Like many university people, I kept underestimating the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Months ago, I called attention to “The Trumpian Calamity,” hoping that more college presidents and other education leaders would condemn his campaign of hate-filled demagoguery. Now, like so many around the country, I find myself wondering whether I should have done more.
Would demonstrating an even greater sense of urgency have made a difference? Would we be in a better position today if we in higher education had worked harder to mobilize a coalition to get out the vote? At the same time, it’s clear that universities should not be turned into anyone’s political tool -- least of all a president’s. Universities are first and foremost places for thinking and for learning in ways that contribute to independence of mind, and political action on the parts of those who study and work at our institutions should grow naturally from these activities -- not from the designs of administrators.
After the election, some students here at Wesleyan University asked us to cancel classes for protests and for grieving. We did not cancel classes. Had students earlier this fall asked us to help them find alternative ways of getting work done so that they could travel to swing states to organize voters, I would have worked with faculty members to make that possible. Today I wonder if I should have taken the initiative and proposed that idea to students of various political stripes. Or would that have been the kind of politics by administrative design that should be avoided? I remain unsure.
Early on Nov. 9 when it became clear that Donald Trump would become our president-elect, my thoughts shifted back and forth between the good of the country and the health of my university. An international student whom my wife and I know well texted her to ask if Wesleyan would “be all right.” Yes, I think we will.
To be sure, this election has heightened feelings of alienation and vulnerability because it has been filled with racism and xenophobia. The pain of targeted groups is real because the threats are real, and we must acknowledge those threats and work to mitigate their effects. We must fight to protect Latinos and Muslim Americans from violence driven by socially sanctioned scapegoating and bullying. We must ensure that our friends in LGBTQ communities are not marginalized by newly empowered narrow-mindedness taking control of our legal system. But campuses across the country will be all right if we will continue to strive to build inclusive communities that reject white supremacy, bigotry and fear; we will be all right if we express our care for one another in a context of fairness.
That context of fairness must include ensuring that there is a place for conservative points of view at colleges and universities. We must be much more open to ideas that challenge what many take for granted as a progressive higher education consensus. This presumed consensus of the educated often amounts to little more than shared condescension. One thing progressives should have learned recently is that we don’t have some special purchase on understanding the direction of history.
That does not mean that we should find reservoirs of patience for bigotry, but it does mean that we should listen carefully to how what some consider progress has disenfranchised many others. It does mean that we listen carefully to alternative conceptions of freedom and community that conservative and religious traditions have to offer.
This semester I am teaching an interdisciplinary humanities course on Virtue and Vice. It just so happens that during election week we were focusing on how many artists and intellectuals in Europe retreated from the public realm after the crushing failures of the revolutions of 1848. Around that time, Karl Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.” Many great poets, novelists and painters grew bitterly ironic about politics and the possibilities of progress. “What a sad opinion one forms of men,” wrote Gustave Flaubert, “what bitterness grips one’s heart when one sees such delirious asininity on display.” Recognizing that there are no guarantees about who was going to end up on the “right side of history,” far too many writers became cynical about change, detaching themselves from any possibility for meaningful work in the public sphere. They often rejected the writings of women authors like George Sand as being too romantic and idealistic. The poet Charles Baudelaire expressed the hollow superiority of the disengaged when he wrote that 1848 “was charming only in the excess of its ridiculousness.”
In the wake of crushing disappointment in this electoral season, we must resist the temptation to abandon the public sphere to those who would return to a past in which people of color, women and queer folk were even more systematically excluded from access to basic rights. As engaged participants in the polity, we have to remain vigilant to protect the people and values we care about. And as educators, we must help students better understand how they can be effective in the public sphere beyond the seductive stage offered by campus politics. There is work to be done in neighborhoods, towns, cities, state capitals and in Washington. Perhaps we can take heart in the fact that both major political parties will have seriously to rethink their approaches to the crucial issues facing the country -- they need the engagement of our students and alumni to do so.
Although in the current cultural context “healing” often means hunkering down with those whose opinions one shares, this is not the time to close one's eyes or to stop listening. We need more conversation across political and cultural differences -- and we need new modes of engagement that take us beyond our echo chambers of ideas and curated news feeds. As faculty, staff and students expand their circles of engagement beyond those groups with whom we share the most obvious affiliations, we must continue to work to defend those who are disenfranchised and oppressed.
Cynicism and irony are too easy a response to disappointment. Regardless of political affiliation, we can work together -- beyond the university -- to solve specific problems and create real opportunities for more individuals and groups. And here on our campuses, we will continue to create communities that offer all our students, staff and faculty the potential to thrive, to be challenged, to be at home.
Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past. Follow him on Twitter @mroth78.
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