In the immediate aftermath of a highly charged 2016 presidential election, a number of college and university presidents issued public statements expressing their concerns over the unexpected result and vowing to protect students from a national resurgence of racism, sexism, xenophobia and misogyny that they believe to be implicit in Donald Trump’s victory.
Rather than helping to reduce tensions and assuage fears, these expressions of alarm, concern and support may have done more to create campus unrest than forestall it by reinforcing the notion that the academic community must erect barricades to protect its members -- instead of exploring what happened in the election and why.
In my dealings as a university president with donors, alumni, legislators, staff members, faculty members and students, I hear views that are every class of right, left and center. To most of those with whom I speak (and to most people in general), their views appear to them to be self-evident truth.
This normal human tendency is exacerbated by what pioneering online organizer Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble,” in which the modern proliferation of news media allows us -- and, in fact, encourages us -- to surround ourselves only with views that match our own. That phenomenon is a problem not only intellectually and politically but also ethically.
To think within such bubbles is to put the person who is outside one’s bubble into a limiting category in which we believe we understand everything we need to know about that person. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught, this subjection of the other person to one’s own categories is precisely the definition of violence. Levinas, most of whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, goes so far as to find in this limited categorization of “the other” an important source of the Nazis’ violence against Jews.
Presidential elections regularly practice this kind of violent categorization (think “lying Hillary” and “racist Trump”), though it was more extreme than usual in this one. Such hyperbolic characterizations of another’s position are themselves examples of the violence implicit in racism and the imposition of untruth. In that sense, violence knows no party, and neither violence nor its cure can be laid at the feet of the democratic process, since any person’s vote can be a gesture of violence or peace. I would go so far as to suggest that our either/or two-party system of national elections, in addition to our post-Enlightenment prioritization of the individual over the group, tends to promote -- or, at least, in no way combat -- the violence of categorization and exclusion of the other.
How do we get out of this violent cycle? As an alumnus said to me recently, those who are upset by the election results need to ask themselves, “Why did my views lose?” Donald Trump’s victory was not a coup but a free election in a democracy. That cannot be labeled populism gone awry, because he will very likely be chosen by the very system, the Electoral College, that was established in part to counter unbridled populism, and it is now pretty clear that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Barring any major surprises (which virtually no one anticipates) in the various recounts now occurring, he is our president-elect, because we elected him. There is no “they” to blame here -- not even Russia.
The hacking of internal Democratic National Committee and other emails during the campaign, for which the CIA blames Russia, is a serious national security concern. However, to equate it to a foreign manipulation of the election is an illogical inference, even if that was their intent, and as much as it might fit into the bubble of a Cold War narrative. Russian operatives didn’t stuff ballot boxes, coerce voters or even spread fake news. If the CIA is correct, they simply released presumably authentic emails that DNC staff did not want released. (Of all people, given Clinton’s own email woes, those staffers should have known better than to write self-incriminating emails.)
The hacking itself may be evil, but that doesn’t translate into an evil effect on the election. If people’s votes were changed, they were freely changed on the basis of new information. Our own government’s reopening of the Clinton email case probably did as much to dissuade people from voting for Clinton as any action by a foreign power.
Apocalyptic hand-wringing, especially by those of us in the business of educating the electorate, is really not helpful. (Plenty of college-educated people voted for Trump, so it’s disingenuous to pin his victory on the poorly educated.) Even President Obama, whose personal and political legacy has more to lose than most in this election, said, as noted in David Remnick’s recent New Yorker piece, “This is not the apocalypse.”
The way forward is to find common ground, oppose violence and work toward the good -- as even Senator Bernie Sanders is doing in engaging Trump on a shared concern for the plight of the working class. Trump also has a distinctive opportunity, despite his own campaign rhetoric, to separate conservatism from bigotry by disavowing the openly racist “alt-right” groups that have stepped out of the shadows (where they were arguably more dangerous) since the election.
As institutions of higher education, we need to provide a diverse and inclusive environment that challenges students both to get out of their filter bubbles and to recognize the violence implicit in living inside a bubble. That requires us to protect them when necessary, including from the violence of others who would define them by race, gender, political beliefs or national origin.
But we also need to prepare them to live and work in a messy democracy in which, following Levinas, peace is achieved not through the voter’s assertion of the priority of individual choice, but rather by acknowledging the infinity of the other person -- someone who has an existence we should respect beyond the categories we are tempted to impose. I hope that can be an important part of our focus as citizens and educators going forward.
David P. Haney is president of Centenary University.
With each new academic year come new racial incidents on campuses, watched closely by university administrators seeking to master the rules of response in order to cling to their jobs.
The fall 2015 unrest at the University of Missouri, which led to the resignation of the system president and one campus’s chancellor, and at Yale University, where protestors chastised an instructor about her comments on Halloween costumes, probably assisted Donald Trump’s improbable rise as a champion of the politically incorrect. Many Americans find it odd that privileged students express outrage at risqué Halloween costumes, not at terrorist attacks on their nation by notably intolerant jihadists.
No doubt some of the grassroots support for Trump reflects the alienation of rural white voters who, as J. D. Vance explains in Hillbilly Elegy, feel pitied and patronized by their nation’s political elites. Ironically, a similar alienation may explain why privileged college students of color at places like Yale seize any opportunity to express outrage. They feel patronized by their universities -- and for good reason. While institutions like the U.S. Army seem effective at bringing diverse young Americans together, higher education seems to spin them apart. So how did America’s most progressive institutions get race relations so very wrong?
I write as a right-leaning white man, but one with African-American friends and collaborators met while growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood and then spending 40-odd years in academe, teaching at a range of small and large, public and private institutions. In that time, I’ve read much and seen even more, including sensitive matters that few academics of any color address with clarity for fear of attacks.
Underlying the controversies at Yale, Missouri and, in a quieter way, at most of the 10 institutions of higher learning where I have taught, are real issues of privilege and alienation. When African-Americans complain that they are not taken seriously at colleges and universities, my fellow conservatives need to acknowledge the key reason why: African-Americans are not taken seriously at colleges and universities. Meanwhile, for their part, liberals need to acknowledge that diversity policies -- at least as actually practiced at most colleges and universities rather than in theory or public proclamation -- have walled off minorities from the centers of university life, making racial hierarchies all the steeper and inherently challenging situations still more challenging.
Way back in 1972, in Black Education: Myths and Tragedies, African-American economist Thomas Sowell wrote about the challenges facing African-American professors, who must teach and publish like everyone else but who also are drafted to serve as recruiters of and gurus to black students, as preventers of open racial conflict, as the authentic “black voices” on innumerable committees (a pretty awesome responsibility when you think about it), and in pervasive public relations roles as living proof that institutions of higher learning are diverse. As Stephen L. Carter pondered in Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, the omnipresent racial consciousness in academe makes minority professors and students continually unsure of whether white-dominated institutions value their skills or their skin color. That insecurity results from white privilege in the purest sense, making HBCUs all the more appealing.
In the University but Not of It
My first knowledge of this came some 30 years back, while studying in a high-octane Ph.D. program. I was the only openly Republican student in the program, my best friend for a time was the only African-American student, and our basically decent colleagues never quite knew how to react to either of us. I was young and insecure (now middle-aged and crotchety), but then, so were my peers. Possibly, the prospect of my tattling to conservative state legislators, or worse still, my friend accusing someone of racism (the latter a real career killer), put some on their guard. Such insecurities are immeasurably more pronounced in today’s time of conservative bloggers, libertarian think tanks, politically correct trigger warnings and Orwellian microaggressions.
Of course, unlike my friend, I was never called out of class to have my picture taken for a university brochure or asked to represent “the black point of view.” My friend could not just be a doctoral student in a top 10 program -- which is hard enough. He was supposed to be the minority student, a token, not a person, someone to be handled with care. He ended up leaving academe.
I, too, experienced the feeling of being in the university but not of it. On the verge of flunking out, I was exiled off the 12th floor of the social sciences tower to the second floor to share an office with the graduate students in Africana studies, a department that apparently had extra space or insufficient clout to protest. The Africana students were bright but bitter, lamenting our status of occupying the only office in the building that did not even have a phone -- that was how much the university trusted us! Everyone knew no one from there would make dean any time soon. We were the ghetto of the university, although for me it was only temporary.
Unfortunately, some 30 years later, remarkably few presidents of colleges and universities are African-American -- only about 6 percent, according to the American Council on Education, even counting community colleges and HBCUs. I know fine scholars and teachers who might receive serious consideration for serious leadership posts at Research 1 universities -- were they white. As African-Americans, they get stuck on the black track Sowell lamented back in 1972.
Fast-forward a few decades, and I heard a chancellor casually suggesting that to support ethnic diversity, the university needed to enlarge majors like education, sociology and African-American studies -- not engineering, linguistics or Arabic. Nor did this chancellor (or any I university leader I have known) talk seriously about how to push K-12 schools to reduce the racial achievement gaps that hinder the efforts of higher education (and society generally) to desegregate.
Rather, his meaning was clear: you can’t expect those black folks to have the brains to handle regular majors, so to make the diversity numbers we would create refuges (ghettos?) within the university. This particular chancellor was a decent human being and a member of the left in good standing, someone who probably never voted Republican. (Republican chancellors may well be rarer than African-American chancellors.) Yet his views of the capabilities of minorities were indistinguishable from those of the most noxious segments of the Trump movement. Those views were on public display, but far more common are quiet references in hiring committees to the effect that you just can’t expect minorities, or rather certain minorities, to cut it in academic settings.
So while I am not a person of color, from lived experience in the academy I got it when, in the Schuette case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor opined that “race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”
But here is what Justice Sotomayor and many others on the left do not get. True integration in any workplace, but particularly in hypercompetitive academe, only works when people have roughly equivalent skills. Most faculty members know this, and some make largely unsupported attempts to do something about the skills gaps across groups.
But, unfortunately, that is simply not how many administrators view the issue. They practice affirmative action by admitting African-American and occasionally Hispanic students with academic skills well below those of their white and (especially) Asian peers and then exiling those students (and sometimes faculty members) to the margins of the university -- to “special” majors, programs and even dorms. In other words, they set up expectations of white and Asian privilege, and African-American disadvantage, in ways that guarantee alienation and division, however much we deny or avoid it.
What Should be Done?
As Benjamin Ginsberg argues in The Fall of the Faculty, some of our collective failure to manage diversity (and a host of other issues) reflects the fact that administrators, not professors, now dominate our universities. Higher education administrators often view diversity issues through the prisms of politics and public relations. Even though each group leans well to the left politically, approaches to diversity can divide college administrators and faculty members. In The Still Divided Academy, Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Woessner, and Matthew Woessner offer extensive survey data showing that while college and university administrators see no downside to affirmative action, their faculty members, who actually work with students and value academics, perceive trade-offs between diversity and student success.
This is a divide between those working directly with students and those focused on “the big picture,” for whom individual students are abstractions. For most faculty members, whatever their ideology, issues of diversity offer educational challenges: How do we serve all our students, including minorities, and use diversity to enhance rather than constrict intellectual exchange? In contrast, college and university administrators by and large care little if black students (or any students) learn. For the administrators who run colleges and universities, diversity offers political challenges: How do we keep minorities quiet and have sufficient numbers of them to look good to external funders? This means that minority activists at places like Yale, the University of Missouri and wherever the next racial incident occurs in a deep sense have it right: university leaders do not care about them save as public relations objects. That’s a recipe for alienation, and rebellion.
Perhaps universities don’t have to be this way. Some of the better work on managing diversity comes out of the military, such as Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler’s 1996 classic All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. This nuanced sociology suggests integration works best when those of different identities have roughly equal skills, face common challenges, get to know each other as individuals rather than as group representatives and cannot retreat to separate “safe spaces.” Grown-ups could structure the academic and social challenges of college in such ways. Putting more focus on academics would be a good start, unifying students around the common demands of course work. Going a step farther might mean de-emphasizing institutions of progressive privilege, like diversity programs, and even more powerful institutions of traditional privilege, like fraternities and sororities.
Unfortunately, however, the prospects for such bold, individual student foci on the part of large, bureaucratic institutions are not good. Perhaps those running colleges and universities deserve what they are getting.
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.
If higher education is underappreciated and under threat, then highest education -- postdoctoral fellowships -- may be even more so. Some observers have suggested that too many people are pursuing such advanced training without clearly related direction or the potential for job placements. But while some aspects of postdoctoral education may need adjusting, our country must appreciate the value of highest education and do more to ensure that it flourishes.
When I refer to highest education, I mean those most advanced studies in any field in higher education -- be it medieval history, international relations, heart failure cardiology, polymer nanoscience, biological anthropology, systems engineering, 19th-century French literature or ancient Taoism. This is not an elitist concept but rather a description and acknowledgment of the highest levels of training, specialization and educational attainment in any area of human endeavor. I use the term here to draw attention to an important -- and vulnerable -- element at the apex of our education system.
After obtaining highest education in various fields, people go on to faculty careers or other professions, continuing to learn and sharing the benefits of what they know and how they think. And those benefits are great, in the academy and beyond, given the experience and perspective accrued along the way. People who have obtained the highest education contribute to leadership in myriad fields and to the critical reasoning and discourse vital for a civil society.
That is not to say that advanced training is necessary for brilliant insights, breakthroughs and leadership. History is replete with individuals who have made extraordinary contributions and have great wisdom without formal education -- let alone higher education. And many people with advanced degrees have proceeded successfully without postdoctoral-level training. But postgraduate education allows for the larger-scale sharing, transfer and development of deep expertise in an academic or professional field. And in this age of interdisciplinary scholarship, deep doesn’t necessarily mean narrow -- such advanced studies may confer a broader, integrated perspective.
Most forms and levels of education rely, at their best, upon the close interaction between student and teacher. In highest education, the interaction between advanced students and highly expert faculty enhances the work of both, and through research or qualitative studies, advances human understanding. Their discoveries occur at the edge of what is known and what is unknown, and can involve specific observations and overarching or paradigm-shifting insights. Either way, areas of human endeavor move ahead, hopefully guided by ethical considerations, sometimes informing policy or creating whole new fields and industries.
Indeed, people with advanced, specialized training fill an important niche in the discovery, innovation and application of new knowledge. They also serve as stewards of acquired expertise and perspective within and across disciplines and fields. Those with postdocs in engineering can be highly sought after by Silicon Valley, Wall Street or academe. In medicine, they can lead top academic medical centers and help patients suffering with complex conditions. In the economic and social sciences, they can serve in a myriad of fields in industry, government or academe. In the arts and humanities, they can manage museums, orchestras and other nonprofit organizations. Some develop their own niches.
Not all postdocs succeed in their chosen areas, as with any area of human endeavor. That may be due to a range of issues unrelated to their training, or to work force needs and capacities that do not always match their aspirations. Thus, advanced training can be a risky investment, though if pursued for its inherent value, quite worthwhile -- and often in unanticipated ways. It can give students highly developed, transferable thinking skills that allow them to excel in a wide range of careers as well as to respond to emerging new needs for expertise -- for example, in specific sects of Islam or biomaterials science.
Preparing people for successful trajectories at the fellowship or postdoc level presents considerable challenges, especially in a resource-constrained environment. It requires focusing explicit attention on the specific elements of education at this level.
But highest education often doesn’t get the attention and resources it requires and deserves. Because programs are usually smaller, they do not always receive dedicated budgetary support. Funding may be precarious, depending upon faculty grants, training grants or individual grants for students from the National Science Foundation and other organizations. A decrease in support from the National Institutes of Health, and the gap between tuition and rising institutional costs, puts particular pressure on fellowship programs.
Universities are increasingly aware of the need to secure sustainable sources of support, whether philanthropic or from other institutional sources, but options are limited. As a result, the right-sizing of programs is crucial. The pursuit of a fellowship because a student doesn’t know what else he or she wants to do, or because a faculty position is not available, should be discouraged. Overly prolonged or multiple fellowships are not helpful, either, unless there is continued advancement and specialized, multidisciplinary training. And while success on the job market should not be the sole criterion for academic pursuits, the overproduction of advanced trainees in a given field can be counterproductive.
Fellowships and fellows themselves face certain challenges. Salaries for advanced trainees are frequently inadequate, considering the nature of the work and the life stage of the trainees. (Families are often being started). Postdocs and fellows can be exploited by faculty members and others in their departments. They may feel pressured into doing supportive work without adequate mentorship or growth. Finally, many postdocs can be relatively isolated in laboratories or divisions of departments, without a common voice, experience or infrastructure.
To address such challenges, many research universities are developing or enhancing programs and policies specifically aimed at the fellowship level of education. They are taking the model from that of ad-hoc apprenticeships to one of carefully considered didactic and experiential learning, optimized for this stage of educational development.
Institutions are also creating structured, social, peer-oriented activities for postdocs that such advanced students often miss. The number of trainees in any one area may be small, but the number of trainees at similar levels in related or unrelated areas is often large. Bringing people together has enormous benefits for morale, networking and transdisciplinary collaboration.
An example of such developments can be found at Dartmouth College, which offers a broad array of resources, initiatives, events and services for fellows. A new School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, with its own budget, provides an administrative home for postdocs and graduate students across departments, and integrates with Dartmouth’s graduate professional schools. Some of its many benefits include:
It synthesizes goals and policies across programs and disciplines and reduces administrative red tape without interfering with the core instruction and mentorship that happens within academic departments.
It facilitates interdisciplinary study and helps to make sure elements of the scholar’s trajectory do not fall between departmental cracks.
It provides workshops and instruction in relevant areas, such as ethics, writing, online courses, correspondence, grant preparation, CV preparation, and academic and nonacademic job searches. It also offers courses in interviewing, communication and teaching skills.
It facilitates an independent development plan based upon an individual’s interests and skills, to help define and achieve long-term career goals. Similarly, it facilitates research-performance progress reports that faculty members fill out for trainees.
It connects fellows with cross-cutting academic initiatives addressing pressing societal and global problems.
It provides a central place where postdocs in various fields can congregate.
In addition, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning prepares fellows to incorporate contemporary, experiential educational methods and provides resources to share best practices in processes such as teaching-assistant orientation. It offers individual and group consultations in instructional design, science education outreach and other areas, and it sponsors a teaching series as well as career fairs and travel grants. Other workshops address collaborative learning techniques, teaching philosophy, syllabus design, digital learning, diversity in the classroom, learning styles and academic computing.
Postdocs themselves run the Dartmouth Postdoctoral Association, which organizes and provides talks, social events, research days, career development resources, networking and job information sessions. It also addresses specific issues facing postdocs, with links to the National Postdoctoral Association, which addresses postdoc concerns on the national level. Postdocs have access to Dartmouth athletic, health and wellness programs, as well as other campus facilities and services, and are being incorporated into new housing communities.
Another recent Dartmouth initiative to enhance the interdisciplinary intellectual community is the creation of the Society of Fellows. It provides three years of support for outstanding postdocs, who come together with senior faculty fellows and visiting fellows. The rising scholars pursue their own research while serving as lecturers or teachers and mentors in the departments and programs they join. They participate in society-sponsored symposia and events and receive pedagogical training, in addition to the resources offered to all postdoctoral fellows across the various schools. Dartmouth also offers Academic Diversity Fellowships for underrepresented minority postdocs or those studying areas underrepresented in academe.
These examples from Dartmouth illustrate the trend at leading universities and provide an evolving set of mutually enhancing programmatic innovations that specifically and effectively address the needs of today’s postdoctoral fellows. They also provide explicit mechanisms for beneficial integration with graduate and undergraduate programs and students. Carefully constructed integration need not preclude a strong focus on undergraduate education as well.
Other universities should develop programs along these lines. Some additional administrative infrastructure is needed to adequately support such developments, but need not be excessive. Core faculty leadership and staff are important for oversight, coordination, facilitation and advancement of cross-departmental and cross-school initiatives. More educational research is also needed to provide evidence-based guidelines and best practices for such program development. This will help to optimize impact and to demonstrate value.
Drawing upon educational experiences as a student, trainee, faculty member and educational administrator across a number of fields and levels, I have found that it is possible to create advanced programs that are transdisciplinary yet deep, organized yet creative, and rigorous yet caring. Our students and society deserve no less. With current economic pressures and attacks on facts, evidence and expertise, it is even more imperative to do so.
Moreover, as postdoctoral highest education starts to get the attention it deserves, it doesn’t need to detract attention or resources from other types of education, which are equally important. Educational options are not mutually exclusive and can build upon and complement each other. We must aim for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, to have access to all educational offerings, based on their needs, preferences, situation and dreams. That includes K-12, special, community, vocational, liberal arts, STEM and other forms of education.
But let us not forget the value of highest education for those who seek it and for our society. Everyone benefits from the specialists it produces across all domains of human inquiry and endeavor.
David Silbersweig is chairman of the department of psychiatry and co-director of the Institute for the Neurosciences at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is also Stanley Cobb Professor of Psychiatry and an academic dean at Harvard Medical School.
On first reading the title of Timothy Recuber’s Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster (Temple University Press), my guess was that it would be about the 1970s -- that is to say, the era of my childhood, when movies like Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and The Hindenburg were the talk of the playground. Besides the disaster movies (which were a genre unto itself, for a few years), there were best-selling books and TV fair of similar ilk.
It was all pretty formulaic -- even ritualistic. The strains of numerous crises in public life (Watergate, the oil embargo and inflation, plus aftershocks from the 1960s) were translated into the language of blockbuster melodrama. The spectacular disaster on the screen or the page enacted a kind of miniature social implosion, its destructive force revealing the inner strengths or vices of the characters who had to face it. Various embodiments of evil or dumb authority would perish. Survivors of the disaster would reunite with their families or reconnect with their values.
The genre’s chief weakness was that the supply of viable disaster scenarios was not unlimited. The point of exhaustion came, as I recall, with a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week involving a swarm of killer bees. In retrospect, the whole period looks like one big anxiety disorder. Ronald Reagan never appeared in a disaster movie, but his election in 1980 probably owed something to the genre insofar as the public could imagine him guiding it to safety through all the debris.
In Consuming Catastrophe, Recuber, a visiting assistant professor of communication at Hamilton College, has a another period and variety of spectacle in mind: the real-world disasters from the first decade of this century (Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings, the BP offshore oil spill, the near collapse of the financial system in 2008), rather than symptomatic fictions churned out as entertainment.
The contrast is also one of levels of immediacy and saturation of the public attention. Very few news stories of 40 years ago unfolded with the intensity and duration of real-time coverage that has become the norm -- even when the occasion is something considerably less wrenching than a disaster. This tends to create a public sense of somehow participating in an event, rather than just being informed about it. The potentials and limits of that participation are the focus of much of Recuber’s interest.
The widest frame of his perspective takes in German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s argument that newspapers and magazines were foundational elements of the public sphere of information and reasoned debate that could challenge policies and opinions that derived their force only from established authority or the inertia of tradition. Besides the political and economic issues normally associated with Habermas’s understanding of the public sphere, Recuber notes that “disasters, crises, misfortunes and the suffering of distant others were central topics of discussion there, although [its] literate publics frequently disagreed about the moral and ethical acceptability of such macabre subjects.” The classic instance would be the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (see this column from 2005, on the disaster’s sestercentennial).
Recuber quotes Adam Smith on what is involved in a sympathetic response to others’ misfortune: “The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and, what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment.” This seems carefully balanced -- a synthesis of much public-sphere argument, no doubt. But it is also demanding. It implies some obligation to find an effective means to alleviate the suffering as well as to determine if any part of it was preventable. Sympathy, to use the preferred 18th-century term, was not just a personal emotional response but also a communal force. It held society together and could, if strengthened, improve it.
Fast-forward two centuries and a few decades, and we find the contradictory and perverse situation that Recuber describes in a series of case studies. Means of communication exist that can expand our powers of sympathy and our capacity to intervene to reduce suffering -- and they do sometimes, but in problematic ways. It’s not just that the intensity and pervasiveness of media coverage of disasters can induce what’s become known as “compassion fatigue.” That is certainly a factor, but Recuber emphasizes the more subtle and insidious role of what he calls “the empathic gaze.”
Where sympathy means an awareness of another’s unhappiness as something that can and should be alleviated, empathy, in the author’s usage, “refers to an intersubjective understanding of the other’s plight devoid of the obligation to intervene.” It is a relationship to the other’s suffering that is of a “more passive, vicarious character.” The capacity for empathy is much praised in the contemporary literature of self-help and personnel management. Certainly it’s preferable to the psychopathic indifference which, of late, increasingly seems like the other main option on order. But in Recuber’s estimation it rests content with having reached a secure but passive position vis-à-vis suffering, if not a rather morbidly sensationalistic variety of pity.
My impression is that Recuber, far from chastising us as a generation of moral ghouls feasting on disaster, actually regards sympathy as our original or default mode of moral perspective (rather as some 18th-century thinkers did). His case studies of disasters from 2001 to 2010 are, in effect, accounts of sympathy being frustrated, exploited or otherwise short-circuited in diverse ways by the channels into which the media directs it.
One example stands out in particular and will stick in my memory. It concerns the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, which left 32 dead, followed by the suicide of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho. Cho sent a multimedia package explaining himself to NBC Nightly News, portions of which were shown on the program two days after the shootings. “We are sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected,” the news anchor said, “and we know that we are in effect airing the words of a murderer here tonight.”
No one could accuse him of lacking empathy, anyway; empathy can discharge its responsibilities simply by announcing itself. “The statement was an oddly unbalanced one,” Recuber comments, “… seemingly missing a second half that explained what the benefits of broadcasting the manifesto to be and why they outweighed the concerns of ‘those affected.’ Such a statement never came.”
But of course not! It’s not as if being “sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected” compelled the network to spare them anything. Those of us watching disaster movies in the 1970s were on higher moral ground: the entertainment was brainless but at least it involved no disregard for real suffering.
In the wake of the presidential election, most analysts have concluded that the higher education community was one of the biggest losers. American colleges and universities may offer the education the world desires, but people in huge swaths of the country perceive campuses as elitist and full of political views they reject.
The election results arrived, too, amid long-boiling cynicism and doubt about the value, and values, of our institutions. Even for students seeking degrees, the costs and debts have often become onerous, and the results -- notably the jobs -- are not always what have been promised. Now, exit polls say, the election has confirmed how differently college and noncollege graduates view just about everything.
We in higher education must address vital issues of access, cost and effectiveness (let alone widespread and brutal economic inequality). We must also reconnect who we are and what we do with our own campus communities and especially with America’s wider citizenry. But communication is especially fraught as postelection campus strife swirls, amid calls for sanctuary campuses, walkouts, hate speech and acts of violence.
Our institutions, aiming to serve outstanding talent wherever it is found, bring together human differences -- cultural, racial, economic and more -- that even in normal times invite tension. Day after day, in classrooms and residence halls, events and offhand conversations, diverse and changing generations wrestle with ideas that invoke all those differences. Even without postelection duress, conflicts over ideology, language, race, gender identity and every other complicated topic would be guaranteed. Throw social media into the mix and you have quite a brew. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like can turn campus struggles into national, and immediate, spectacles.
When such crises emerge, we must respond with speed -- and across numerous media simultaneously. But what do we say in those moments, and even more, over the longer term? Having worked in higher education, at both public and private institutions, since the administration of George H. W. Bush, I believe that four pillars must serve as the foundation of higher education communication in this postelection era.
First principles. Higher education is by definition about something, well, higher. Ideals that are the cornerstone of mission statements everywhere express a commitment to liberation of the mind, rigorous pursuit of the truth, skepticism about received wisdom, engagement in civic life, respect for freedom of speech, and the imperative of decency and character. These ideals connect colleges and universities to something greater in the human spirit than the pressures of the moment -- be they political, cultural or otherwise.
These ideals are largely American ideals, too. Especially when doubts are greatest and bigotry is rising, the vocalizing of those ideals must be steady. Through speeches, statements, emails to alumni, op-eds and other means, campus voices must convey and stand by them. Presidents, provosts and deans -- the academic leadership -- must take the lead, as some already have done forcefully since Nov. 8. That must spread and continue for months and years to come. Presumably we believe that, in difficult times, higher education has light to fight for, and to offer.
The academic core. The noble principles that our institutions profess are rooted in the belief that powers of the mind can bring us closer to truth, and therefore closer to those better angels of our natures that our missions promise to inspire. Reason, logic, analysis, accuracy -- colleges and universities are built around such qualities. Foregrounding what is essential seems especially critical when the difference between fact, falsehood and opinion is being muddied. But a cursory examination of much of our messaging will find other ideas prioritized: career value, community service, leadership development, economic impact. These are important, but they all depend upon delivering the academic mission first, and the rhetoric shouldn’t confuse what’s first and foremost.
Stories. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about human beings going back to our cave days, it’s that we’re fascinated with stories. We in higher education need to tell ours, specifically the ones that show why the ideals and academic mission of our institutions matter.
The election autopsy is making the case that elites too often talk past other people, but that argument isn’t only about the failures of ignoring economic pain or “flyover country.” It’s also about assuming that facts and data are sufficient for argument or advocacy. Our ideals need a down-to-earth life, because that is where they reveal themselves. If we’re going to make our missions real and honest, sound reasoning has to be paired with stories of the people who are affected by the ideals. Thankfully our resources for these stories, in the experiences of students and alumni, are virtually limitless.
A bigger audience. Four-year colleges and universities naturally spend most of their time communicating with people already in the same sphere: people on the campus, admissions prospects and alumni. But only a third of American adults have a four-year degree. If we’re not communicating regularly with the rest of the country, meaning the rest of the community around us, we actually are living in a bubble, just as critics allege.
There are numerous places through which to connect, including local civic clubs, shelters, hospitals, K-12 schools, churches, farms, small businesses, industry -- and local two-year colleges, too, where so many of tomorrow’s bachelor’s degree aspirants begin. This can’t only be through service work by students and others, either. It has to be through sharing ideas, listening and building understanding and relationships. The election has been an intense reminder of the vast gap that can exist between how people with a four-year degree and those without one experience the world. Higher education can do more to listen, learn, serve -- and bridge the divide.
The election makes clear the striking importance of reaching out -- and of how, how often and how extensively we do it. The stakes have become extreme for higher education, and more importantly, for our nation. Getting this right is crucial.
Pete Mackey led communications at such institutions as Amherst College, Bucknell University and the University of South Carolina and now runs the communications firm Mackey Strategies.
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.
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.