Liberal Education

Word Play: Standing Up to Partisan Rhetoric That Undermines Education

In her New Yorker commentary, “What Should We Call the Sixth of January?,” Harvard historian Jill Lepore quotes philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who in his Leviathan reminds us, “For one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty, what another Justice.” Hobbes’s words are particularly salient in the current political climate in which the expansiveness of the ideological divide has resulted in radically opposing worldviews, where some see the attack on the US Capitol as a patriotic rally and protest grounded in the right to free expression, while others deem the acts as constituting sedition and treason.

Lepore admits that finding the right words to describe what happened on January 6 is problematic, even if we agree that the acts meet the dictionary definition of an insurrection. She points to the term’s vexed racial history in relation to both slavery and the civil rights movement, noting a linguistic tradition, highlighted by Elizabeth Hinton in her new book America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, whereby riots are Black and protests are White. Turning this tradition on its head, Lepore equates the takeover of the Capitol with a race riot aimed at preserving white supremacy—a position supported by the number of Confederate flags and antisemitic symbols in full view and by taped conversations such as the one in which a White insurrectionist, speaking to a Black police officer, exhorts against paying reparations to Blacks.

While grappling with what to call the events of January 6 is an interesting intellectual exercise, Lepore concludes that the harder question is what to make of the years leading up to the day. A rise in polarization and partisanship has been accompanied by an increased unwillingness to curtail individual liberties for the public good, a growing disdain for science and academic expertise, and a new permission structure that emboldens extremists to engage in acts of overt racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and antisemitism. Against this backdrop, AAC&U’s mission of advancing the vitality and public standing of liberal education by making equity and quality the foundation for excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy is more urgent than ever.

Yet, recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates increasing barriers to accessing the transformative power of a liberal education, signaled by a dramatic decline of 21 percent in first-time enrollment at community colleges. Among Hispanic, Black, and Native American students, the situation is even more dire, with the number of first-year community college–goers for each group dropping nearly 30 percent. Likely contributing factors include the financial impact of COVID-19, especially job losses; students’ increased caregiving responsibilities; inadequate access to technological resources, including computers and high-speed internet; the lack of a private place at home to take courses or study; and perceptions that online courses are not a worthwhile investment.

At a time when we must focus on the long-term implications of a lost generation of students, partisan rhetoric threatens to further undermine educational access by fueling skepticism regarding college’s value and purpose. The 1776 Report, the product of an advisory commission appointed by former president Trump in part in response to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, takes direct aim at higher education. Released only a few days prior to the end of the Trump administration, the missive positions universities in the United States as “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.” The commission further maintains, “Colleges peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history alike, in the process weakening attachment to our shared heritage.” The report itself illustrates precisely why, in this post-truth era, an education that prepares students to be mindful of the dangers of ideological filtering; to speak across differences; to engage in deliberation with respect to competing arguments; and to employ moral imagination has never been more important. Just as calling an insurrection a patriotic rally doesn’t make it one, labeling colleges and universities bastions of liberal progressivism designed to tear apart the fabric of American society doesn’t erode their collective standing as the most powerful engine for catalyzing social and economic mobility in our society.

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