Last week, leaders from higher education gathered at the White House for a conference on Advancing Interfaith Service on College Campuses. Senior administration officials from the Department of Education, the Corporation for National and Community Service and two White House offices – of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and of Social Innovation – addressed the crowd of university presidents, professors, chaplains and students.
That the White House would hold a conference on interfaith cooperation is no mystery; President Obama made the topic a theme of his presidency from the very beginning. But why a gathering that focuses on campuses? I think there are four reasons for this:
College campuses set the educational and civic agenda for the nation. By gathering higher education leaders, administration officials are signaling that they hope campuses make learning about religious diversity a mark of what it means to be an educated person. And just as campuses helped make volunteerism and multiculturalism a high priority on our nation’s civic agenda, staff in the Obama administration are hopeful that higher education can do the same for interfaith cooperation.
College campuses are social laboratories that can illustrate what success looks like. While there may be frigid relations between some religious groups in politics and the public square, a college campus has both the mission and the resources (chaplains, diversity offices, religion departments, resident advisers) to proactively cultivate positive relations between Muslims and Jews, Christians and Buddhists, Hindus and Humanists. They can demonstrate cooperation rather than conflict.
Campuses have the resources and mission to advance a knowledge paradigm – an orientation and body of knowledge that appreciates and possibility engages religious diversity. From Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory to stories of religious conflict on the evening news to the recent spate of bestsellers by ‘the new atheists,’ we are increasingly subject to a knowledge paradigm about religions being the source for violence, bigotry and ignorance in the world. While this paradigm should certainly be acknowledged, another one can be advanced: that diverse religions share positive values like mercy and compassion that can be acted on across lines of faith for the common good.
Campuses train the next generation of leaders. Students who have a positive experience of the “religious other” on campus take that worldview into the broader society. Students who develop an appreciative knowledge of the world’s religions on campus educate their neighbors. Students who learn the skills to bring people from different faith backgrounds together to build understanding and cooperation together on the quad apply those skills with their religiously diverse coworkers.
President Obama has shown the way in each of the above categories, and college campuses are uniquely positioned to follow his lead.
In his inaugural address, Obama lifted up America’s religious diversity and connected it to America’s promise: “Our patchwork heritage is a strength not a weakness, we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers...." The message: Educated citizens should know of our nation’s religious diversity, and it is a civic virtue to engage this diversity positively.
College presidents in America could sound a similar note in speeches to the incoming freshman class.
In the advisory council for the Faith-based Office, the president created his own laboratory that models what positive relations between religiously diverse citizens. I had the honor of serving on the inaugural council (a new group of 25 is expected to be appointed soon). There were Orthodox and Reform Jews, Catholic and Protestant clergy, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Hindu civic leaders and Evangelical movement-builders. And that’s not all -- we were Republicans and Democrats, gay and straight, Mexican and Indian and white and African American. And we had to agree on a final report that went to the president.
College campuses could have an interfaith council that works on common projects.
In Cairo, the president advanced a new “knowledge paradigm” with respect to religious diversity. Eschewing the tired clash of civilizations theory, which falsely claims that religions have opposing values that put them in conflict, Obama highlighted the positive interactions between the West and Islam throughout the course of history, the many contributions Muslim Americans make to their nation, and the dimensions of Islam he admired such as the advancement of learning and innovation.
College campuses can have academic courses that do the same.
As a young adult, Obama was a community organizer working under a Jewish mentor, bringing together Catholic, Protestant and Muslim groups to start job training centers and tutoring programs on the South Side of Chicago. In this way, he acquired the competencies of leadership in a religiously diverse world. The president has signaled that he believes this is a valuable experience for today’s young adults, making interfaith cooperation through service a line in his Cairo address and a theme of the Summer of Service program.
College campuses, with the high value they place on service, leadership development and the positive engagement of diversity, are perfectly prepared to launch robust interfaith service initiatives.
Interfaith initiatives have been growing on campuses for several decades. The White House invited the vanguard of the movement to Washington, D.C., last week with a clear message: this administration appreciates what you have been doing, and we think you can do more. A movement goes from niche to norm when a vanguard recognizes its moment. For the movement of interfaith cooperation, this is the moment.
Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues.
Depending on your politics, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s “fraud investigation” involving the climate-change research of the former University of Virginia assistant professor Michael Mann is either a witch hunt or a long-overdue assault on the Ivory Tower.
But Mr. Cuccinelli’s demand last month for a decade’s worth of e-mails and scientific work papers from Professor Mann’s former employer, UVa, should give comfort to none of us. A fundamental principle is at stake, often described in shorthand as academic freedom. More to the point, it’s the understanding that government will not without extraordinarily compelling reasons intrude on the process of scientific discovery. It’s a principle on which liberals and conservatives alike can agree.
The ill-advised investigation in Charlottesville transgresses a long-honored boundary, with implications that extend far beyond the Albemarle County courthouse where the university has filed a petition to block the subpoena. That is why I, along with other higher education leaders, scientists and scholars (including even some of Professor Mann’s scientific detractors), support the university’s legal battle.
The stakes are high. Academic freedom protects scholars of every stripe from government repression or retaliation, especially when they take on controversial topics and espouse unpopular theories. Throughout history, nations that protect academic freedom have strong institutions of higher education. Where academic freedom is weak, governmental power goes unchecked.
The matter concerns not just the academy but all of us as citizens. We know that a thriving, independent, intellectually diverse higher education sector is best able to produce the scientific discoveries and advances in knowledge that make society better. The process that leads to innovation involves dialogue. Scholars debate hypotheses, examine data, and scrutinize each other’s ideas.
At their best, the exchanges are blunt and unstinting: thus theories are criticized, refuted, honed, and improved. The free marketplace of ideas in which this exchange takes place is the best engine known to mankind for producing innovation while weeding out discredited hypotheses. Society has a strong interest in ensuring that scholars can engage in dialogue without the chilling threat of government intrusion.
History shows that when governments interfere, science is stifled, and society suffers. For his theory that the sun was but one of an infinite number of stars, the 17th century astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake -- setting back astronomical discovery by perhaps centuries. The Soviet government persecuted the plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov for his contention that principles of genetics, not Marxist ideology, should inform agricultural policy -- while the Russian people starved. Here in the United States, McCarthy-era persecution chilled scholarship to the detriment of all.
Mr. Cuccinelli argues that he is trying to protect Virginia taxpayers from fraud. No doubt inquiry is appropriate in cases where there is real evidence of financial wrongdoing. But Professor Mann has been cleared of wrongdoing by numerous scientific and governmental bodies that have investigated Climategate. And the exceedingly broad “civil investigative demand” served on UVa sweeps in scientific papers and scholarly exchanges between colleagues -- exactly the kinds of exchanges that prosecutors should be chary to disturb.
What’s more, Mr. Cuccinelli, who is separately suing the EPA to block regulation of carbon emissions, has a legal stake in the climate change debate: he seeks to make the scientific validity of research like Professor Mann’s an issue in the EPA case. The attorney general’s positions, and the subpoenas themselves, have led many to question whether his investigation of Professor Mann is really about financial misfeasance, or whether it is about the politics of climate change.
Next month, an Albemarle County court is scheduled to hear the UVa subpoena case. If the attorney general’s request is granted, the chilling effect on important academic research will be felt at Thomas Jefferson’s university, throughout Virginia, and beyond. That prospect should give all of us pause, no matter whether our politics are blue, red or green.
Molly Corbett Broad
Molly Corbett Broad is president of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for more than 1,600 college and university presidents and more than 200 related associations, nationwide.
No one has ever won a Nobel Peace Prize for education. Click here and look for yourself. I can’t be alone in finding this embarrassing for all of us in education. Here in the nation with the self-proclaimed “finest higher education system in the world,” why hasn’t the Big Ten won the Nobel Peace Prize? Or the Ivy League? Or even the Little Three. The opposite of peace would be war and conflict. Isn’t war the ultimate failure to solve a problem by other means? Isn’t our job in education to teach people to solve problems of all sizes?
I wonder because today, again, begins the dark time of year for the world-changing, approval-seeking wannabes with whom I cast my lot. Today’s the day the MacArthur Fellows are announced. As of press time, I have to conclude that no phone call or photo request so far means I missed again. I’ve been here before. I am resilient. What keeps me going in this season is the knowledge that the Nobels are on the way in October, starting Monday.
These past 12 months have been perplexing. Since President Obama won his Nobel Peace Prize last year, though, I haven’t made any progress on my annual post-MacArthur questions: What would a Nobel Peace Prize for education look like? What would a Norman Borlaug-ian accomplishment by an educator be? I don’t have an answer, and the Nobels will pass by again. Someone out there must have an idea for education.
As a sometime English teacher, I like analogies and metaphors. Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Prize winner, put more grains of wheat on shorter stalks. That was a big step to reducing hunger and starvation in Mexico and Pakistan. Yes, Borlaug’s Green Revolution, which no one disputes fed millions, has critics. So does whole milk. Before my own critics howl, I do not mean that stuffing more students into smaller classrooms is the Nobel idea to consider. Borlaug’s idea, though, is the kind of global game-changer that perhaps we educators and columnists need to ponder.
I can’t see that any winners are better necessarily better thinkers than educators. In 2007, droning Al Gore won for just describing a problem – global warming. Winners from medicine, though, keep thinking beyond their laboratories and hospitals. The 1985 winner was International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. In 1999, the winner was Medicins sans Frontieres, "in recognition of the organization's pioneering humanitarian work on several continents." The 2005 winners were Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency "for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way." Why not a similar focused effort for education?
In 1947, the Quakers won. In 1917, the International Red Cross. What’s to stop a U.S. college or university from doing the same? Or at least a teacher with an education peace plan.
A pox on us all is the recurring Nobel Peace Prize theme of nuclear weapons. As if invention of the weapons in the first place weren’t already evidence that we teachers have room for improvement. In 1995, the winner was the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs -- "for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms." I keep thinking that we educators ought to have an answer by now, how to solve problems without even the threat of nuclear war.
My Nobel Peace Prize education contender is Nicholas Negroponte, for the scope and success of his project One Laptop Per Child. The mission statement has a peaceful ring: “To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.”
I’m not hoping. The world declared Negroponte crazy for saying he could build a laptop for $100. That same world has now discredited him for having missed by 100% and coming in with a price of $200. I’ve tried one. They are great. I’ll do what I can to move Negroponte out of the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Hall of Fame. One Laptop Per Child, in my book (or hard drive) anyway, beats Al Gore any day. Negroponte is working on real solutions.
Thinking about all this last year in my office at Bunker Hill Community College, I looked up one day to find that 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum was arriving on campus that afternoon. After her talk, I asked what she made of the absence of any Nobel Peace Prizes for education. Through a translator, here’s what she said: “Everything in this world depends on education. All the people who have graduated, with formal educations, they are the ones who are the leaders. But with all the people who are harming the world, we need to take another look at how education focuses on the positive social mission. Part of the learning takes place in the classroom, but I’d move part of the learning out into the street, resolving conflicts, resolving conflicts, solving problems. If we have leaders who think only about war, well?”
I imagine the Nobel committee is wrapping up for this year. What can education have on the table for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize? Suggestions welcome below.
Last week Inside Higher Ed published a column by Scott McLemee entitled “Rude Democracy,” which discussed Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and apparent trends indicating a lack of political engagement among young people. McLemee’s argument was both intelligent and important, but I believe there’s another side to the story of Stewart’s rally, political civility, and turnout among college students and young voters in the 2010 midterm election.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans were very successful in the midterm election, gaining control of the House of Representatives and cutting into the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. While the politically active on campuses across the country will surely devote much discussion to the results of the election and their implications over the proceeding days and weeks, it’s less likely they’ll discuss the execrable turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds.
Early exit polling done by CBS News indicates that young people made up roughly 9 percent of all voters in the midterm election. In 2008, young people made up 18 percent of the electorate. Why?
Political scientists and campaign consultants offer several theories. Americans are more likely to vote when enthusiasm abounds for the candidates they support and young people tend to support Democrats. Young people historically don’t turn out for midterms. Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 was uniquely galvanizing for young voters. The agenda of Congress and the president has not adequately addressed energy policy -- a very important issue to college students – and media coverage of the health care reform bill (which did quietly include benefits for young people) focused mostly on the concerns of older voters. Thus, young people seem to have concluded that voting isn’t worth their time right now.
Herbst studied the views of young people and found that “72 percent of students agreed that it was very important for them to always feel comfortable in class.” Herbst argues that “Contrary to the image of college being a place to ‘find oneself’ and learn from others, a number of students saw the campus as just the opposite – a place where already formed citizens clash, stay with like-minded others, or avoid politics altogether.”
Based on Herbst’s study, McLemee, writing prior to the sanity rally, argued that, while Stewart’s rally was likely to draw lots of young people and provide them with a fun weekend, “the anti-ideological spirit of the event is a dead end. The attitude that it's better to stay cool and amused than to risk making arguments or expressing too much ardor -- this is not civility. It’s timidity.” Clearly, McLemee believes that the unwillingness of young people to engage in political debate – argument – is not a political virtue, but rather a democratically harmful form of indifference.
Before accepting McLemee’s assertion, though, I think several important questions need to be answered. Why do the students in Herbst's survey feel that it isn't possible to persuade others? Could it be that such a belief is the product of an uncivil political culture? If students had political role models who successfully persuaded others in civil and respectful ways, would they be more inclined to view the political arena – and the classroom – as a space in which the clash of ideas can occur and yield positive results?
Personally, I can think of two positive things Stewart does; first, he encourages young people to refuse to subscribe to the currently pervasive ultra-partisan view of politics that fosters incivility and acts as a barrier to progress; and second, and more basically, he brings some level of political awareness through humor to people who might otherwise be totally apathetic and ignorant. Stewart’s influence, in my view, doesn’t breed timidity (as McLemee asserts), but rather increased youth engagement of the type that rejects a toxic political culture.
It also seems possible that the “Obama Effect” I mentioned earlier, holding that young voters turned out in 2008 because of their admiration of the current president, is at play. I'm worried that young people, perhaps naively, viewed Candidate Obama as a post-partisan role model and that President Obama’s lack of success thus far may further discourage engagement among young people who believed he had the ability to catalyze change without acting like every other “scumbag politician” they've come to dislike.
Moving forward, two things are clear. First, the perspective of young people has the power to change the nature of partisanship; if we, as a generation, continue to subscribe to the ideals of the Rally to Restore Sanity, we have the potential to improve the tone of politics.
Second, however, the burden most certainly falls on us; politicians are not going to pander to a portion of the electorate they don’t believe will turn out to vote, so if we want to transform Stewart’s rally from a sunny Saturday on the Mall into a new political reality, we’ve got to make our voices heard.