It has been said over and over again: upstate New York -- especially Seneca Falls, N.Y., and its surrounds -- has given rise to social movements central to American history and life. Saturday, Jan. 21, was good reminder of just how the women’s history of Seneca Falls can still call us.
Never mind the beauty of the Finger Lakes, the growing wine industry and the organic farming the area is enjoying, or the region’s nearby wildlife refuge. What brought more than 10,000 people (doubling, and then some, the town’s size) to Women March in Seneca Falls 2017 was its women’s rights, abolitionist and Native American history.
Garbed in suffrage colors, marchers of all genders raised banners festooned with messages on gendered human rights, immigration, religious freedom, the environment, racial justice, health care and more -- a call to action one might well term a moment of great channeling.
Most speakers (and there were more than 30) gestured in one way or another to many women history makers, authorizing women’s place over the centuries as actors and agents of democracy, liberation and charting the future. This was not the old add-and-stir approach to women’s history. History was being relayed to stage the future, to renew commitments and to conceptualize liberty and democracy once more. It was a moment when one could actually see, hear and feel the movement of history.
The march drew directly on the symbolism of Seneca Falls. Marchers set off from the Women’s Rights National Historical Park and headed to the First Presbyterian Church. There, in 1923, Alice Paul introduced the Lucretia Mott Amendment -- now known as the yet-to-be-ratified Equal Rights Amendment. En route, we walked within steps of where, in 1977, Maya Angelou’s Declaration of American Women (entitled “To Form a More Perfect Union” and resonant with themes of its sister 1848 declaration) was read and a torch lit to send relay runners on their freedom run from Seneca Falls to Houston to inaugurate the first and largest National Women’s Conference.
Reference was made to the area’s 1980s Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice, protesting nuclear weaponry, housed nearby at what was then the Seneca Army Depot. Convening the assembled marchers were leaders from Oneida, Akwesasne and Mohawk nations, reminding one and all that suffrage is beholden to Iroquois women -- as was said often that day -- because care of the land was and is sacred to their longstanding participatory democracy. To this was added a roster of movement leaders, invoked throughout the event, from Frederick Douglass, one of the signers of the declaration, on through to Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage and more.
Opening the rally, local businesswoman Becky Bly recalled the 300 people who gathered at the adjacent Wesleyan Chapel in 1848 on the historic occasion of what is often deemed the first women’s rights convention, culminating, as it did, in a reading of its visionary document, the Declaration of Sentiments. Seneca Falls, she noted that day, was one of over 600 sister marches taking place throughout the United States and around the globe. “Welcome to Seneca Falls,” she said. “Welcome home.”
Staging the Future
At the time, I heard Bly’s “welcome home” as welcome to the movement -- specifically, the Seneca Falls women’s movement as home. But her greeting stayed with me. What is home in today’s changed world? Can a movement from 19th-century Seneca Falls offer more of a sense of home than the physical location of a town, city or country? Or was there more to her welcome, with its echoes in greetings at other feminist gatherings and its resonance with Virginia Woolf’s 1938 anti-fascist tract: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
For those of us who teach, and especially those who teach courses in women’s and gender studies, the question is key, perhaps even foundational: Is the women’s and gender movement home, and, if so, does that underscore the significance and importance of teaching about Seneca Falls? Does the ribbon of women’s movement history roll out across time and space from Seneca Falls? Is this the place where it all happened, as some like to say? Does this place teach us the function of myth and its mythmaking power for social change, as Lisa Tetrault, associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, ventures in her history of Seneca Falls? Or do the questions posed this way open up the history of women’s movements as a contest over meaning, ritual and re-enactments for feminist futures?
Surely, this is, in part, what Saturday Night Live was driving at with its recent sketch featuring millennials conjuring the ghost of Susan B. Anthony at the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, N.Y., only to quickly lose interest in her presence. Surely, this also means (re)considering how, just a few months earlier, on Nov. 8, 2016, people lined up for hours on end to pay tribute to this suffragist, abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner on a day they imagined would be historic in its election of the first woman president of America. The SNL millennials’ short attention span disclosed their faint and passing interest in the history of the women’s movement until Susan B. Anthony uttered her opposition to abortion.
The point was not lost on college students watching this clip in my class. What did they know -- really know -- of women’s history? And what difference, if any, does that knowing effect in the world today? How does millennials’ seemingly fleeting or ambivalent relation to feminist history tell us more about the failures of romanticizing the past and about our own inability to see or imagine how they take up feminist history’s possibilities to act in the world?
One other message in SNL’s short satire really hit home. Women’s rights legacies are not simply and only about upholding the past as some quaint object of interest: see my desk, hold a pair of my shoes and touch the stove where I cooked my meals. Rather, historical moments such as the women’s rights movement in upstate New York need to be thought about as having the capacity to stage the future over and over, a future we continue to grapple with, worry over and teach about. To visit historic sites in Seneca Falls, Rochester, Auburn and Fayetteville, N.Y., to name a few, is to delve more, not less, into women’s history and to do so as neither sound bite on how women got to where they are (the use of history as a progressive narrative) nor as an all-too-brief mention. It is to embark on a history of women’s history as American history front and center -- as a course of action, of history as what engenders actions -- what we revisit to open up fields of possibilities of what could yet be.
The case can thus be made that to teach about Seneca Falls is to teach about participatory democracy; to engage with the debates and struggles among writers and leaders in the moment of their taking shape around gender, race, democracy, rights, enfranchisement and liberation; to stage the future of women’s and gender movements around racial justice and equality. It is this very idea of staging the future that is often left out of teaching women’s history or feminist theory.
By that I mean women’s history is often taught, on the one hand, as a progressive narrative and, on the other, as critical inquiry into the missing, marginalized or misrepresented. Such historiographical leanings offer but two registers on which to engage history. They keep us looking to the past, mired in certain frameworks. Other registers help to direct us to how we occupy history even as it is “out of time” -- for instance, how we occupy the history of Seneca Falls in the present as one calls for new ways of being and living.
This is not the old story of know your history so you do not repeat the past. As philosopher Elizabeth Grosz reminds us, history “is larger than the present … is the possibility of resistance to the present’s imposed values … futures that resist and transform.” Or, to use historian and performance theorist May Farnsworth’s idea of “feminist rehearsals,” the act of invoking forms of history in a performance -- such as, one could argue, marches and rallies -- is to prepare a community to make change, to bring into being new worlds for collective action, and thus the reconceptualizing of key terms such as gender, race, class and liberty, freedom and justice.
These ways of understanding history, of teaching the work of history in places such as Seneca Falls, critically engage temporal modalities and scales of movement histories. They prompt us to adapt Emily Apter’s question of what is women’s time in theory to history: What is women’s time in history? The march in this historical place of abolition and the women’s movement raised before all of us the question of time, the matter of temporal scales and of periodicity as forces to engage to remake the world.
Those suffrage colors revamped as pussy hats, glittery balloons bedecked with the handwritten names of revolutionary leaders, posters morphing slogans from yesteryear to today, pastiches of participatory democracy over social media -- in person and streamed live via Facebook and a Jumbotron -- all instruct us on how anachronisms can summon us to engage anew with the politics of periodicity in movement history: women’s and other movements for change. Cross-cutting time and geography, these “untimely” things, as Grosz refers to them, remind us of “what has not used up its pastness,” having potential for the future.
These are at least some of the reasons teaching about place may encourage students and ourselves to take a more gritty look at history, to ask, in this moment of a great channeling, what does it mean historically to study those who sought to interrogate and to build again a place one might call home, to remake the world. Current-day strife reignites this question of historiography, feminisms and movements for change. This kind of questioning quite possibly places women’s and other movement histories at the heart of liberal arts education.
Betty M. Bayer is a professor of women’s studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
What do these events say, if anything, about activism on college campuses today? Have they sparked a new wave of student engagement? Or is it a momentary outcry?
If the former, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that students led the charge against the agendas and decisions of our nation’s policy makers. Since our country’s founding, college students have challenged the status quo and played a key role in movements for social change. Historian David F. Allmendinger Jr. reported that between 1760 and 1860, New England colleges experienced “the most disorderly century in their history.” Quickly spreading to colleges in the South and Midwest, student “disquietude” (also called mobs, uprisings, riots, unrest, resistance, lawlessness, disorder and terrorism) challenged everything from slavery to the quality of the butter in the dining hall.
The next significant wave of student activism came during the Depression, when students challenged capitalism and wealth inequality in the 1930s and favored socialism, labor unions and public work programs. Snuffed by the McCarthy era and dubbed a “forgotten history,” student unrest faded until the late 1950s and ’60s, when anti-war sentiments and civil rights movements galvanized students. College activists successfully sought the closure of ROTC programs and catalyzed the establishment of interdisciplinary programs such as African-American and ethnic studies. Student protest also led to the ratification of the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. In the 1970s, female students challenged sexism on campuses and throughout American society.
Student activism sporadically reoccurred until the 2000s, when, according to University of Illinois Professor Barbara Ransby, students shaped “the conscience of the university” by raising awareness about racial inequality, sexual assault on campus, immigrant rights, homophobia and unequal rights for the LGBTQ community, as well as global issues such as the Palestinian crisis. And in recent years, students on campuses throughout the country have supported the Black Lives Matter movement and protested over racism in various forms.
Leveraging the Moment
So where are we today? Online activism has surged. In the weeks following the election, many virtual resources and communities of practice were created by people working together, sometimes anonymously, on distinct causes. Some of these come from colleges and universities (although, for most, the originator is hard to identify). Examples include Post-Election Support Resources (Stanford University) and Election Clapback Actions (CUNY). An assistant professor at Merrimack College, Melissa Zimdars, created a resource for spotting fake news. Recent data suggest that digital platforms empower students and facilitate civic and political engagement. According to a recent Educause study, around 96 percent of college students own smartphones. This enables communication and organizing capacity.
Colleges and universities will undoubtedly face more student unrest. How can educators leverage this historic opportunity and encourage constructive, inclusive political learning and participation? We offer some suggestions.
Approach student activism with the right attitude. Student protest is not a bad thing, unless it is accompanied by violence or seriously disrupts the educational process. Student protest provides a teachable moment not just for those who are protesting but for the rest of the campus community. Consider it a timely opportunity for problem-based learning.
Provide students with opportunities to gather, identify the issues that concern them the most and identify their networks. This includes providing students with physical spaces to convene and connecting them with faculty members or people in the community who share their interest.
Teach the arts of discussion. Your institution already has experienced facilitators among faculty members, administrators and students. Have them teach others to facilitate and engage in constructive discussions as a foundation to organizing. Many civic organizations provide training (see the resources section of this publication).
Study, deliberate, study: don’t let students go down some rabbit hole of alternative facts or myopic analysis. Insist that students answer questions, like what do we know about this issue? Is what we know reliable? How will we fill knowledge gaps? And most importantly, what are all of the perspectives on this issue, including unpopular ones unrepresented in this group? Weigh the pros and cons of different perspectives rather than dismissing them without consideration or, worse, denigrating the people who hold them.
Help students think positively by envisioning “the mission accomplished.” What will the world look like if their goals are achieved? The process of identifying a shared vision among group members is in and of itself a good lesson in framing, persuasion, collaboration and compromise.
Teach the history and most promising practices of social change movements. There are thousands of well-researched publications to consider as text. We offer two very different resources: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow offers 500-plus pages of insight into the meticulous, long-game planning, as well as the strategies used to overcome unthinkable barriers, by leaders of the African-American civil rights movement. In her research for the Ford Foundation, Hahrie Han, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, outlines essential strategies, such as coalition building among civic organizations, political leaders and other potential allies.
Emphasize the importance of voting and what’s at stake when candidates have vastly different policy positions. Our National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement found that only 45 percent of college and university students voted in 2012. And while we haven't analyzed all the final numbers for 2016 yet, as the election demonstrated, who turns out to vote matters.
Finally, college and university presidents have historically been hesitant to offer their viewpoints on political issues, but recent events, particularly on the issue of immigration and new border controls, have given rise to a series of powerful statements from presidents and higher education leaders. We wonder what would happen if presidents who plan to make public statements about matters of public policy were to involve students in the discussion about that statement to take advantage of the educational moment.
Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi research college student political learning and engagement in democracy at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.
And along with it, the climate at many colleges and universities has become more polarized, especially during the most recent presidential race and now as the new administration settles in. The election stimulated an emerging culture where people who may hold offensive or hateful beliefs now feel their perspective has been legitimized and they have permission to give voice to their views, many of which students may find repugnant or even threatening to their safety.
In response, student activism, already on the rise these past two years, will surely increase. The most recent set of executive orders from the new administration has clearly activated college students, as thousands of them protested the executive order on immigration across the country this past week.
This increase in activism will not be easy for colleges and universities to manage. The violence before and subsequent cancellation of a planned appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley, on Wednesday night frames the difficult position that higher education institutions face in this time of polarized debate. Creating space for protest and keeping students and the campus community safe is immensely challenging, particularly at institutions where the campus and the community share porous boundaries.
Controversial speech on campuses isn’t new. Conflict on campuses isn’t new. Indeed, equipping our students with the skills to confront the marketplace of ideas with a bias toward open dialogue is at the core of higher education’s mission, and we’ve been encouraging them to practice those skills for decades.
But the intensity of the vitriol we’re seeing puts campus leaders in unfamiliar territory, making these particularly challenging times for us. We must continue to offer our students exposure to a spectrum of opinions to help them grapple with new and difficult ideas and views that may vastly differ from their own. Throughout all of this, we must also support the foundational right of free speech, but also be diligent about balancing the safety and well-being of the students, faculty members and guests who engage with our campuses. Striking this balance will not be easy.
When we grapple with issues that fall along a political spectrum, like immigration policy, we must be mindful of talking about those issues without allowing the disparagement of segments of our population, the demonization of groups of people, or the promotion of actions that do not respect basic human rights. It is essential that our students develop the ability to tackle with civility challenging discussions with those of different backgrounds or viewpoints around issues of race, gender, gender identity, politics and religion.
Yet while our colleges and universities should embrace ideas all along the political spectrum, we can’t and shouldn’t be value neutral. Indeed, our mission statements encapsulate our values: we encourage civility, curiosity and engagement with new ideas and challenging perspectives. We also celebrate inclusion, diversity and human dignity for all members of our communities. Allowing student organizations to bring controversial speakers, even those who preach hatred and intolerance, will be painful and challenging to many of our students. Campus leaders can and should make certain that the sponsoring organization understands the message and values of the speaker. But in the end, unless cost issues or safety issues are insurmountable, we must support the basic rights of free expression. And so we also must be there to support students through those experiences while helping them develop and practice those skills of civil discourse we are trying to encourage and cultivate on our campuses -- skills we often don’t see enough of in the government or news media.
For example, many institutions have used the occasion of controversial speakers on their campuses to create a slate of programming that gives voice to those who disagree, provides information for those who want to engage more deeply with the topic and engages faculty members and administrators in helping students examine and refine their own perspectives and experiences. At Scripps College, for example, students and faculty members who were opposed to Madeleine Albright’s selection as commencement speaker had the opportunity to attend a forum with her in which she engaged in an open dialogue about issues important to them and provided insights from her monumental career.
Presenting different perspectives can raise emotions on campuses, but we have a responsibility to ensure that there are spaces for discussion and reaction, as well as alternative programming that offers still other points of view. And we must take stock of our offerings and programming to ensure we are providing as many opportunities for our conservative students to feel welcome to express their view as provide our liberal students.
Institutions should also seek ways to engage with topics and issues that transcend political or opinion-based distinctions. By moving the conversation beyond Democrat versus Republican or pro-Trump versus anti-Trump, we can fulfill our mission of educating young people who are concerned about and conversant with the major issues of our time. When George Washington University students hosted a controversial speaker, student affairs staff set up dialogues among members of the sponsoring College Republicans and other student organizations that would likely be impacted by the message of the speaker.
Such a proactive approach provides an important opportunity for students to hear one another’s perspectives in a way that is not possible in the heat of a protest. Creating intentional spaces for dialogue around different perspectives helps students get beyond the political rhetoric and into the difficult skill of listening and civil discourse.
This is also a time when a strong institutional voice is vital. At the University of Colorado, Chancellor Philip DiStefano sent two different messages to the community regarding a controversial speaker. In the first, he underscored the importance of free speech and the institutional values behind allowing such speakers to have access to public facilities, even when many members of the university community would experience the content of the speakers’ beliefs as racist and sexist. In his second message, DiStefano referenced the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., writing, “When communities and individuals are subjected to hateful rhetoric designed to further marginalize, he implored us to stand up against it. He implored us not to ignore it.” These kinds of messages will be crucial to open dialogue within a strong values foundation.
Ultimately, our charge as educators is to help students be informed and feel empowered to speak out on topics that matter to them. As we look back to the 2016 election, only about half of eligible voters aged 18 to 29 voted. We need to raise those numbers across all demographics and political parties. By offering an education that enables students and alumni to confront, assess and understand diverse perspectives, we better prepare them to take action and advance civil dialogue in our society at large.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
The current public assumption that safe spaces and trigger warnings conflict with academic freedom and are the result of political correctness gone mad is a false dichotomy. If students today are indeed more fragile, then it is vital that we in higher education understand: (1) the specific nature of this sensitivity and (2) what colleges can do to help.
After this divisive election, we will need more capacity for talking about controversial issues. While the anonymity of social media may have escalated invective, it has not made for more ease with difficult conversations. Technology has allowed a generation to end relationships by text message, or even by “ghosting” an ex -- deleting a relationship from your life without any conflict or effort.
Avoiding conflict, of course, also sacrifices an opportunity to learn. Our campuses and world, meanwhile, are increasingly more religiously, culturally and ethnically diverse and now more politically divided. So at the very moment when we have more varied ideas, thoughts and opinions on our campuses, we also have students who are less equipped and perhaps less eager to have challenging discussions.
The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a Dear Colleague letter to college presidents asking that we help students learn to disagree in a “respectful manner.” But what it means to be “disrespected” is highly contested, so we are indeed having difficult conversations about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Ultimately, college is about helping students think critically. That requires learning how to interrogate complexity while withholding judgment and trying to feel safe in precisely those uncomfortable spaces where our ideas and attitudes are being challenged.
But this is a process. The first stage of college is finding a safe home. We learn much more when we explore from a place of safety, have the rights tools and feel accepted as equal partners in the discourse. The news media has greatly exaggerated the very few students who want “protection” from ideas they find uncomfortable. Safe spaces are mostly simply places of congregation, and assembly with other people who share your ideas, history and culture is a basic human impulse. With a safe home base established, we can then encourage students to venture into discussions in which they may have greater discomfort.
Pedagogy is about moving from comfort to discomfort and eventually finding comfort in discomfort. The measure of a college, then, has nothing to do with the sensitivity of its first-year students or if their professors use trigger warnings, but rather with the outcomes. Can we teach students to embrace ambiguity and discomfort? And, if so, how?
A Path Forward
First, colleges must assemble a diverse community of learners. Employers say they want graduates who can solve complex problems with people who are not like them. This year, for example, the first-year class at Goucher College is 35 percent students of color and 25 percent Pell-eligible students. We also have students from 60 countries on our campus, and we require 100 percent of our undergraduates to study abroad, as travel can be a great way to encounter differences and discover that not everyone speaks or thinks as you do.
But bringing diverse students together is just the beginning. To have open, meaningful and difficult conversations, young people also need to learn to live with a higher tolerance for ambiguity -- or “the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable.” It is essential for democracy, and it is being used in research on global leadership because it is related to cross-cultural communication and performance in diverse work environments. At Goucher College, we use a Tolerance for Ambiguity scale that asks students to respond to statements like:
An expert who doesn’t come up with a definite answer probably doesn’t know too much.
A good teacher is one who makes you wonder about your way of looking at things.
The sooner we all acquire similar values and ideals the better.
We are using that tool and other existing psychological constructs to measure where our students are when they first arrive on our campus in terms of dealing with ambiguity, and then we follow up every year to see if and when they have progressed. All of this is confidential and analyzed by researchers only in the aggregate. We will, however, look for patterns and connect trends with pedagogy and activities. (Are juniors willing to take more cognitive risk? Did our required study abroad experience increase cultural sensitivity?)
This work is at an early stage, but our hope is that we will come to understand better how college and various interventions can have an impact. We have begun by actively doing everything we can as college administrators and faculty members to demonstrate that there are multiple good answers, that knowledge is complex and that we can change our minds.
We must also be intellectual and ethical role models, so on our campus, we are responsive and transparent about student concerns. We routinely engage students in open meetings and alter policy as a result of their input. It is certainly more work, but it has the dual benefit of building community while modeling that smart people have open minds.
We must also create a campus culture that invites and supports the most difficult conversations. On a night of unrest in Baltimore, I joined a spontaneous gathering of dozens of faculty members and students watching the news. Late into the night, students continued to share their responses, fears, anxieties, hurts and pains. It was profoundly uncomfortable -- and we all learned. In the weeks that followed, we decided we need to be even more uncomfortable, and a group of faculty members created a seven-week seminar, Back to School on Race. More than 150 faculty and staff members signed up and participated -- and we all learned more about the deep structures of racial inequity as seen through the lenses of multiple disciplines, as well as the ongoing pain and discomfort that such topics bring to many members of our own community. This became a springboard to further conversations about curriculum, pedagogy, support and campus culture.
Thus, to help our students embrace discomfort, we must first establish a home for them. Later we encourage them to encounter discomfort, allow them the time to reintegrate that new information and then send them back out to embrace more discomfort.
Next fall, we will also introduce a new curriculum that begins with a first-year seminar designed to welcome students to the world of inquiry through faculty members who model their own passionate exploration of a topic of their choosing, with the focus more on how faculty are thinking about their topic rather than what they are thinking. Students will then take three exploration courses that are based in our new interdisciplinary academic centers. Over four years, and not in a single course, students will also need to demonstrate that they are racially and culturally literate.
We encapsulate all these efforts in our new version of the three R’s of learning: relationships, resilience and reflection. We start by getting to know our students. We emphasize to them the importance of building relationships that will prepare them for more discomfort. We focus on resilience (and also measure this in our students) because we have found that, in general, those who see failure as an opportunity learn more, grow personally and succeed professionally. Conflict and failure allow us to test boundaries and open us up to new ideas and new perspectives.
Reflection is what ties it all together and feeds our compassion and social conscience, so we will soon require all graduating students to develop a reflection portfolio. Recognizing there are a multiplicity of accents, experiences, histories and values living all around us is a first step, but we must then also reconsider our own values, frameworks and prejudices, and then confront our differences honestly.
Technology and globalization have increased our exposure to difference, but that alone has not opened hearts and minds. The internet offers us increasing access to new ideas and knowledge, and most of what students will need to know for the jobs of the future, they will need to learn as they go along after they graduate. That means that colleges should focus less on making sure we cover the content and more on teaching students how to become self-regulated learners. New knowledge is only really useful if you know how to let it in and allow it to change your mind. We need to rethink the pedagogical processes by which we get students to truly embrace difference.
Without critical thinking, discernment and reflection, democracy retreats from the sound of the loudest voice. The value of the liberal arts will only increase as knowledge and ideas proliferate. We need graduates who are not only capable of difficult conversations but also eager to listen and reflect. Perhaps we should restrict degrees to those who realize the answer to most difficult questions is almost always “It depends.”
José Antonio Bowen is president of Goucher College.
It was a debate moment that historians will surely return to -- like Richard Nixon’s sweaty brow and George H. W. Bush’s impatient glance at his watch. When Donald Trump lost composure and interjected “such a nasty woman” (twice), the game was over. Respect for women? Please.
From mocking disabled people to stigmatizing immigrants to encouraging violence against one’s enemies, the Trump campaign has indulged in a startling variety of transgressions of normal political discourse. The Clinton campaign’s counterpoint “when they go low, we go high,” suggested by the extraordinarily popular first lady, seems to be more about political advantage than moral elevation.
Few people seem to be turning to college campuses lately for moral elevation. Videos go viral of undergraduates screaming their demand for a peaceful home, while deans make a virtue of their commitment to academic freedom by undermining their faculty’s ability to prepare students for disturbing content. Absolutist rhetoric circulates easily at our universities when they should be cultivating subtle analysis and nuanced interpretation.
Some have pointed out that coarse political discourse goes way back in American history and that Trump is following in the footsteps of other titans of transgression. Politicians have said the darnedest things for a long time, we are told, and the Trump campaign’s invective is not actually as unusual as today’s oversensitive onlookers like to claim. The same might be said of our campuses, which have long been hotbeds of contention.
Back in the 1970s there was a Saturday Night Live routine, “Point/Counterpoint,” in which Dan Aykroyd would turn to fellow commentator Jane Curtin and exclaim, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” The funny part of this bit was that it was hard to imagine anyone on a real news show ever saying something like that as a prelude to articulating a disagreement.
Over the last decade, however, we have grown accustomed to the rabid fulminations of talk radio and to cable news pundits cultivating personae of perverse aggressivity. And now we have been treated to the spectacle of political candidates commenting on penis size, assaultive groping and vicious denigrations of the physical appearance of women. Today the Dan Aykroyd line would not be so funny because it would not be so preposterous.
The expectation of excoriation has become a fact of public and academic life -- with consequences in the civic realm. Disagreements -- be they on social media or at the neighborhood watering hole -- can get nasty very quickly. And it’s sticks and stones as well as words. Americans are killing one another at alarming rates in disputes over everything from what to play next on the jukebox to the best car brands. A verbal shot can have an awful counterpoint when somebody has a pistol tucked into his belt -- whether he’s in a bar or a classroom.
Although this growing barbarism is much remarked on in the political realm, when it comes to colleges we hear about a very different kind of concern: political correctness on campus. Somehow, the enforced niceness of PC culture is dangerous because it protects “coddled” millennials from having to challenge their own assumptions. While the rest of the country is engulfed in a dangerous war of words, campuses are accused of caring too much about triggering painful memories and providing safe spaces. This fantasy about PC culture has been weaponized in the current electoral campaign, so that all kinds of assaultive speech (and worse) are celebrated as evidence that candidates aren’t caving in to political correctness.
When you spend time on college campuses, however, you find plenty of debate that is actually substantive -- about the role of systemic racism in our institutions, about the possibilities for meaningful work after graduation, about the struggle for transparency in our public institutions. Transparency in particular is a key value for many students across the country, and this often leads to controversy because privacy is also a value they cherish.
That said, undergraduates today are often repulsed by official politics, and they are too likely to be cynical about the possibilities for building responsive institutions that can support the most vulnerable or empower the most innovative. It’s been observed that they are no longer inspired by abstract calls for “free speech” or by warm and fuzzy talk about “diversity and inclusion.” No wonder nihilism seems to be making a comeback among those who want to show how sophisticated their suspiciousness has become. If you’re really smart, the thinking seems to be, you won’t believe in anything that promotes possibilities for change. “We won’t get fooled again!” is the defensive cry of those afraid of being disappointed if they seek to engage with anything beyond themselves and their immediate peer group. Disillusionment is harder to mock than idealism and is in great supply on our college campuses.
It’s less risky to undercut an opponent’s stand than to take a stand of one’s own, and mocking the commitments of others from a distance is the safest route of all. Proposing practical programmatic change in areas like refugee resettlement, mass incarceration, the minimum wage or gender equality may indeed lead to social media storms of abuse from the alt-right or from a holier-than-thou left. That doesn’t make the proposals bad or good, but it does make it easier to propose nothing at all.
What’s most worrisome about the normalized nastiness is that it will surely discourage even more people from participating in public life, regardless of political persuasion. Nobody likes being called a racist, a loser, a fascist or even a neoliberal. And nobody enjoys being the object of mockery that is eminently retweetable.
The solution isn’t censorship or pious calls for more civility. Nor is the solution “rising above it all” to a “know-it-all position” that is smugly pessimistic because it is “all so smart.” The solution is to keep engaging on issues and proposing ideas that address real problems with full knowledge that one will be attacked for doing so. Fear of attack is no excuse for the failure to take a stand.
We must not abandon the public sphere to those who have successfully polluted it. It has always taken courage to take a public stand, and courage is still the best counter to nastiness.
Submitted by Tom Kalil on October 24, 2016 - 3:00am
Students in Society
Imagine a world in which clean energy is cheaper than coal, safe drinking water is accessible and affordable to everyone on the planet, and no child goes to bed hungry. Imagine a world where we have vaccines for AIDS, TB and malaria, and effective treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s. Imagine a society where everyone has anytime, anywhere access to the highest-quality learning opportunities. Imagine a future in which astronauts venture out into the solar system, not just to visit but to stay.
These and other similarly ambitious goals are within reach -- particularly if we inspire and empower the next generation of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and civic leaders to imagine and embrace them. Today’s change makers have access to knowledge and resources that would have been unimaginable 20 to 30 years ago, such as access to virtually unlimited computing resources and the ability to use online platforms to crowdsource funding and expertise from around the world. How can our educational institutions offer the learning opportunities that will inspire these change makers?
One of the scholars that President Obama met with was Michaela Rikard, a biomedical engineering student at North Carolina State University. She’s interested in developing new medical therapies that are personalized, affordable and readily available worldwide. She’s already conducted research to use nanotechnology to detect and treat cancer, and has worked with the military to help soldiers suffering from amputation complications.
This interest in Grand Challenges is not limited to the STEM disciplines. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has identified 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work to address major societal challenges such as ending homelessness and family violence.
Given the growing interest among colleges and universities in addressing real-world problems, the time is right to identify the elements of an all-hands-on-deck effort to motivate, prepare and empower young people to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century, at home and abroad. For example:
Colleges and universities could provide students with more opportunities for course work and experiential learning that is focused on problems, drawing on the insights from multiple disciplines. This fall, Stanford University is offering a Hacking for Diplomacy course that allows students to work on global problems such as the Syrian refugee crisis, countering violent extremism and fighting illegal fishing. Many other universities are interested in replicating this course and a similar course called Hacking for Defense. Government agencies can support these efforts by providing funding and identifying important problems.
Colleges and universities could target some of their federal work-study funds to allow students to work on real-world problems that they and their institutions care about. Students could be challenged to write their own job description and find a company or nonprofit organization that would be interested in hosting them.
Researchers and practitioners could collaborate on the design and dissemination of online courses and open educational resources that are problem focused and help students develop and hone some of the skills they will need to be effective change makers in the public or private sectors. For example, the World Bank has created a set of online short courses that help learners understand a particular problem (for example, understanding the impact of climate change in developing countries) or a problem-solving methodology (using public-private partnerships to finance infrastructure or involving citizens in the formulation of public policy).
Foundations and philanthropists could provide scholarships so that these opportunities are available to low-income students and underrepresented minorities.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy would like to hear from you about what your institution is doing to inspire and empower the next generation of change makers. What new actions is it taking to encourage college and university students to solve important real-world problems? What other actions should the public and private sectors take to prepare future change makers? Please share your views at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Kalil is deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Colleges and universities across the country are turning their attention to expanding civic engagement opportunities for students. In part, this growing attention is a result of a renewed focus on the traditional mission of higher education to develop good citizens -- a mission with heightened importance in our current sociopolitical context. It is also a response to a resurgence of student interest in social activism and an expressed commitment among students to make a difference in the world. While these aims are commendable, I question whether those of us who work in higher education have developed the best approaches to achieve them.
An article in Inside Higher Eddescribed the growing emphasis on civic engagement in college curricula “in response to an erosion of public discourse.” The article notes that institutions are working to address what a 2012 Department of Education report termed a “civic recession” by involving students in service projects and experiential learning with the goals of enhancing civic discourse and political engagement and satisfying students’ desire to participate in service to “accomplish something in the world.”
As Alan Solomont of Tufts University states in the article, students need the structure colleges and universities provide, because without that they are uncertain about how to turn their activism into lasting change. I agree, and I’m concerned that we may be missing the opportunity to achieve our goals with students because we are not doing enough to intentionally design a structure that facilitates the desired outcome.
Today’s students will be better prepared and disposed to be good citizens who accomplish lasting change if they are more than involved in civic discourse on trending topics, do more than participate in politics and vote regularly, and experience more than discrete service projects or service learning courses. Those experiences, while important, can and should be framed by larger issues so they become more than self-fulfilling or exotic experiences of helping small numbers of people in need. Lasting change comes with a clear understanding and appreciation that such discrete activities exist in a social context that cannot be changed without systemic reform. We have great potential to make a difference precisely because students are eager to explore their concerns, often through social media, and to express their hopes and expectations through campus demonstrations, sit-ins and petitions. Many are actively engaged.
Yet we know that our current efforts are not working as well as we had hoped. Campus projects to encourage student voting have not succeeded in getting students who turn out in large numbers for presidential elections to vote in the off years, although the issues that drive them to the polls aren’t solved through voting for a single political leader in one election. And students return from service-learning trips and activities elated by the adventure, feeling as if they’ve made a difference and connected with people very different from themselves, but often without the tools to contextualize their experience in the framework of global problems or to stimulate them to continue their deep engagement as citizens.
What can we do to enhance the long-term impact of college and university-sponsored civic engagement activities? We can start by asking, “What for?” and “What are we doing to point intentionally toward the purpose implied in that first question?” If we are clear about the purpose and context for these efforts and systemic in our framing and design, our students are far more likely to develop lifelong civic responsibility for bringing about lasting, systemic change.
Identify the fundamental issue. We should encourage the explicit design of civic engagement projects, whether local or global, around major issues. Such design entails framing activities not simply as work in a food pantry but also as work to diminish food insecurity and malnutrition, not simply as helping build schools but also as addressing the issue of educational inequities, not simply as establishing a pro bono community clinic but also as providing equitable access to health care. In short, we have to broaden the focus from applying learning in the real world and what the student gains in this hands-on process to include an explicit focus on the larger societal problem the student is working to solve.
Understand the issue in its broader context. We will not successfully resolve hunger with a food drive or a service-learning trip, because hunger is a complex problem that is systemically entwined with other social and economic issues. To be effective in tackling societal issues, we have to understand them deeply and broadly enough to know what needs to change. Colleges and university are well positioned to teach students about issues like hunger as enduring, complex systemic problems. Institutions that already take that approach know that the academic component of civic engagement activities is central to making sure these activities are understood as more than discrete projects. Students should learn about the issue and the community in depth before engaging in service projects so they are not just there as helpers or partners but can also envision their work as an effort to address a larger problem and appreciate their potential efficacy in addressing it.
A postexperience follow-up that circles back to the pre-experience academic study is also important in linking the civic engagement activity to the larger problem, why it is so entrenched and how to address it systemically. Perhaps ideally, students could begin to study major local and global problems in depth in their first year through a problem-themed general education program that would lay the groundwork for a deeper and broader understanding of civic engagement work from the start of their undergraduate experience.
Support faculty work across disciplines. As the notion of a problem-themed general education program suggests, the issues we are trying to address through civic engagement projects are complex and nuanced and cannot be fully understood or effectively tackled from any single disciplinary perspective. For example, environmental sustainability is best considered from the multifaceted perspectives of science, law, business, sociology, communications and engineering, to name a few key disciplines. To help our students frame their activity, we must support our faculty’s interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship and ensure that our institutions value this work in personnel decisions like reappointment, promotion and tenure.
Develop leaders. An important component of solving complex problems is leadership. If we want students to develop a civic engagement stance that has an impact on major problems, we must also foster their acquisition of tools and dispositions to make a difference with the knowledge and experience they have gained through civic engagement activities. We should guide them to discover their own leadership skills, to explore ethical and servant leadership concepts (leading with a singular focus on empowering others and addressing others’ needs), and to understand the power of quiet leaders, those without formal leadership positions who lead by example in their daily actions and decisions. Students must develop a personal sense of leadership and responsibility to be leaders in their own lives. At my institution, Widener University, the Oskin Leadership Institute offers all students a leadership certificate and an interdisciplinary leadership minor. Connecting service activities with leadership development is important to developing a lifelong commitment to civic engagement.
Strive for lifetime impact. The ultimate goal should be that our students will be poised for a lifetime of engagement in civic participation to solve local and global problems. Regardless of their career paths, students who have the tools to lead and who have learned to understand and think about their civic engagement activities in the framework of larger problems -- who understand what those activities are for beyond their own discrete experience -- will be better able to achieve the outcomes we all hope for: accomplishing something significant by making a difference in the world.
Julie E. Wollman is president of Widener University.