Can Campuses Be Where the Political Tribes of America Meet?

Many campuses are dots of blue in a sea of red. Even as we in higher ed build towards a multicultural future, can we communicate to our heartland neighbors that they will thrive in that future too? 

April 24, 2018

In her landmark book Talking to Strangers, the political theorist Danielle Allen highlights the importance of “political friendship” in the building of a diverse democracy. She writes, “… each interaction with a stranger holds the seeds of transformation, and each of us already has more political power than we acknowledge or allow.”

She then makes the novel move of imagining her employer at the time, the University of Chicago, not only being a good institutional citizen, but proactively creating a context in its broader polis where strangers can become political friends. This is no easy task. The University community is largely white and Asian and upper-middle class; the surrounding neighborhoods (excepting the racially integrated, though mostly affluent, Hyde Park) are largely black and working class or poor. All the more reason, Allen claims, that the University should be a proactive citizen.

Shouldn’t there be satellite sites up and down the South Side where university faculty are teaching humanities courses, as Allen herself did when she was a professor? How about University office centers that can help South Side residents launch businesses or work on school projects?

I’ve been thinking about this idea of campuses taking a lead role in creating a context for political friendship between strangers in light of Amy Chua’s recent book, Political Tribes. America’s great strength, Chua writes, is being what she calls “a super-group … a tribe of tribes, with citizenship equally open to anyone born on our soil no matter what their ancestry.”

I know some of my friends in the multicultural movement are rolling their eyes right about now, but when you compare the United States to other countries (as Chua does) rather than to Utopia, you find a lot to like.

Take, for example, birthright citizenship, the promise that no matter where your parents are from, if you are born on American soil you are a citizen, and you get to participate in the democratic processes of this nation with all of its rights and privileges. This seems so natural to most Americans, but it is exceedingly rare elsewhere on Earth. Chua highlights that no Asian country has birthright citizenship, and neither do any European nations. In fact, many countries that once had it have eliminated it, including France, Ireland and New Zealand.

Chua believes that the signal danger of our time is tribal conflict between working class whites in heartland rural areas, and multicultural communities on the coasts and in cities.

Here is where those of us who work in higher ed can help. Look closely at one of those red/blue political maps – not the state by state ones, the county by county ones. See those little blue dots amidst the sea of red across the Midwest? That’s where many of us work. And that stark color contrast represents, I believe, a remarkable opportunity.

I’m on one of these campuses two or three times a month. On a typical Tuesday morning, I’m driving from an airport in Ohio or Indiana through a majority-white county that has been decimated by job loss and opioid abuse, to a campus that is desperate to become more racially, ethnically and religiously diverse, because they know that’s the future. And one of the reasons that Trump is President is because people like me and my faculty/administrator friends have communicated (in some cases intentionally, in some cases inadvertently) to many of those people in drive-through/flyover country that they are the past. The sooner they are gone, the better. 

Here is Chua: “There is nothing more tribal than elite disdain for the provincial, the plebian, the patriotic.”

And here is the challenge for those of us in higher ed. Can we be political friends to both sides of the divide? Can we bring the tribes together, rather than just side with one? Even as we build a multicultural future through our teaching, our research, our student body, can we communicate to our heartland neighbors that they will thrive in that future too? 

I’m not sure what these new ‘bridging’ initiatives and programs will look like, but I trust the entrepreneurship and intelligence on college campuses. And I know that literally no institution is better positioned – intellectually or geographically – to serve the role of ‘political friend’ in a tribalized America than these campuses.   

 I’ll give the last word to the great African-American writer Ralph Ellison: “I believe … that unless we continually explore … the network of complex relationships which bind us together, we (will) continue being the victims of various inadequate conceptions of ourselves, both as individuals and as citizens of a nation of diverse people.”  


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