Rewriting the Dominant Narrative: How Liberal Education Can Advance Racial Healing and Transformation

Not so long ago, institutes for new college and university presidents focused on offering advice regarding how to prioritize and handle sticky matters in a full inbox, enumerating tips on fundraising, and outlining tactics for working effectively with boards, especially when they include “rogue trustees.” These days the primary focus is often on how to ensure that your institution doesn’t end up as next year’s case study. This is understandable given the seemingly endless stream of stories in the media over the past few years addressing campus culture, freedom of expression, and whether liberalism is killing liberal education. The recent discourse around higher education has been dominated by accusations of rampant political correctness, student coddling, and groupthink in the midst of protests demanding that college and university administrators be held accountable for participation in, and the perpetuation of, racist, classist, sexist, and heteronormative structures of oppression.

College presidents today are attempting to navigate a perilous course among the sometimes competing demands of different constituencies. They must demonstrate their commitments to shared governance, transparency, and collaboration by listening to all campus voices; address their board members’ concerns about financial and reputational risks for their institutions as a matter of fiduciary responsibility; and respond to alumni who are rethinking their bequests and annual giving as a matter of principle in response to what they regard as capitulation to social justice warriors and left-wing ideological repression. Such alumni insist that all of this acquiescence is at the expense of academic rigor and the real-world preparation they endured, and now relish.

Like columnist George Will, this group views today’s college students as the “snowflake generation” who “melt at the mere mention of even a potential abrasion of their sensibilities.”1 Will began popularizing the expression “student snowflakes” upon entering the newly formed club of the disinvited—those whose invitations to speak on college campuses were rescinded, or who themselves withdrew, out of concern for their safety and that of others. The first invited speaker at an annual banquet of the club, Mr. Will has railed vociferously against what he perceives as demands for freedom from speech, rather than freedom of speech. These student escapades are done in the name of diversity, he quips, “But of course only diversity that is consistent with the students’ capacious sense of the intolerable.”2

So how are we to decide what rises to the level of the intolerable on college campuses equally committed to the free exchange of ideas and to safeguarding an environment against hostility? Moreover, who should determine the appropriate response to such transgressions? These issues are becoming increasingly complex, even when arising in spaces devoted to careful and robust analysis and discourse. For instance, how should a college community react to protests by pro-Palestinian students who blame tuition increases at their college on a Zionist administration, shouting “Long live the intifada”? Or to calls by students of color to have closed meetings and to exclude whites from participating in the enactment of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and the repainting of a “Black Lives Matter” mural that has repeatedly been defaced by substituting the words “All Lives Matter”?

What are we to make of the criticism by some members of the LGBTQ community that was leveled against the thirty-three presidents of historically black colleges and universities who jointly issued an open letter calling for peace and unity in the wake of the shooting of black men and police officers in several US cities? The grievances of these critics was grounded in the omission of a reference to the deaths of LGBTQ people of color, especially given the fact that the “Black Lives Matter Movement” was started by three women, two of whom identify as “queer women of color” and all of whom embrace intersectionality as a core value. And, how should campus leaders respond to attempts by students to both sanction and coerce an apology from editors of a college newspaper who decided to present a defense of the police in their use of violence against unarmed black men and women? These dilemmas require a resolution that does more than comply with federal regulations and campus codes—they mandate a response ensuring that every person on campus is living and working in conditions under which she can thrive.

As a philosopher who has taught courses on race, gender, and the law for more than two decades, I have engaged hundreds of students, colleagues, and community members in debates concerning issues that include the renaming of campus buildings, the removal of monuments and flags that both symbolize and pay tribute to the legacies of slavery, the permissibility of accepting funding from controversial donors, and the legitimacy of email messages regarding Halloween costumes and chalkings in support of political candidates. These debates, interesting in and of themselves, nevertheless take on particular significance for me as the president of an association whose mission is to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice.

Liberal education, moral imagination, and the art of listening

The very notion of a liberal education was founded on the premise that to be effective in the pursuit of truth, one’s mind must be “liberated” from the habits of routinized thinking. A liberal education invites a diversity of perspectives and provides students with the skills necessary to examine their own assumptions and those of others; to propose, construct, and evaluate arguments; to anticipate and respond to objections; and to articulate with precision, coherence, and clarity a defense of their views, orally and in writing, to those who need convincing.

Yet, a liberal education plays another role, as well: it advances the art of listening as a catalyst for moral imagination. Anna Deavere Smith, founder and director of Harvard’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, uses documentary theater to demonstrate this capacity while confronting some of the most pressing social issues of the day. In her linguistic ethnography and one-woman show “Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines,” Smith places herself in “other people’s words” in the way that one might place oneself in another’s shoes. Her objective has been to “reignite our collective imagination about what it’s like to be the ‘other person’” and to “show the empathetic soul of American identities whose words wait and create change.” In a riff on John Cage’s notion that “we only hear what we listen for,” Smith insists that, “If there is any hope for us, it lies in relearning to tell the truth and hear it, in reclaiming ourselves as a listening space.” 3

I can still remember the exact moment at which the importance of the practice of listening came to life for me through my own undergraduate experience. It was a sunny, September day, and as light streamed through the windows of our second-floor seminar room overlooking the campus green, I waited with great anticipation for the start of a comparative religion class being offered by my favorite professor and two colleagues from different institutions. The new course was designed to explore in tandem the philosophies of Frederick Douglass, St. Augustine, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Soon after my professor walked through the door, however, my excitement turned to dread as he issued an edict that struck fear in the heart of every student. No one, he said, would be allowed to take notes in the class. Looking out at a cohort of puzzled faces, our teacher explained that he wanted to give us a glimpse of what it was like for enslaved African Americans, who were prevented from learning to read or write, to be forced to recollect and recount their experiences through oral traditions. By the end of the class, through the exercise of moral imagination, I came to understand what it means to have one’s imagination reignited about the other person.

I also discovered something equally valuable that semester, namely that the conclusions we draw regarding whether arguments, demands, and assertions are rational and warranted depends, in part, on whose stories are being told and who is doing the speaking. Today, when protestors in the Black Lives Matter Movement on college campuses and in the streets in cities and towns across the nation carry signs and shout through megaphones, “Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like,” they are enjoining us to engage in critical listening and moral imagination with respect to their lived experiences as told in their own voices.

The words that echo are contesting the dominant progress narrative, which positions the election of the first self-identified African American president as evidence in support of the rhetoric that we are living in a post-racial era. The story the protesters want heard constitutes a counternarrative containing an indictment against a democracy in which the terms “black” and “citizen” are incompatible. It is a chronicle that highlights author Toni Morrison’s dictum that “Americanness definitionally means whiteness” and foregrounds the sentiments behind the words of the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who confesses, “I denounce and defend. . . . I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all I find love.”4

None of our students arrive on our campuses devoid of past experiences, pain, and suffering that inform their worldviews. The academy is no longer a pastoral retreat reserved for those who can afford to embark on study within an enclave that has traditionally functioned as a willful disconnect from the practical matters of everyday life. The world outside the gates of academia is brought home to our students with the click of an app or the swipe of a smart phone, and it is a world filled with images and happenings that inevitably incite distress and despair that intrude on detached critical reflection.

In response and reaction to a parade of traumatic events, the communities that come together in acts of healing are often homogeneous, and the identity politics at play have themselves been the subject of criticism for their reifying and essentializing contingencies of birth in ways that further divide us. I am convinced, nonetheless, that these expressions and performances of identity have the ability to transcend their potential alienating effects and in-group connotations, functioning to promote a broader cultural understanding. Yet, this is possible only if we engage in the difficult task of listening critically to one another, waiting long enough to enable all voices to be heard, and putting ourselves, as Smith does, in the words of the other.

As Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson remind us, identities are grounded in social locations, and “the effects of speaking only for ourselves are often the silencing of Others, the erasure of their experience, and the reinscription of power relations.”5 Moreover, as philosopher Linda Alcoff points out, “it is the refusal to acknowledge the importance of the differences in our identities that has led to distrust, miscommunication, and thus disunity.”6 To understand the depths of the distrust, miscommunication, and disunity, there must be a recognition of the impact of one’s positionality on how the truth of one’s statements is perceived. For even among those who share an identity that serves as the basis of an organizing movement, there can be fragmentation—as when we hear some African American protestors maintain that black police officers relinquish their identity once they put on a blue uniform, or that a dean or president ceases to be black when she becomes a part of what is deemed a monolithic administrative structure that serves to recreate systems of white supremacy.

A liberal education provides students with the skills necessary to discern that the ways in which messages that are conveyed and interpreted on college and university campuses—whether contained in cartoons, posted on the Internet, shouted in protest chants, or embedded in calls for civility—themselves constitute political acts worthy of interrogation. But a liberal education does much more; it offers engagement with the capabilities needed for reconciliation, especially fostering the disposition necessary to imagine that some of one’s most fundamentally held beliefs might actually be mistaken.

The role of higher education in Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation

The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation enterprise is a call to action, a call to step up and lead for equity by creating a paradigm shift in the thinking of Americans around race. Through a consideration of the question of what America will look like once our belief in a hierarchy of human value has been jettisoned, our overriding objective is to engage communities in racial healing by destabilizing the persistent structures of racism, including those in higher education.

AAC&U and the Kellogg Foundation know that colleges and universities can and must play a unique role in contesting the status quo by ensuring that our communities are not only aware of the historical context of exclusionary practices at all levels of education, but also fully comprehend the impact of these practices. Now is the time for all colleges and universities to promote values initiatives on their individual campuses and to stand together with one another and with the extramural communities most directly affected by racial inequity. Redressing past and present injustices mandates aligning our expertise as teachers, scholars, researchers, and artists in order to rewrite the dominant narrative that consigns to the lower shelves of history the contributions of marginalized groups that have shaped American society and culture in profound, albeit often unacknowledged, ways.

Faculty must be at the center of this work, integrating the curricular and cocurricular, and identifying short- and long-term strategies. In addition, administrators must ensure that the type of humanities practice required by this effort is genuinely valued and not undermined by institutional practices that prioritize publications in peer-reviewed journals above all else. Systems of reward for faculty, including the awarding of tenure and promotion, must take seriously service that involves the mentoring of students through advising, community-based learning, and participatory action planning within marginalized communities. In the process, we must reclaim our own narrative about the transformative power of liberal education as a tool for social progress and why it matters more than ever.

Far from snowflakes melting into oblivion when things heat up, this generation of students is engaged in a new era of justice-seeking activities. They want to make a difference in the world through a reinvigorated collectivity, and if we fail to help them connect their education to broader societal issues in ways that inspire them to lead change in a society still challenged by profound inequities, we abnegate our responsibilities to promote engaged citizenship, cultural empathy, pluralism, and diversity as the foundation for our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy.

Despite the gravity and breadth of the real issues facing us, much of what the media highlights these days is full of red herrings. The headlines broadcast a new lexicon of words and phrases emerging over the past half-decade that includes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and “cultural appropriation,” with calls for “civility” and accusations of “divisiveness” posited as attempts to chill speech. The press reports on the handiwork of roving strangers, with targeted agendas, who troll websites and offer resources on how to construct sets of nonnegotiable demands and solicit electronic votes of no confidence, as actions on one campus communicated through YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, and Facebook instantaneously spark protest activity in solidarity with those at colleges and universities across the nation. Add to the mix the fact that commentary in anonymous online forums, at times, blurs the line between profound offense and genuine threats of harm, and one gains new perspective on the reasons certain presidents on the front pages of newspapers and magazines might feel the need to build much-ridiculed “escape doors” and barricade fences.

Instead of focusing on the sensationalist extreme and passing it off as the norm, the mainstream press should start drawing attention to the most serious issues in higher education. They should expose the realities that underlie the growing economic segregation in higher education; the burgeoning attainment and achievement gaps; and the inequities in college readiness, access to resource-rich institutions, and spending per student. They should showcase the lack of social and cultural capital possessed by students of color and first-generation college students that challenges their graduation and completion. They should investigate the rates at which students of color are removed from the classroom for disciplinary problems, suspended from school, subject to over-surveillance, and incarcerated. And they should examine how each of these phenomena contributes to the equity divide that threatens to further undermine America’s promise.

At the end of James Baldwin’s stirring collection of essays The Fire Next Time, he writes these words of optimism and hope to his nephew: “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”7

Jesmyn Ward’s new edited volume of essays on race, redemption, and reconciliation, The Fire This Time, pays tribute to Baldwin, illustrating the extent to which the past is interwoven with the present and revealing that Baldwin’s words are more relevant in American life today than ever.8 Indeed, as bold now as they were when he wrote them in 1962, Baldwin’s words reflect the motivation behind AAC&U’s partnership with the Kellogg Foundation on Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation. Together, we seek to jettison the structures and systems that have been erected upon the egregious foundational belief in a racial hierarchy; together we can forge lasting change.

Notes

1. George F. Will, “On American Campuses, Freedom from Speech,” Washington Post, November 13, 2015.

2. Ibid.

3. Maria Popova, “How to Listen Between the Lines: Anna Deavere Smith on the Art of Listening in a Culture of Speaking,” Brain Pickings, January 29, 2015, http://www.brainpickings.org/2015/01/29/anna-deavere-smith-talk-to-me.

4. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Modern Library, 1994), 570.

5. Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson, “Theorizing Representing the Other,” in Representing the Other: A Feminism and Psychology Reader, ed. Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996), 12.

6. Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6.

7. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Random House, 1992), 105.

8. Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (New York: Scribner, 2016).

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.


Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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