Ordinary Education in Extraordinary Times

Despite all the changes going on outside campuses -- and often, in fact, because of them -- our traditional educational practices have never been more important, writes Michael S. Roth.

December 12, 2018
 
 
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People sometimes say that we on college campuses work in a bubble. I suppose that means we are impervious to outside influences and that events in the world don’t really affect us. That certainly isn’t true these days.

In fact, with all that’s going on beyond campuses, I’m often asked, what’s the point of education as usual? To which I respond that these are uncommon times, to be sure, but our traditional educational practices of valuing learning from people different from ourselves have never been more important.

It’s been a difficult season. So much of our nation’s and institutions’ energies were directed toward the U.S. Supreme Court nomination and then the elections, and controversies about their legitimacy remain. Frequent mass killings have started to produce numbness, as hate-fueled, disturbed and well-armed men stalk African American shoppers, Jewish worshippers and college students dancing in a bar.

One would have to be numb not to be awed and appalled by ferocious fires raging in California, killing scores as they tried to escape the inferno. As firefighters struggled in all but impossible conditions, as houses and lives were lost, the president of the United States tweeted his senseless and heartless claims about mismanagement. Climate change alters our seasons and ignites deadly fires, but it doesn’t inspire political change.

It’s in this context that I had to turn to grading papers in my Virtue and Vice humanities class. As I did so, I found myself less focused on today and more toward considering the enduring questions with which the students were wrestling. How does contemporary scientific research influence traditional arguments for equality? What are our obligations to the most vulnerable people among us? What are principles worth to a person who is committed to the pursuit of happiness? How much can one learn from thinkers whom one judges to be immoral?

I left the news behind while I contemplated all these questions with my students, who were considering different points of view without insult or invective. Those students were putting themselves, or trying to put themselves, in someone else's shoes in order to see what the world looked like from another perspective.

I teach history classes, and this semester we’ve marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the centenary of the end of World War I. On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, gangs of citizens inspired by racist, anti-Semitic hate attacked Jews all over Germany. “How could it happen?” my students have asked. It wasn't the government that ordered this pogrom, but its rhetoric of hate and dehumanization legitimated violence against those perceived as less than fully German. Dehumanization and scapegoating are the familiar tactics of the people who want to incite violence without being directly accountable for it.

My students have struggled to understand the dynamics of World War I --“the war to end all wars,” as it was called. They are puzzled by the nationalist gusto that propelled the first few months of fighting, dissipating into a war of attrition that inspired no one. Millions died in those bloody battles, and by the end of it all, few people could remember the reasons why governments were willing (even eager) to send their young people to the slaughter. Peace did not last. And now nationalism is again on the rise.

Amid all of this, we who work on college campuses are meant to be studying for or grading exams, writing papers, or processing registration for classes -- in other words, going about the ordinary practice of education. But as students look out at a world of hate and violence, of senseless killings and orchestrated oppressive practices, they may ask, why go on studying philosophy or mathematics, computer science or creative writing? What’s the point?

But, in fact, in a world scarred by violence, instigated polarization and managed parochialism, these educational practices of consideration, critique and empathy are beacons of hope. Seeing the world from someone else's point of view is no simple task, but you get much better at it when you practice. That's what we are doing much of the time on our campuses.

When we foster intellectual diversity, we are practicing learning from others different from ourselves. Sure, sometimes people retreat to the "bubbles" of their own tribe, whether they call that safety, tradition or prejudice. But much of the time, our teachers, students and staff encounter difference and try to figure out how to learn from it, sometimes finding out that commonalities are more significant than the distinctions that first impressed them.

Such encounters are woven into the fabric of our everyday educational practices. These days, they are hopeful alternatives to the normalization of violence and the pollution of our public sphere. Now, more than ever, we must work to protect them.

Bio

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and author, most recently, of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.

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