Risking Silence

The current administration's normalizing of lies and deceit presents a dystopian challenge to the very purposes of education, argues Donald W. Harward, and must be called out.

August 28, 2018
 
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In a recent article, “It Can Happen Here,” in the New York Review of Books, Cass R. Sunstein explores three authors’ depictions of fascist Germany:

In their different ways … [the authors] show how habituation, confusion, distraction, self-interest, fear, rationalization and a sense of personal powerlessness make terrible things possible. They call attention to the importance of individual actions of conscience both small and large, by people who never make it into the history books. Nearly two centuries ago, James Madison warned: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks -- no form of government can render us secure.

Sunstein’s echo of Madison’s warning seems timely -- if not foreboding. It is amplified recently by the current administration’s policies and assertions, including incarcerating the children of immigrants seeking asylum, then misrepresenting their treatment; presidential false claims about raging California wildfires as a failure of the state’s environmental policies; or even the frequent deceitful tweets about extensive voter fraud. Such assertions and claims appear to be part of a carefully crafted political rhetoric, used to divert and confuse while reinforcing prejudice and ignorance. The narrative is intentionally laden with falsehoods and deception, anticipating that, by saying what is false frequently enough, it will make any search for truth vacuous or powerless -- that efforts to seek truth will be invalidated as merely “political opposition” or hoaxes.

The challenges and warnings that people make upon exiting higher education -- in my case, as a retiring nonprofit association director and former college president -- are as expected as the admonitions for aspiration that we made upon entering it. But when, after more than 50 years of engagement in higher education, one encounters the normalization of deceit and the dismissal of reason and evidence, even a retiree should gain voice. Anyone who champions the values of self-worth, reason and the truth is obligated to speak out on issues of obvious misogyny, racism, intentional falsehoods and flaunted ignorance -- even when they are coordinated and expressed by the highest powers of the executive office of our nation.

The president’s remarks and tweets, as well as claims and interview statements by his cabinet, stir political divide. They describe individuals or groups as objects of derision and scorn on the basis of their identity, reasoned opinions or legal professional activity. Their dismissal is directly connected, in this administration’s judgment, to some twisted set of values becoming normalized -- ignorance, hypocrisy and fear. Clearest among those twisted values is the normalizing of lies, of intentional deceit -- a dystopian challenge to the very purposes of education, which are those of learning, reason, evidence and truth.

To the announcement by fact-checkers at The Washington Post that the president or his spokespeople knowingly make an average of nine lies a day, social critic Henry Giroux offers that the administration consider making truth telling what should be great again:

Trump’s lying must be understood within a broader attack on the fundamentals of education and democracy itself … Trump’s lying undermines the public’s grip on language, evidence, facts and informed judgment, and in doing so promotes a form of civic illiteracy in which words and meaning no longer matter. Depriving the public of the capacity for critical analysis and discerning the truth from lies does more than empty politics of any meaning, it also undermines democracy.

Our Responsibility as Educators

Higher education cannot ignore the creeping normalization of deceit or the maligning of its purposes of advancing learning, individual and community agency, identity and well-being, and civic engagement in seeking a common good. Higher education cannot risk turning its attention away, as though what we currently see is a melodrama which will run its course. To assume that we will return to “normalcy” eventually, or just after the next election, would be to run the risk, by silence, that the drama has indeed already become a replacement for reality.

Our responsibility as educators committed to the promise of learning for all -- to the valuing of whole persons as they exercise their agency to pursue inquiry, to their inalienable right to happiness, to their well-being -- is that we must not harbor silence. Ignorance, hatred, racism, misogyny and deceit are not part of a public dialogue that will create the kind of education our institutional missions champion or the democracy our country should promise -- and should be striving to, even haltingly, realize. The comments that deceive and offend (and the supportive, pernicious silence that echoes them) are repugnant. In a democracy, they must be called out.

Higher education cannot abide by the promulgation of ignorance and ill will. The academy must claim its long-earned voice, must represent the values of critical thought built long ago into our institutional mission statements. In response to uncritical belief and the demands of authority, the enlightenment and the emergence centuries ago in this nation of democratic polity ensured that the voice of higher education would assert itself as a distinct dimension of our society and culture. While not above or better than others, we must recognize the duty and responsibility that accompany privilege -- and not fail to speak to what we know is false, immoral, callous and hateful.

Presidents, campus leaders, each faculty and staff member, and every student in a learning community can use their professional, public and familial venues, friendship circles and Facebook pages in which they are given voice to speak out to write and protest -- to have the courage to confront falsehoods by having explored themselves the claim and the evidence. They must decry the inclination to remain silent so as not to offend. Falsehoods, deceit and bigotry are not the presentation of balanced or alternative rational opinions or perspectives. And courtesy doesn’t extend to hate.

On campuses, faculty members, in every course or discussion, can seek opportunities to engage students with what counts as evidence in that particular area of inquiry, in what a cogent argument looks like and in what critical assessment or critique means and requires. Doing so can be repeated and reinforced. Those lessons -- be they in economics, the first-year seminar, political science, geophysics, an advising session or the institutional administration’s articulation of the justification of a policy -- are transferrable. They shape the boundaries of what is and can be known. They are at the very core of what and why we teach -- why, in fact, we have colleges and universities.

As educators and as educational institutions, we cannot risk failing to speak -- to assert what we do value and to challenge deceit, ignorance and bigotry at a time when the very fabric of our democracy is frayed, if not unraveling. We cannot risk silence.

Bio

Donald W. Harward is president emeritus of Bates College and co-founder and the former director of Bringing Theory to Practice.

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