to move us from this place while addressing the shortcomings we have identified. I have only one suggestion, and it’s not as easily achieved as implementing a new curriculum, hiring new staff, or deploying more security personnel. It is about what we do here every day. It’s about teaching and learning in the liberal arts tradition (whose definition I borrow from a statement that some colleagues and I are working on). If done well, study in the liberal arts instills in students a capacity and a passion for inquiry, for critical thinking and analysis, for clear and original expression of ideas.  Liberal arts learning values self-reflection and the ability to understand and accept differences in others.  Liberal arts education seeks to foster an openness to, and engagement with, new ideas; it assigns central importance to the asking of questions as a mode of learning; it affirms habits of inquiry that regard our search for values and the ability to live an ethical life as the keystone that holds our learning in place. Finally, I would argue that empathy is central to this; that it is critical to the process of engagement with others and a commitment to the cause of social justice.

Some mistake empathy for sympathy, and it may produce just that. But empathy is the capacity for imaginative attribution, and psychologists consider it a critical foundation for promoting cooperative, pro-social and satisfying relationships. The (by now clichéd) Cherokee saying “Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes,” is about empathy, as is Atticus Finch’s observation in To Kill A Mockingbird, that, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Some would say that you shouldn’t do that (asserting a tribalist perspective), or that you can’t do that (suggesting that we can never leave our own social formation). It seems to me that both literature and social justice activism (among other things) would suffer without the capacity for empathic imagination.

Empathetic engagement is not about abandoning one’s principles or an appeal to the sad cry: “can’t we all just get along.” Sometimes we can’t. It is about listening…no, it’s about trying to hear what someone you disagree with has to say. At the end of the day, maybe you and your interlocutor will still be miles apart; I seriously doubt that you’ll be best friends. But something will have changed for the listening and hearing.

I wonder if you’ll bear with me for a story which seems a good illustration of this (rather than an assertion that I have any idea about how to deal with radical differences). A few years back, the town and college were shaken by a series of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids on a restaurant in town. Five undocumented workers were hauled away and, before we could even locate them, they had been deported. Three of us (a student, a town resident, and myself) decided to bring a resolution to City Council to provide those who live and work in our town with a modicum of protection and support. We worked hard on the resolution, consulted with officials, police, activists, and others, and finally brought it to Council, where it had to pass three separate readings before final approval.

Tensions were high at these meetings as news of the resolution had spread to other Ohio towns and anti-immigration activists from places like Painesville and Grafton made up the majority in the hearing room. We received threats on our lives, and for the first time ever, City Council brought in a metal detector through which audience members passed. The meetings themselves were pocked with invective from many of the out-of-towners (“America was built by the white people!”), but the resolutions passed with strong support.

Shortly after the last meeting, I received an email from an unknown sender who criticized me for having called her a “bigamist” in the course of the hearings. Since I didn’t know her, much less her personal life, I had no idea what she was talking about, but assumed that she had meant “bigot,” and, indeed, in my own remarks to City Council I had characterized some of the opposition to the bill as arising from bigotry. I wrote her back, trying to clarify my comments, but I also realized that I hardly ever talk to people with whom I fundamentally disagree, and this might be an opportunity. So I suggested we talk. Since I was leaving to teach on the London semester two days later, time didn’t permit an in-person meeting, but we did spend about three hours on the phone.

I thought about what I wanted to achieve in that conversation: I wasn’t going to change her mind, nor she mine. But I did hope that she could perhaps hear something she hadn’t heard before. (Tellingly, I wasn’t so empathetic as to imagine that I could hear something as well.) I also decided that there were certain limits and bounds to such a conversation and, once reached, I wouldn’t spend any more time at it. For me, unless she was willing to see undocumented migrants (“illegal aliens” in her terms) as human and therefore deserving some dignity, I couldn’t see much purpose in the conversation. Lacking that, game over.

So we talked. I pulled out my most obvious empathetic moves: what if you were a Mexican mother who had to feed her children, etc, etc. Nope. I kept moving back, hoping that we would find the one point we could agree on before we hit the ultimate boundary. Finally, more than two hours into the conversation, I realized I knew nothing about her, her family, its history, or what she cared about (other than making sure that undocumented workers weren’t working in Oberlin’s restaurants). So I asked her. Her family had been in Ohio for a long time. Not surprisingly, they had been farmers, but no longer were. “Was it hard for your family to give up its land,” I asked? Yes, it had been. Very hard. After a few more minutes, I asked her why she thought that a family from, say, southern Mexico, which had been on the same plot of land for maybe 500 years, maybe much longer, would give up that land so they could wash dishes in a restaurant in northeastern Ohio. And for the first time she paused and said, “I don’t know.” We talked some more, I told her a bit about NAFTA and what it had done to many Mexican farmers…the details at this point don’t matter. The conversation ended shortly after. We didn’t (figuratively) give each other a hug; I still have my very strong beliefs about immigration, and she most likely has hers. But we each heard, of that I’m convinced, and we each were changed.

Listening is not easy; hearing is even harder because it means that you have to think about your own positions as well as those of the other party.  And that is particularly difficult when one’s ears are filled with shouts of approval from one’s supporters (or one’s hearing is hardened by disapproving voices from one’s detractors). But hearing is essential if we are to move ahead, particularly when the differences that divide us are much narrower than those expressed in the City Council’s chambers.

What can we, as teachers, do to help this process of listening and hearing? Where can we best intervene? How can we model empathetic hearing and liberal arts values? I trust that we will find the answers.

Steve Volk, March 10, 2013