I am a professor of sociology who did not vote for Donald Trump, and I do not know of a single academic colleague who did. (And if they did, they are certainly not disclosing this in academic circles.)
I remember sitting with colleagues before the primaries when Trump was gaining ground. They laughed him off. They did not know anyone who would vote for him.
The pollsters got it wrong, too, and they all seemed to get it wrong in the same direction: in favor of established liberal Hillary Clinton. They are already writing about the statistical reasons this may have happened. I am going to set those aside for now to address a sociological, qualitative reason.
Sociologists have long studied the tendency of people to bond with others like them. Case in point: I love my academic colleagues because they are a lot like me. We are a group of passionate people who care deeply about the poor. And we are similar in other ways, too. We like to read dry academic articles and make arguments that contain the word “nuanced.”
And politically, many of us lean to the left (or even the far left). When I am with other sociologists, I tend to de-emphasize the things that are different about us and emphasize the things that are similar: I talk a lot about how my husband is an equal partner in care for our daughter, how I come from a biracial family and how I am raising my daughter in, as much as possible, a gender-neutral fashion.
That is starkly different from the way I was brought up.
I was literally raised on Podunk Road, where trailers and beat-up cars dotted the landscape. Our family was probably among the richest of a group of poor white people. Among those I went to school with, I am one of the only ones who attended an Ivy League school, Cornell University. I was likely let in under affirmative action because of a land grant that required the university to take in a proportion of local farm kids. I fit this description.
When I am with my colleagues, I talk less about how most of my family were church-going, card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association or how I still go to church every week.
The truth is, academics at elite institutions tend to be more liberal, less religious and more in favor of big government than the rest of the American population. Most of us would be hard-pressed to give a well-reasoned, conservative argument in response to any social issue. And more than one academic colleague has told me that if their neighbor had a Republican sign on his lawn, they probably would not make any effort to get to know the neighbor.
I join my colleagues in the fight against social inequality in all its insidious forms. But many academics like me have not spent much time trying to understand the groups of people who likely voted for Trump, nor have we spent much time trying to translate our academic work to these groups. And given the demographics of the United States, we forget that, for Trump to win, he needed to have some of the people whose interests I think his views work against actually vote for him -- including poor people, immigrants, women and Latinos.
For most academics, our candidate did not win the presidential election. We now face a crossroads. Will we lock ourselves in our ivory towers and face the outside world with cynicism? Or will we concede that our best social scientists got the prediction wrong?
Now is the time to move forward in pursuing a form of radical dialogue that we do not hear very often on university campuses. I would advocate that we move forward as leaders in listening to and learning from the entire world outside the academy. We need to live up to the best vision of the university, where everyone is welcomed to hear and be challenged by views different than their own.
Here are some concrete suggestions:
Challenge yourself to find the best voice on the other side. Academics are human, and it’s tempting when dealing with controversial issues to choose an unattractive opponent. I study religion, and I have heard many debates between erudite, attractive academics and inarticulate faith leaders. We must find the most attractive, well-spoken person on the “other side.”
Claim the best vision of the university as a protected space for dialogue. Each month, through the Religion and Public Life Program that I direct at Rice University, I host a discussion or reception for 20 to 30 religious and civic leaders at my home. In the midst of polarized faith communities and tensions between faith and secular communities, the leaders who come say that this is one of the few places in their lives where they have the opportunity to meet with someone who is different. I have seen conservative and liberal faith leaders, people who would never meet under another circumstance, come together around common social justice issues.
Claim a nonutilitarian vision of the university. Universities have fallen prey to business principles. Some of this is unavoidable as funding streams narrow. In its best form this utilitarianism is born from a desire to do work that really counts. But universities can be the soul of society. Sometimes we academics -- who are busy with committee work, raising funding for projects and getting out the last possible publication for the academic audience -- forget what a privilege it is (especially for those of us who have stable academic jobs and even stable academic jobs with tenure) to work in a university context where we get paid to do work that we love.
In its worst form, the academy is often rightly criticized as being in an ivory tower with no central importance to helping solve societal problems. But in their best form, universities can provide society spaces to stop and reflect. That is why, in particular, the modern university needs the humanities. In my university classes, I learned practical skills for a job, but the best classes I took were my history and philosophy and writing classes -- those that prepared me to think, reflect and appreciate beauty.
I write this from a sabbatical in France. I grew up among the rural poor, but I do not know many of them anymore. In the next few months, I will return to America, to reality and, I hope, to trying to understand this new reality and sharing that knowledge with my colleagues, students and the rest of the world.
The election has changed me. When I return I want to be a better teacher and do a better job incorporating views and traditions different than my own in my classes. I might spend more time trying to translate my work to a broader public that can benefit from it and from whom I can learn. When colleagues say things that cut off dialogue or say that certain views are not welcome, I might feel freer to gently challenge. I might spend more time in my community translating my work, and I might take my students with me. I might try harder to bring that community to campus. In the best case, the election provides a chance for the academy to reflect on itself and achieve a new vision of service to the broader society.
Maybe there are years when professors can plod through their syllabi untouched by current events. We lack the luxury of living in such a year.
American politics are now at the forefront of students’ consciousness. Many feel it acutely and personally. In my normally nonpolitical course on negotiation and conflict resolution at the City University of New York, I have seen passion and uncertainty on students’ faces all year. President-elect Donald Trump generates a wide range of deep emotions, from cutting anxiety to genuine optimism.
As professors finish out this semester and prepare for the next, how can we reckon with the election of Trump? How can we discuss his election without silencing or alienating some students? And, at the outset, is it appropriate for courses beyond pure political science to discuss politics at all?
With such heightened student engagement, it would be pedagogical malpractice not to harness those emotions into informed discussion within our disciplines. “Informed discussion” means more than having students express how they feel about the election -- although that, too, can be valuable -- but structurally integrating this election into syllabi this winter and spring. Fortunately, politics is an inherently multidisciplinary field with many entry points. Dozens of academic disciplines can offer meaningful insight into our current political landscape, even disciplines that seem less obvious on first blush. I offer my own approach here for consideration (or critique).
Teaching With Trump: The Example of Negotiation
I am a full-time attorney and teach an evening course each semester. My CUNY students are undergraduates, generally majoring in business or communications. Many are first-generation college students, immigrants and/or students for whom English is a second language. While the course focuses on business conflict -- the negotiation, mediation, arbitration and litigation of commercial disputes -- we also consider conflict resolution in other areas of life, such as handling a noisy neighbor or writing a separation agreement with a spouse.
Much of Trump's appeal throughout the campaign has been his professed ability to “negotiate good deals.” He has written and spoken about negotiation for decades, most famously in his 1987 book (co-written with Tony Schwartz), The Art of the Deal. This makes our president-elect particularly relevant for those currently teaching or taking courses in negotiation. Throughout the campaign, I have used Trump’s approach to negotiation specifically, and conflict more broadly, as an occasional bridge between current events and my syllabus.
With that in mind, I try to frame discussion topics as objectively as possible in furtherance of the course’s goals and match those topics to scholarly readings. Here are some topics that my class has discussed so far this election cycle.
Can you negotiate with someone whose values are inconsistent with yours? During the campaign, Trump called Washington a “swamp.” He accused Democratic leaders of being stupid and ineffective and Republican leaders of being weak and mendacious. Both Democratic and Republican leaders, at various times, accused Trump of being intellectually and ethically unfit for office. Some went farther, suggesting that Trump rejects core American values. How can these political actors now sit across the bargaining table from one another? Is it possible to negotiate legislation, budgets and other business with someone whom you believe is wrongheaded or immoral?
The students read excerpts of Bargaining With the Devil by Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School, which offers advice for negotiating with someone whom you feel you cannot trust or who holds opposing values. In class, we discuss situations when negotiation is appropriate, as well as situations when negotiation creates untenable ethical challenges.
Is it a smart negotiation strategy to take an exaggerated initial position? Trump has proposed building a southern border wall, which would cost billions of dollars, and said that Mexico would foot the bill. Mexico’s president has flatly countered that his country will never do this. Putting aside the merits of constructing such a wall, is it an effective strategy for Trump to begin this negotiation by staking out a position that Mexico views as inherently unreasonable? Would it have been any more effective for Trump to begin the discussion by suggesting that each country pay 50 percent? Or propose a different form of border control? Or solicit Mexico’s views before offering an initial proposal?
In negotiation, there is a concept known as anchoring -- starting a negotiation at a very high number that you know you will never achieve. There are potential benefits to this as well as potential risks. Here, I have the students read work by legal negotiation scholars like Nancy Welsh (Penn State Law School) on fairness, Chris Guthrie (Vanderbilt University Law School) on anchoring and Jennifer Reynolds (University of Oregon Law School) on strategy. When Senator Bernie Sanders was running, we also discussed these concepts in connection with his staunchly progressive proposals for single-payer health care and free college tuition.
How can tone shape a negotiation, and how can tone change online? Trump has used ad hominem attacks, particularly over the internet, to hurt opponents and gain sizable media coverage. When you negotiate with an adversary, what is the value of publicly criticizing that person compared to criticizing them privately? What effects might ad hominem attacks have on bargaining? And how are emotions conveyed differently when communicating online?
The students read a book on party-centered dispute resolution by Lela P. Love (Cardozo Law School) and an article on negotiating over email by Noam Ebner (Creighton University School of Law). We also discuss excerpts of a book by Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University) to consider gender’s important role on tone and substance of this election.
What rhetorical devices has Trump used effectively? As a lawyer, I am always attuned to logical fallacies -- rhetorical constructions that leave the listener with a particular framing of an issue. Politicians (and attorneys) of all partisan persuasions use such devices, which are not inherently good or bad. Trump is fond of several. For example, he sometimes begins an assertion by stating, “Many people have said …” or “Believe me” or cites unnamed people in authority -- a device that allows him to suggest expertise (argumentum ab auctoritate). He also blamed President Barack Obama’s administration for the creation of certain terrorist groups, because those groups emerged after President Obama came into office (post hoc, ergo propter hoc).
Every semester, my students must learn a set of common logical fallacies. But this past semester, I also had them watch the second presidential debate and record each candidate’s logical fallacies. In the next class, they split up into small groups, and whichever group found the highest number (combining both candidates’ statements) “won.” Importantly, the goal was not to find flaws in the candidates’ policies but in their persuasive logic, thus fitting within the course’s goals without the perception of partisanship.
The Value of Political Discussion
There are no right answers to these discussion questions. They do not frame a conversation that inevitably supports or opposes Trump himself or his policies; those judgments are left to the students after putting the course materials into conversation with current events. My hope is that by interrogating such issues, students will be more attuned to a legal argument containing a fallacy meant to obfuscate, or consider the effect of publicity on their future business negotiations. If this election makes those concepts memorable, or helps them to contextualize the news, the integration is well worthwhile.
Not all professors believe this is the right approach. Some argue that this is a moment for faculty across disciplines to take a strong political position, one of unguarded advocacy in their teaching and scholarship. These voices assert that faculty simply cannot be “objective” about a politician like Trump, discussing him like a theoretical doctrine, literary character or far-off historical figure. Doing so, they argue, risks “normalizing” Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies.
But such advocacy in the classroom can create an uncomfortable dynamic that mutes productive disagreement among students -- the most fruitful type of disagreement. Few undergraduates will take a “side” opposed by the teacher, especially if they immediately see what “side” that teacher supports. (This calculus shifts in graduate courses, where students have greater context and may feel more comfortable engaging the professor in debate.)
Another reason to leave your politics at the door: if you think you already know your students’ opinions, you may be gravely mistaken. An off-color joke about a politician could easily create discomfort and, again, chill the very dialogue we hope to enliven. I teach in New York City, which overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. But I have seen genuinely thoughtful class participation from supporters of Trump (as well as Senator Sanders and third-party candidates).
Rather than making assumptions about our students’ politics, or advocating our own, teachers should methodically create apolitical discussion topics and allow students to come to their own conclusions or disagreements. This is the pedagogy perfected by America’s small liberal arts colleges like Vassar and Williams; students learn as much from the perspectives of their peers as from their professors. Whether you teach history, politics, communications, law, economics, biology, gender studies or almost any other subject, let’s meet this moment by using our disciplines to provide critical context. There are surely angles we can explore, and scholars whose voices shed light on current events. To prepare for next semester, we may all need to do some syllabus surgery over the holidays.
I cannot pretend to have all the answers on how to effectively teach this election or its complex, indefinite aftermath. But I will try.
Brian Farkas is a business litigator in New York. He is an adjunct professor at the City University of New York and Brooklyn Law School, teaching courses on negotiation, mediation and arbitration.
One of the hot topics on campuses this year is “grit,” which University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth understands as a fusion of passion, aspiration, tenacity and resilience that launches people to success.
Her important new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, challenges educators and institutions to see and strengthen this mind-set in our students. Yet some critics have taken issue with Duckworth, arguing that grit is too hard to isolate and measure, or too weak for broad impact in the face of structural barriers like generational poverty.
Recognizing these caveats, when I consider the lives and stories of my mentees at Franklin & Marshall College, grit seems like a crucial X factor in their achievement.
For example, there’s Markera Jones, who grew up contending with racism and low expectations at school. Throughout college, she kept trying and striving, whether studying Arabic or doing research with a psychology professor, working in a warehouse over breaks or studying abroad in France.
Central to her sustained drive was a calling to improve the lives of African-American children. Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2015, she’s now following her purpose by teaching in Memphis, Tenn., as she prepares to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology.
Then there’s Carolina Giraldo, whose parents fled the Colombian drug wars so that she and her younger brother, Luis, could grow up safe and free in America. Tragically, after years of hard work and family sacrifice, her father died suddenly during Giraldo’s first year of college.
Hurting profoundly, she picked herself up and vowed to persevere. As a sophomore she earned excellent grades and made all-conference in women’s varsity crew. The next year she won the campus award for best painting: a rendition of the eye of Michelangelo’s David. Last May, Giraldo graduated cum laude with a major in biochemistry and molecular biology on her way to medical school.
And there’s Becca Meyers, a history major who has Usher’s syndrome, which takes away hearing and sight. Navigating campus with her service dog, Birdie, and meeting often with professors, she also maintains a rigorous training regimen as a competitive swimmer. Her day-to-day life is more grueling than most people can imagine.
This September, Meyers won four medals -- three gold, one silver -- and set two world records at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Of course, it wasn’t grit alone that propelled her to triumph. She had the moral and financial support from her loving parents to access great resources. And she came to a college that could help her balance the high demands of training and serious academics.
But that doesn’t change the fact that grit is a component of Meyers’s overall talent, which I define even more broadly than Duckworth, as all the resources we can draw upon to thrive in the challenges and opportunities of life.
Well, some ask, isn’t the idea of grit self-evident? Doesn’t everyone already know that most people need to work very hard and stay positive to achieve their goals?
Not really. Duckworth reminds us how often our society relies on mythical notions of “innate gifts” and thus fails to give grit its due. Sadly, when colleges are blind to the real assets and resources of students, we fall short of a key American ideal, which is that talent deserves the opportunity to rise.
Her research implies that highly selective colleges should do a better job identifying which applicants are strong on grit. Could we really do so? Sure -- by looking for students who have constantly sought out opportunity. By listening when applicants tell us they have acted on their passion for education in demonstrable ways. By seeing who has sustained strong grades over time or made the commitment to develop a skill that requires arduous practice.
And then there’s the educational process itself once students get to college. Because grit is not innate or fixed, Duckworth argues, we can cultivate and grow it, thereby enhancing student growth.
How would that happen?
Obviously, not by ignoring obstacles and deprivations and placing responsibility on the students alone to use their grit for success. Rather, educators should seek to build campus ecosystems where those with grit can shine, strengthen themselves and inspire others.
For example, we can give students more challenging research opportunities and one-to-one time with faculty members. We can help them pursue self-generated projects in areas of passion. We can treat those ubiquitous work-study jobs as opportunities to learn practical job skills or address inequities on or off the campus. We can celebrate the grit in the cultures and communities of students and encourage those with passion and perseverance to serve in peer leadership roles. All of this presumes that we’ll partner with students to meet their financial needs rather than asking them to assume unfair work or debt burdens.
As we consider such ideas, Duckworth places in the forefront the developmental fact that undergraduate education should be about much more than simply acquiring information toward a linear set of “competencies.” Strengthening grit can help the young develop the inner power to grow up, push forward and live well as active citizens.
Which brings us back my student Carolina Giraldo, who lost her father.
Last spring, during her senior year, she and I were partners in a workshop that asked us to choose a word that describes us best. Knowing her well, I thought she might pick “high-achieving, “caring,” “creative,” or “new American.” All true.
Instead, with pride in her eyes, she said, “Resilient.”
Which means this: more than her high grades and honors, this student values her optimistic drive against the headwinds of adversity. Having grit has become core to her moral identity and developing self.
Of course, Giraldo isn’t only resilient. But, indeed, it was her ability to bounce back from setbacks that empowered her to live all the other values that I and other mentors see in her: the readiness to work hard to learn difficult material, the freedom to dive headlong into new opportunities, the yearning to create growth and make meaning.
Such interior growth is one of the great aims of education. Where both perseverance and passion flourish, education has done its most sublime work. And, by the way, successes are probably not far behind.
Daniel R. Porterfield is president of Franklin & Marshall College.
A few years ago, James H. Tatum and his colleague at Dartmouth College William Cook published a book that was a real eye=opener. African American Writers and Classical Tradition, published by the University of Chicago Press, took an in-depth look at the work of Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Rita Dove and others to show that “African-American literature did not develop apart from canonical Western literary traditions but instead grew out of those literatures,” while at the same time adapting and transforming African cultural traditions.
Since many of the works that had the greatest influence on those writers had their roots in Greece and Rome, the book was a wake-up call for us classicists. But while it was warmly received and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, it has not yet led to a strong effort to answer such questions as “What about the next generation of African-American writers, thinkers, leaders? As college students, will they have in-depth access to the literature that proved so empowering to their predecessors?”
Access to serious study of the literature and experience of ancient Greece and Rome, long the core of a liberal education, is now severely limited for all students in the United States -- whatever their ethnicity, socioeconomic status or color. No more than one college student in seven attends an institution with a department or program in the ancient Greek and Latin classics. For an African-American student the opportunities are likely to be even more restricted.
That is in part because of the limited curricular offerings at the 83 historically black colleges and universities offering bachelor’s degrees. Those institutions, Wikipedia reports, accounted for 13 percent of black higher education enrollment in 2001. Of these institutions, I know of only one, Howard University, that has had a department of classics. A similar limitation of opportunity is evident if we ask which institutions, HBCU or not, enroll the largest number of non-Hispanic African-American undergraduate students. According to Collegexpress, the following nonprofit four-year institutions enroll the largest number of African-Americans:
Georgia State University
Florida A&M University
University of Maryland University College at Adelphi
University of Memphis
More than 40,000 African-American students are enrolled at these five institutions, but only a few of the five provide a coherent program for the study of ancient Greece and Rome.
Some African-American students, to be sure, attend institutions with strong programs in the ancient world. These are often highly selective, well-endowed colleges and universities, often with aggressive minority recruitment programs. Yet even there, the percentage of African-American students in the student body is less than one might hope.
This situation needs to change, and in classics, there are signs that it can change. Many departments of classics can point to African-American students who have flourished through their study of the classics. The challenge, then, is to find ways to make such success more widespread.
That will take action both at the campus level and nationally. Fortunately, models of proven effectiveness can be adapted, such as the Teagle Foundation’s College-Community Connections, which introduces low-income students from New York City public high schools to the liberal arts. Cheryl Ching, a former staff member directly involved in the program, recently looked back on one example of its success, writing in an email, “I think about the freedom and citizenship seminar that Andrew Delbanco and his colleagues at Columbia University developed for the Double Discovery students, where there was a conscious effort to relate Plato, Aristotle and all the great writers of Western civilization to lives of the mostly students of color in the program.”
No doubt other promising models and good ideas can be shaped, tried out and rigorously evaluated to help the next generation of students experience in depth what proved so important in the past. In higher education these days we talk a lot about access, but we rarely include in the discussion access for all students to a rich and genuinely diverse curriculum. Making that kind of access available to all students is the real test of leadership at every level, from the individual department to the national organizations that shape educational policy.
Black learning matters.
W. Robert Connor has served as director of the National Humanities Center and president of the Teagle Foundation. He blogs at www.wrobertconnor.com.
One morning not too long ago, I opened Inside Higher Ed and read a story about the dwindling support for humanities. Citing low enrollments, Western Illinois University had just cut four degree programs, including philosophy and religious studies. Faculty members were worried. Metrics were being questioned.
In other news outlets, another dire situation played out: more student protests over a lack of diversity -- this time at Seattle University. The tone was urgent. The institution placed the dean on administrative leave, and the students demonstrated for 22 days, demanding more attention to diversity in the curriculum.
Were these two separate stories? Or were they, in fact, closely intertwined?
Campus politics over the past decade have centered on diversity issues -- on addressing racial, ethnic, sexual and gender bias in the student body, faculty and administration. “Inclusivity” is the watchword on campuses today. Consequently, over the past few years, new diversity officers have been hired, budgets for diversity efforts have been skyrocketing -- in 2015, for instance, Yale University committed $50 million toward faculty diversity initiatives -- and intellectual approaches to the understanding of diversity are being integrated into curricula at places like Hamilton College.
While the emphasis on diversity is gaining momentum, force and funding, the perceived crisis in the humanities appears to be fading into the background, left to defend itself ad nauseam. In fact, it seems that these two movements may even be functioning against one another. The result of more affordable access to college for lower-income students, for example, may very well be leading to cuts in programs with low enrollments or lower salary yields (i.e., the humanities), as Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed of the University of Illinois readily underscore in “The Real Humanities Crisis Is Happening at Public Universities.”
But can our institutions of higher education afford not to support and invest heavily in the humanities? Can we welcome a growing number of diverse students without increased attention to the study of languages, art, music and cultural contributions of people from diverse communities around the world? Can our country claim to educate democratic citizens without teaching our children to analyze the messages that inform their personal and political lives -- skills learned in literature classes? Can our country grapple with radical Islamic groups while defunding religious studies programs and courses in Arabic language and culture, art, and history?
I find it troubling that explicit and comprehensive support for the humanities as central to any institution’s efforts to build a diverse and inclusive curriculum and campus culture has largely been absent from national conversations.
The humanities inform the kinds of values implicit in diversity and inclusion initiatives because our disciplines consistently demand that we become more attuned to the nuances of each other’s lives. The knowledge students gain in the most diverse learning hubs on our campuses -- as most of our modern languages and literatures departments are -- allow them to more truly value each other’s differences inside and outside the classroom, in local or global communities. In those spaces, they learn to confront their own biases and blind spots by engaging with distinct social and cultural backgrounds and the ways in which language, literature, theater, film, art and media shape and inform diverse and ever-changing worldviews and identities every single day.
The humanities give us the knowledge and the skills to share and express who we are and how we see our place in the world. In the process, we all gain the critical and creative thinking, communication, and comprehension skills needed to build the bridges that our diversity and inclusivity efforts are working toward.
The goal of diversity measures is to broaden the voices and perspectives on a campus. So why are we cutting out the vital stream of voices embodied in the arts and humanities? In an era of tight budgets, these may be seen as competing priorities, as distinct issues, but that’s a mistake. Greater diversity can broaden our conceptions of art, history, music, language studies and other arts and humanities. And the arts and humanities can support and enrich a culture of inclusivity across many communities, fields and professions.
Christine Henseler is a professor of Spanish and Hispanic studies at Union College.
I’m a mathematician. I’m teaching Calculus II and mathematical structures for computer science this term. I write blog posts on topics like the best way to determine whether two lines intersect in three-dimensional space. Yet at 3:30 p.m. on the day after Trump’s election I found myself on a hastily convened panel with five of my faculty colleagues, facing an emotionally charged crowd of about 400 students, faculty and staff.
Our mission -- it felt like we were a team in that moment -- was to help our campus make sense of the results of an election that many found shocking and even frightening. The rest of the panel consisted of professors of politics and government, religion, gender and queer studies, and African-American studies. Why was a mathematician on the panel? I was the person the university found to give the conservative perspective.
After explaining my function on the panel, I said the following:
"It’s kind of odd that I’m here to be the conservative on this panel; I’m not that conservative. I’m probably more of a right-leaning moderate. I also didn’t vote for Trump, as I have concerns about his judgment and temperament. Instead, I voted for Gary Johnson. But this is Puget Sound, and so here I am representing the conservative perspective.
"Right now I feel a lot of things. I feel fear and worry. As I said, I’m concerned about Trump’s judgment. I’m also concerned because of the anger and division that I see, as well as the bad behavior by some of Trump’s supporters.
"As I watched the election returns roll in last night, though, I was surprised to discover that I also felt kind of excited, maybe even elated. And so why is that?
"I grew up in a small town in north Louisiana in the 1980s: a world that is Southern, rural, conservative and Christian. I’m second-generation college: my grandparents worked at jobs like coal miner, gas station attendant, department-store clerk, farmer, beautician. For most of my adult life I’ve been an academic, though, and for the past 11 years, I’ve worked at a very progressive liberal arts college in one of the most progressive parts of the country. That has given me a sort of double vision or cultural whiplash at times.
"Hillary Clinton called my people 'deplorable.' She said we were 'irredeemable.' Our current president, who I think sees the world similarly, said that my people are bitter clingers who hold on to guns and religion because we don’t have anything else worthwhile in our lives. Why would I want to support someone like that? Someone who talks that way about my people is not going to do a good job representing me. I’m glad she lost. I’ve got some concerns about Trump, but I’m glad Hillary Clinton lost.
"To understand this election, you have to understand that to be white working class means that you have almost no power. Not economic. Not cultural. Neither do you have the power that comes from moral authority, unlike most other victimized groups.
"To a large degree, Trump represents the revolt of the white working class. The revolt is partly economic. The cultural aspect is that they’re tired of being, in their minds, looked down on and condescended to by the people who run the country.
"I’ll hypothesize that, in some respects, the more Trump is mocked for his hair, his language, his racism, his sexism, his bigotry, the more the white working class says, 'That’s how I’ve been treated, too. Trump is like me. Trump is one of us.'"
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my campus after saying this, in an emotionally charged room with hundreds of people. But it represented the culmination of something that had been building in me for years.
Shut Out of Group Norms
I became an academic because I wanted to teach, help my students work through the big questions of life and discuss those big questions inside a larger community. I wanted a career at a liberal arts college. On the political axis, I thought of myself as a moderate. I knew academe leaned to the left, but I had always thought of the left (and academics in particular) as being fairly open-minded.
Not too long after I took my first tenure-track position in the fall of 2004, I was invited to a party by one of my colleagues. I had assumed it was just a friendly get-together. Most of the evening, however, was spent bashing President Bush. The critiques were more visceral than intellectual, and I saw none of the nuance that I expected from academics. In hindsight, I realize that much of what the guests were doing was signaling to each other their membership in a community, as well as venting frustrations, and they had assumed the party was a space where they could do that.
For unrelated reasons, I took a position at my current university -- a very different institution, in a very different part of the country -- the following year. Here, I have repeatedly found myself in situations where someone makes assumptions about everyone in the room, assumptions that I don’t share. The culprit has always been my Southernness, or my small-town background, or my Christian faith, or my lack of progressivism.
I remember the awkward silence that briefly followed when one of my students asked me outside of class whether I am religious, and I told him I am a Christian. I remember the snide comment about Texas at a faculty workshop. I remember a colleague’s casual dismissal of Fox News and the people who watch it. My mother watches Fox News. She’s one of most giving and selfless people I know -- someone who dropped everything to do disaster relief work in south Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
I remember others’ stories, too. I remember the two conservative students who vented in my office for half an hour, thankful that somebody was willing to listen to them. I remember the conservative colleague who told me that he’s tired of being a target and so he just keeps his head down now. I remember the alumnus who told me that he would never have dared to be out as a Christian on our campus because then he wouldn’t have had any friends.
Every institution has a culture and a set of shared norms, and an academic institution is no different. Those sacred values don’t come from the institution’s mission statement but arise from the shared set of beliefs held by the people who are part of it. A newcomer to a college may not ever be able to articulate that college’s norms, but he internalizes them every time an idea is praised with no countervailing opinion expressed. She internalizes them every time a group is criticized, and no one comes to that group’s defense. Over time the in ideas and out groups become part of the assumptions that people make. You don’t even think about them anymore. They’re like the oxygen in the air.
Where does that place you when you don’t share many of those norms? Sometimes you find yourself bewildered. On the literal level, the discussion is about Donald Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush or racism or transgender rights or environmental policy. But really the conversation is often about sacred values. When you don’t share the group norms, you feel shut out of the conversation because its very framing assumes the group norms. People don’t listen to the stories you use to explain your views because your stories are tied up with your norms -- not theirs -- and they don’t have a good mental place to connect them to. As a result, your stories get explained away.
You can always try to go deeper, of course. However, trying to get the group to look hard at its assumptions and then trying to explain why you don’t share them is difficult and exhausting. And even when you do have the energy, it’s easy to transgress some norm that you didn’t see and then face an unexpected blast directed at you. That makes you want to engage even less.
Besides, there are much easier options. You can become cynical. You can become angry. You can start hating the group. You can nurture your pain and envision yourself as a beleaguered minority. You can start throwing rhetorical explosives, which sure feels good -- at first. You can find another group. I’ve been tempted by most of these possible actions and have committed several of them.
The story that I’m telling here is about me at a progressive liberal arts college and slowly identifying more over time as conservative. It could also be the story of the white working class at the national level. And that brings me back to Trump and the post election panel.
After I finished my remarks, I was worn out. I had just made myself far more emotionally vulnerable than I am used to, and I had done it in front of an angry and fearful crowd. I don’t remember much of the question-and-answer session, but I don’t think I had the wherewithal to attempt to answer anyone’s questions.
After it was over, one of my faculty colleagues made her way up to the table. “Thank you,” she said, “Your remarks made this all worthwhile.” The next person in line was a student. “My father is really conservative. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, and I’m scared about Thanksgiving. Do you have any advice for me?” She started tearing up. I hope what I said was helpful. Another student: “I’m a moderate. Thank you for giving another perspective.” “Just … thank you,” from a student in one of my classes this term. Then more expressions of thanks from faculty colleagues: “We should talk more,” “That’s exactly what we needed” and even “Nice pedagogy.”
Then, that night, I started getting emails. They continued to trickle in over the next several days. They said things like “That gave me a sense of courage,” “I realized I haven’t been listening well or asking the right questions,” “While you and I don’t agree, it was important for me to hear that” and “Thank you for pointing out that we are not all evil.” All in all, somewhere around 25 or 30 people have made a point of expressing gratitude for my remarks. The feedback hasn’t been uniformly positive -- I’ve also received some pushback -- but even that has been collegial.
I’ve responded in multiple ways. Scenes from Jerry Maguire keep running through my head: the ones where Jerry criticizes his company, everyone applauds and then Jerry gets fired. At least I have tenure, while Jerry did not. Another is a feeling of regret -- regret that I’ve underestimated my own campus.
Mostly, though, I’m more hopeful now than I have been in quite some time about my university. I hope we can dial back the inflammatory rhetoric -- especially the “-ists” and the “phobics” that we slap as labels on people. I hope we can do a better job of listening to people who have different values -- especially to a large group of people in this country who are not well understood by academics but whose support just elected Donald Trump president.
To understand the disparate people in our country, however, we need a greater variety of perspectives than we have now on campuses. Our sacred values shouldn’t effectively exclude large swaths of the country. We shouldn’t have to tap a moderately conservative mathematician who didn’t vote for Trump to give the conservative view on Trump voters.
Academe shouldn’t even be an institution that needs hastily convened panels like the one I was on: we should know how large groups of people in this country think and feel. We should be teaching their experiences and listening to them. We should have more people with their belief systems on our campuses, teaching and learning, so we can learn from them.
And so I find myself, ironically, arguing in favor of one of academe’s most sacred values: diversity. I’m not arguing for diversity the way academe functionally defines it, though. Instead, I’m arguing for intellectual diversity. Trump’s election -- and academe’s response -- only confirm that, for an institution of higher learning, it's the most important kind of diversity to have.
Mike Spivey is professor of mathematics at the University of Puget Sound.