One of the greatest educational threats to American society today is NOT that this nation is failing to produce enough mathematicians and computer scientists, though that is certainly an economic problem, nor is it the catastrophe of failing urban public schools, though that is a scandal and a tragedy of grave proportions. No, the greatest educational threat today is that people who are already well educated are acting like ignorant Neanderthals, abandoning the most fundamental principles of liberal education — “liberal” in the true academic sense of the large perspectives of the liberal arts, not as a political word (yet) — in favor of the most narrow-minded anti-intellectual hate-stirring race-baiting views of the polity and community life.
Exhibit A: Andrew Breitbart. Raised in Brentwood, a wealthy neighborhood of Los Angeles where the Hollywood stars and moguls live. Supposedly educated at Tulane, one of the most elite research universities in the country. Must have skipped a lot of classes. One of that small fraternity of right-wing Internet wags who manufacture headlines designed to foment social division and political turmoil. Truth is optional in this universe. Sophisticated intellectual frameworks and broad-minded views of human life need not apply.
Breitbart is the source of the Shirley Sherrod controversy. But the political arsonist knew exactly the tinder he was sparking. The Obama Administration, terrified lest anyone think that the president might actually favor or promote Black causes, responded to Shirley Sherrod’s allegedly racist comments with a speed we have not seen recently. Would that the administration had responded to the BP oil well explosion as quickly and decisively. Heedless of any normal rules for treating employees fairly, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack fired Sherrod based apparently on what Andrew Breitbart and other wingers said about her speech. (Everyone has apologized to Sherrod since this started, but still….)
Problem being that the speech was nothing like the Breitbart report. And, here’s where the ultimate value of the liberal arts education that should be coursing through the veins of these well-educated journalists and politicians alike has failed miserably.
Watch the Sherrod video in its entirety. Anyone who has taken a college course in literature or rhetoric or sociology or anthropology or history or economics or politics or even theology in the last half century would surely understand how to deconstruct the speech. All of literature is about the stories of human cultures, told through the voices and vocabularies and vernaculars of the poets and storytellers and writers and journalists and essayists of each age. History is never completely objective; history is the story of the society told in the voices of those who lived in the times, perhaps bleached through generations of research and revision, but nevertheless, the source documents resonate the truth of the original voices. This is the reason why, in higher education, we insist on research into the original documents, to remove the filters of interpretation that obscure the truth. You have to read the WHOLE document, watch the WHOLE video, not just the part you like, the part that suits your narrow view of the world.
Shirley Sherrod told her story in a vernacular that was moving and powerful. She told the truth about her experience as a young girl growing up on a farm in the rural South in the first half of the 20th Century. She talked lovingly of her father and his dreams for his family — before he was murdered by a white man who was never punished for the crime. She was honest about her initial skepticism of the white farmer. (Find me a white person who has truly never had similarly dim views of at least one black person — please! Let’s be real.) She got over her initial skepticism when she realized that Farmer Spooner, too, was victimized by the power structure — the economic powers.
Sherrod was not afraid to use the labels like “white” and “black” that make so many people cringe, and “rich and poor” and “have and have not.” She had to use the labels to tell the story faithfully. We can hardly tell the story of the United States without using racial labels, but some revisionists would prefer that we not mention those untidy facts — like slavery, like poverty, like lynchings, like Jim Crow laws, like discrimination, like failing public schools, like what’s said behind closed doors.
But Sherrod was not telling a story of victimization, hatred or division. In fact, her primary message was quite clear: first, that the primary divisions in American society are economic and social class, not race; and, second, that the Black community must seize the moment to make changes that will ensure a better future for the rising generations. She was actually quite blunt and powerful in challenging the young people of the Black community to reach higher and insist on excellence. Her message was one of hope, with a vision for the future of all people of all races coming together to build the community. Echoes of Martin Luther King, Jr.
You might disagree with her, you might have a different story to tell, but clearly, her voice was honest and authentic.
Students who paid attention in their college years might hear in her words echoes of the literature of poverty and oppression, hope and redemption — echoes that can be found in all great works from Plato to Shakespeare to Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison to John Steinbeck and Edwige Danticat and Khaled Hosseini and Azar Nafisi. A student of theology would recognize the language of the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church, even the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, in Sherrod’s heartfelt description of her realization that the real problem in our society is the gap between rich and poor.
A truly liberally educated person, upon hearing Sherrod’s story, would say, “My goodness, what a tremendous tale of courage, of triumph over hardship, of self-discovery and personal change.” A pseudo journalist interested only in making his own headlines and fomenting hatred would take a snippet from her speech and cry,”Racist.”
A liberal education does open the mind of the reader and listener to the possibility that the voice of the speaker or writer will be illuminating and even persuasive, changing the mind of the listener by broadening perspective.
Right-wingers (not conservatives, we’ll get to that in a minute) decry the “liberal” tendencies of American higher education. Why anyone is surprised that the study of the liberal arts makes people more broad-minded escapes me. In fact, the whole point of a “liberal” education — meaning the study of the liberal arts — is to enlarge the person’s intellectual capacity, to “liberate” the mind to pursue knowledge through study and inquiry, to learn how to conduct a disciplined research into any topic, to know and to appreciate the breadth of human experience, to question convention, to invent solutions, to understand the moral parameters of life, to ponder the great philosophical questions not the least of which is why some people like to spread hate. A “liberal” education is not about partisan politics but a wholistic view of life that is the opposite of narrow-minded ignorance.
To be a “liberal” in political terms has become a bad idea today, so much so that liberals have embraced the term “progressive,” which also has problems. To be a “conservative” in political terms today is to be associated with extremists whose views bear little relation to real conservatism.
Real conservatism prefers limited government, relatively unrestrained capitalism, and respect for traditional institutions. Real liberalism advocates equal justice and human rights, fostering social change to achieve those goals. Moderates in the middle reflect values of each ideology, and most Americans are somewhere in the middle.
Unfortunately, the provocateurs of the Internet age eschew any meaningful relationship to true ideology, liberal or conservative, in favor of the mindless pitting of people with different interests against each other. Sadly, our political leaders give entirely too much credence to these inflammatory extremists, thereby failing to provide the thoughtful leadership on difficult issues that the people truly crave.
President Obama is one of the most thoughtful, intellectual presidents we’ve ever had. But he’s surrounded by political operatives who repress his ability to exert true leadership on tough topics like race because they are afraid that he will be perceived as “too Black” or “too liberal.” Well, heck. He needs to be himself. He needs to liberate himself from those advisors who are making him plain vanilla. That’s not what the voters ordered in 2008, and not what they want now.
Perhaps Obama needs to surround himself again with a buncha good old fashioned liberals — those who really believe in the liberal arts as an organizing framework for understanding human life. He might do well with a refresher course on voice and vernacular, how to promote and advance the real American story in a way that is compelling and truthful. Perhaps those of us who do higher education for a living can organize some continuing education for folks at the White House.
Maybe Shirley Sherrod can be a guest lecturer.
Perhaps we can take up a collection for a scholarship for Andrew Breitbart to sit in the back as well — so long as he attends every class this time.
Even better, perhaps Breitbart will endow the lecture series on Justice and Liberal Education to atone for his shameful neglect of his own education.
MUST READ: E.J. Dionne, “Enough Right-Wing Propaganda”
For more on the Sherrod case see “On Success” at the washingtonpost.com
Follow me on Twitter @TrinPrez