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A Radical Dialogue

After getting the election wrong, academics are now at a crossroads, writes Elaine Howard Ecklund, and the way forward is to pursue something we don’t hear often on university campuses.

December 13, 2016
 
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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.

Bio

Elaine Howard Ecklund is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University, where she directs the Religion and Public Life Program.

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