Hatred, Division and the University

I can imagine the chorus of individuals who will insist that it is not the responsibility of the university to teach civility or to prepare students to live in diverse societies.

March 21, 2017

Although I am not a citizen of The Netherlands, I am relieved that Geert Wilders will not be the next prime minister there. I found his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric reprehensible. Likewise, I hope that Marine Le Pen will fail in her election bid to become France’s next president. But my relief is moderated by the fact that Mr. Wilders received 13% of the vote and that Ms. Le Penn could receive 25% or more of the vote in the first round in France. Closer to home, I find it unsettling that Donald Trump still holds a nearly 40% approval rating. Obviously provocative rhetoric is resonating with a lot of people. Nor do elections and the finality of majority vote seem to assuage these tensions.

Today, differences in religion, language and dress seem to provoke fear and mistrust everywhere. We live in a world with a lot of anger, a lot of hatred, and frightening levels of intolerance. We are much too prone to generalizations and stereotypes, much too quick to believe we are right and others wrong.

Intolerance seems to be growing on US campuses of all types and universities seem ill-equipped to deal with it. The incidents at Middlebury and Berkeley are only two examples of these attitudes out of control. National divisions seem to be playing out less on campuses abroad although a recent article in The Guardian titled, UK universities urged to tackle rising tide of anti-Semitism on campus, is worrisome.  

I’m not suggesting that we should all agree, but we need to get better at disagreeing. And disagreeing more on the basis of fact and evidence, and less on the basis of emotion, prejudice and ignorance.

Many of us believed that the growing attention to “internationalization” on many campuses around the world would breed a generation of “global citizens” who would enter adult society interested in (perhaps even curious and enthusiastic about) other cultures, religions, traditions, values, etc. This would, of course, extend to acceptance of differences at home. I don’t think it’s working.

Study abroad was supposed to help by introducing students to other world cultures but only a small percentage of university students participate. Many study abroad programs for American students now offer students the opportunity to live in a protected bubble and study in English, controlling exposure to cultural differences. International students on US campuses often find more affinity with other foreign students and less with American students; there does not seem to be a strong inclination to cross cultural barriers in either direction. I’m no longer so optimistic that international mobility and exposure alone will lead to people of different backgrounds holding hands and singing Kumbaya in harmonious unison.

I think the same attitudes and inclinations that we hope to develop in “global citizens” are the same attitudes and inclinations we need in “domestic citizens” in order to live “civilly” on campus and in the larger society.

It is interesting to me that the most recent employer survey done in collaboration with the Association of American Colleges & Universities indicates that among other employer priorities for college learning outcomes is “Intercultural skills and understanding of societies and cultures outside the US.”  The survey results lead me to believe that there are economic as well as social benefits to teaching and developing skills of tolerance, respect for differences, and the capacity to collaborate with people different from ourselves.

I can imagine the chorus of individuals who will insist that it is not the responsibility of the university to teach civility or to prepare students to live in diverse societies. But the university is the last stop for many individuals before fully joining “adult” society. It’s our last chance to cultivate the skills and attitudes that we need to coexist. Although I do not have a magic formula for how we, on university campuses, can facilitate the development of tolerance for different opinions and values, I think we had better figure it out— and the sooner the better. I conclude by offering the frequently misconstrued and misattributed, yet famous lines: If not me who?  If not now, when? 


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