The wave of tragic and troubling events of recent days in our country -- such as the shooting of black Americans in Baltimore, Baton Rouge and St. Paul, the attacks against police in Dallas and Birmingham, and terrorist rampages in Orlando and San Bernardino -- has brought me back to another tumultuous time: the spring and summer of 1968.
I remember it well because I was a college senior about to graduate. I remember the night of April 5, when I had planned to go into Chicago for an event. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the day before in Memphis, and that night, Chicago seethed and exploded: a 28-block stretch of Madison Street was left largely in ruins; 36 major fires were reported; 11 people were killed; 48 were wounded by police gunfire and 90 policemen were injured. In two days 2,150 people were arrested. Thousands of army troops were sent in to restore order.
The summer before, I had worked with teenagers in the Cabrini-Green Homes on Chicago’s Near North Side. I lived in a largely African-American church community. I felt comfortable joining pickup games on the asphalt basketball courts and visiting families in these high-rise apartments. After the spring of 1968, gunfire became commonplace from the upper floors of Cabrini-Green, and deep racial tensions made my normal kind of coming and going impossible.
On the Wednesday before graduation, June 5, 1968, I awoke to learn that Bobby Kennedy had just been shot in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic primary. I can remember a deep sense that our nation seemed to be splitting apart -- a fear that seemed to be coming true when the Democratic National Convention met later that summer in Chicago and spiraled into chaos. Ten thousand demonstrators gathered outside and were met by 23,000 police and National Guard members. These violent clashes were broadcast live to the nation.
The current moment in America reminds me of 1968: the heightened racial tension, repeated incidents of violence, denunciations and defense of police -- all against the backdrop of an overheated political season. Then, many young people felt alienated from the system and found little hope in either candidate of the major parties.
In such troubled times, what are we to think? How are we to act? I have no grand answers to our deep problems as a nation and as a society. The fact is there are no easy answers. But what can we do as college and university leaders? What can our campus communities do? What can I do? What follows is what I am committing myself to, as best I can.
Acknowledge hard truths. The dilemmas of race continue to plague our society. Many of our students will return to campus feeling the pain of racial disparity and racial conflict, which are serious problems that we must not ignore.
Last fall, students across the country were hurt, angry and frustrated by a series of racially charged events and the unnecessary deaths of several unarmed black citizens. Some arrived at their campuses with lists of demands seeking social justice and equity. After another tenuous summer, we must again acknowledge their pain and outrage in the hopes that a modern university setting can help shape national discourse instead of simply being a backdrop for unrest and confusion. We must rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work before us: shaping a society in which everyone, created as equals, receives treatment as such.
Listen and learn. Increasingly in America today, we live in neighborhoods of the like-minded and gain information from like-minded sources. Even on a university campus, it takes effort to cross cultural and racial boundaries. I am convinced that party lines and pat answers are not sufficient to address such troublesome times. We must listen to voices other than accustomed ones. We must be open to adjusting our thinking and our behavior. We must push ourselves beyond what is comfortable, broadening our network of friends and deepening our capacity for empathy. How long has it been since we have, even imaginatively, seen the world through the eyes of someone very different than ourselves?
Like many institutions, Wake Forest University has its most diverse student body ever and is among the 10 fastest changing universities in the country, according to The New York Times. We refer to ourselves as a community in progress, which reflects our belief that we must actively practice what it means to be in community together and that regular updates must hold us accountable to each other. Our strength as a campus community -- and as a nation -- rests on our ability to listen to the voices of others and learn from experiences different from our own.
Start a conversation. Do the hard work of dialogue with those with whom we disagree. We all need occasions to frame challenging conversations and methods to facilitate those discussions. A college campus must foster honest, face-to-face conversation, however difficult, in the classroom, in residence halls and on structured and unstructured occasions. Doing the hard work of dialogue with those with whom we disagree is a common topic among college presidents today.
A recent article in Inside Higher Ed included a charge given by my friend and colleague Harry Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, in which he urged students and faculty members to “recommit to airing our views in a way that is civil and responsible and recommit to opposing violence in all of its of forms,” including violent language and hate speech. “Come back to campus ready to learn and prepared for conversations to come,” the president wrote. “Most importantly, be ready to extend the hand of friendship to a new face.”
Conversation matters. And it must begin with us.
Retain hope. The United States has a wonderful -- and deeply flawed -- history. As the historian Edmund Morgan has emphasized, we are a nation founded both in liberty and in slavery. This land has provided much opportunity and social mobility for immigrants, and it has made progress since the 1960s in establishing broad gains for African-Americans in education, in business and the professions, and in civic life.
Yet whatever progress has been made in race relations and attitudes, racism is still a troubling reality, and patterns of poverty, particularly in urban communities, seem to extend from generation to generation. Today, we must redouble our efforts in the noble quest for which so many have given their lives: to build a society where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remain within the grasp of everyone.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. implored those who would listen. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that,” he said. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” As we -- on our campuses and in America in general -- walk through what feels like another dark hour, let us be people who carry the light and let us be people who choose to love.
Nathan O. Hatch is president of Wake Forest University.
Medical students nationwide, with backing from some medical schools, are pushing to kill a required standardized test that they say is expensive and adds little, The Washington Post reported. The test is known as the Step 2 Clinical Skills exam and theoretically determines whether medical students have bedside manner and problem-solving skills. Medical students complain that the test costs $1,275. Further, because the test is offered in only five cities, many students must pay additional travel costs. Students say that their own medical schools could, without much expense, test the same skills covered in Step 2.
Those involved with the test defend it. “Licensing boards have to have some bellwether to say this student has the competence to go into practice,” Kim Edward LeBlanc, executive director of the Clinical Skills Evaluation Collaboration, which oversees the Step 2 exam, told the Post. “The students bring up some legitimate concerns. But after 14 years on a licensing board, I can tell you that I would not feel comfortable giving a license to someone without this exam.”
Technology think tank says standardized testing by outside groups and alternative forms of credentialing could create helpful competitive pressure on higher education and the traditional college degree.
The University of Michigan will settle with a former graduate student for $165,000 over her dismissal from an engineering program in 2011, the Associated Press reported. Michigan denied Jennifer Dibbern’s claims that it retaliated against her for her efforts to unionize research assistants and to change the campus antiharassment policy, but said it wanted to end a lengthy, expensive legal battle.
A federal judge had dismissed most of Dibbern’s claims prior to a trial scheduled for June, based in part on documents suggesting she had been warned repeatedly that she wasn’t spending enough time in the lab, according to the AP. Yet U.S. District Judge Sean Cox reportedly said Dibbern had shown evidence of a “casual connection” between her dismissal and union activities. Dibbern also reported being sexually harassed by male students. “We resolved the case to everybody’s satisfaction,” said Dibbern’s attorney, David Blanchard.
Lincoln University -- a historically black university located in Jefferson City, Mo. -- suspended its major in history on its 150th anniversary. Explaining why that step was necessary, the president of the university emphasized, “We must make decisions like these as we look toward the future and the needs of the changing workforce.” Embedded within that statement is a declaration about higher education and its purpose: higher education should make good, high-paid workers. We should step back and ask whether this is really what we want from higher education.
Since I took my first academic position in 2010, I have continually heard in the news media, from visiting speakers and many other people that transforming students into employees is the purpose of higher education. Whenever I hear this, I cannot help but recall one particular graduate seminar when we discussed the writings of Marxist Louis Althusser. The discussion turned to higher education, and some people in the class claimed higher education was little more than part of a plot to provide good and obedient workers to the bourgeoisie. At the time, I thought that was overly reductive. I mean, we were talking about the supposed conspiracy of the bourgeoisie in class at an institution of higher education; surely this was not part of the plan.
Once I got my first academic job, however, I learned that this really was the perennial question in higher education. What should our general education curriculum look like? On which majors should we focus our resources? The answer was always put in the form of another question -- what do employers want from our graduates?
Perhaps because of the rising costs of higher education, politicians have increasingly said that the point of higher education is for students to make lots of money in their chosen careers. Is that what we want from higher education? Maybe a better question would be is that the only thing we want from higher education?
In her recent article in The American Historian, Nancy F. Cott indicates it is hard for humanities degrees -- like history -- to compete with degrees related to engineering if the only significant variable is potential earnings. One study found that throughout their careers, engineers consistently earned more than graduates in the humanities. But then, not everyone wants to be an engineer. As Cott phrased it, neither would we really want “to see an educated world populated by engineers only.” The fact is people educated in the humanities go on to important, although often not quite as lucrative, careers in education, government, law and a host of other interesting and relevant occupations.
Since students enter into significant debt to earn their diplomas, it seems reasonable for students to expect some return on their often significant investments. I hope as we review what we value in education, however, we do not simply ask which majors lead to the most lucrative careers.
Du Bois and Shaping Lives in the Present
What is higher education for? Should it exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing workers who make the greatest amount of money? It’s not a new question. It’s one that the renowned African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with in his speech commemorating Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary in 1941. He worried that the temptation would “come and recur to make an institution like this, a means of earning a living or of adding to income rather than an institution of learning.” Du Bois believed the kind of students Lincoln produced would end up changing the world for the better -- that it would be Lincoln students who would “show the majority the way of life.” Not from privileged and “powerful groups which from time to time rule the world have come salvation and culture,” he said, “but from the still small voice of the oppressed and the determined who knew more than to die and plan more than mere survival.” In short, Du Bois hoped that Lincoln would become “a center where the cultural outlook of this country is to be changed and uplifted and helped in the reconstruction of the world.”
Why did Du Bois believe that students at a university like Lincoln would be so influential? Du Bois recognized the power of history to shape lives in the present, and he rightly believed that this nation needed more diverse students if the status quo was ever going to change. In Du Bois’s day, history was being used to justify violence against African-Americans. In 1915, the original version of The Birth of a Nation premiered in the United States. In that movie, President Woodrow Wilson’s book History of the American People was regularly quoted. Audiences around the country saw Wilson declare through this movie that Reconstruction had been a misguided failure during which “the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.”
Wilson and many other people in the academy were part of what eventually became known as the Dunning School of Reconstruction History. For William Dunning, the historian for whom the broader school was named, Reconstruction was a failure because great numbers of the recently emancipated slaves “gave themselves up to testing their freedom. They wandered aimless but happy through the country.”
According to Dunning, it was Southern whites who “devoted themselves with desperate energy to the procurement of what must sustain the life of both themselves and their former slaves.” Lesson learned: black political participation meant misery for all, but exclusive white control meant the best for both black and white Southerners. The Dunning School of Reconstruction History justified the exclusion of black people from politics, and it implicitly justified the violence used to maintain that exclusion.
W. E. B. Du Bois labored to contradict those impressions. In his now widely read TheSouls of Black Folks, Du Bois argued that it was not the irresponsible silliness of black people that doomed Reconstruction but rather the impossible problems facing the recently freed slaves. Reflecting upon the failure of efforts to make Southern African-Americans truly free, Du Bois noted that the Freedmen’s Bureau could not even “begin the establishment of goodwill between ex-masters and freedmen,” and perhaps most important, it could not “carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land.”
Adding to the impossible challenge was the fact that much of the legislation created during Reconstruction was intended to punish the white South rather than empower the recently emancipated. As viewed by Du Bois, black equality was a cudgel used to punish the rebellious South rather than a goal in and of itself. Without any real support for black equality in either the North or the South, how could we expect anything but failure from Reconstruction? Because of those failures, black people suffered under the weight of white supremacy.
White historians largely ignored Du Bois’s conclusions for years; it was not until higher education expanded to include a wide swath of the American population -- due in large part to the GI Bill -- that more historians came to accept what he had long argued. Today, the vast majority of historians of Reconstruction accept his premise that many capable black politicians participated in the Reconstruction. Many worked to expand roads and education to include a plurality of the Southern population. At the time, their opponents saw this as waste and corruption, but the vision of those black politicians more closely aligned with our own expectations. We -- like they -- expect our governments to maintain public roads and public education. History looks different from the bottom up.
Reversing Dominant Narratives
Du Bois did not mention the degree in history specifically in his speech in 1941, but his life’s work demonstrated the importance he placed upon the historical imagination. He correctly predicted that making the academy more diverse would change the world for the better. History has been used to justify white supremacy, and it has been used to undermine it as well. As the population of historians changed, so too has the accepted narrative of the academy. That’s why Du Bois did not ask what majors earned the most money upon graduation but had a loftier vision for Lincoln’s future. America needed impassioned graduates from schools like Lincoln. Someone had to help reverse the dominant narratives prevalent in 1941 about black inferiority.
On Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary, Du Bois provided a powerful argument in favor of empowering Lincoln’s students to go and change the world. I fear that the end of history at Lincoln University means students will have less ability to do so in the future. That saddens me, because our national history is particularly relevant today. In 2016, a reinterpretation of The Birth of a Nation is set to debut and likely make radically different claims than its 1915 namesake. Why did the creators of this new movie -- which will document the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner -- give it that name? In 2016, some people have suggested that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was relatively short and its goals were largely accomplished. How then do we explain the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement? Do these protesters fail to understand just how racially progressive our country has become? In 2016, some politicians have suggested that the United States is a nation founded by white ideas -- or “Western civilization” -- and people of color are guests. Are they right?
Our history as a nation has been used to answer those kinds of questions, and someone is going to be answering these questions in the future. In addition to asking what employers want our graduates to do, we should also ask whom we want to answer such important questions.
Graduates -- whether in the humanities, sciences or engineering -- will continue to get relevant and interesting jobs. Some will get paid more than others. In finding the right major, students will have to make strategic choices about what they want for their lives. Having spoken with many students, I know many are not so single-mindedly focused upon profit. Many have more philanthropic purposes in mind for their education. By so circumscribing the range of possibilities, however, we are creating a future in which Lincoln’s graduates will be able to get jobs but maybe not make history.
J. Mark Leslie is an associate professor of history at Lincoln University.
Competency-based education can expand opportunities and enhance learning for nontraditional students while also being a boon for workforce development, said a majority of leaders at 251 colleges that are active or interested in the emerging form of higher education delivery. But the pace of adoption of competency-based courses and programs remains gradual, said most respondents to the survey conducted by Ellucian, Eduventures and the American Council on Education. One in four of the institutions surveyed have competency-based academic programs in place, and 37 percent said they use competency-based courses.