Post-election, higher education must help address US polarisation

We need to teach all students to listen better, to ask the right questions and to be willing to be wrong, says Anne Houtman

November 6, 2020
A "Trump: Not my president" sign
Source: iStock

I keep wanting to use Gerald Ford’s line from when Richard Nixon resigned as US president in 1974: “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Except it’s not. A Joe Biden victory may look all but assured (pending legal challenges, at least), but coronavirus cases are increasing, protests over racial injustice are met with hostility and violence, and with a Republican Senate, one wonders if Biden will be able to accomplish anything as president anyway.

Moreover, despite everything that has happened, President Trump has still received an enormous number of votes. The election has not been the reckoning I had hoped for. It has not amounted to the repudiation by American voters of xenophobia, racism and hateful political rhetoric.

As a lifelong educator, I have been asking myself how we got to this place, and what we need to do to differently. After all, most of us believe that education is not only about preparing for a rewarding career, but also for a rich life of engaged citizenship.

The US is as divided as it has ever been, excepting the Civil War. There is a quickness to judge, an unwillingness to listen, a propensity to assume ill intent in fellow Americans from the opposing party. I think the answer to what we need to do differently lies here. We need to teach all students to listen better, to ask the right questions and to be willing to be wrong.

US higher education is a complex ecosystem of research universities, regional comprehensives, technical institutes, community colleges and – a uniquely American institution – liberal arts colleges. I have attended or served on the faculty in each of these, and now serve as the president of Earlham College, a national liberal arts college.

Like many liberal arts colleges, Earlham’s community is diverse and progressive, a bright blue dot in the deep red state of Indiana, the first state to declare for Donald Trump in this election.

We tell prospective students that living and learning in Earlham’s diverse and global community – a quarter of our students are international, from more than 30 countries – is an opportunity to meet people unlike them, create a sense of shared humanity, and work together to make meaningful change. Interestingly, our students often have their richest experiences when they leave campus to volunteer or work in our surrounding community: a community that is less diverse, less progressive, but full of good people willing to work alongside our citizens-in-training.

International students are valued members of American higher education. At Earlham, we say that it’s not just what’s on the syllabus, it’s who’s in the classroom that makes a great learning experience. Right now, our classrooms are poorer because so many of our international students are not here. Some of them cannot return to the US because of the pandemic, and many no longer feel welcome due to the immigration policies of the Trump administration. International students not only broaden our perspective on campus, they are motivated learners who often remain in the country after graduation and contribute to the strength and vitality of our country by filling jobs in high-demand industries. I worry that they won’t come back after the dust settles, and the whole country will suffer for it.

Earlham was founded almost 200 years ago by Quakers who left their farms, families and friends in the south because they would not be part of a society that enslaved other children of God. This value of respect for all people – in Quaker-speak, “that of God in everyone” – plays out today with our use of first names only (I am Anne, not President Houtman). Students serve on all committees, including those for hiring and tenure, and they have equal partnership in the classroom and their own learning.

This makes students very comfortable in challenging the status quo and speaking truth to power (making it quite an adventure to be their president – but that is another story). I believe this is why every Earlhamite I have met, student or alumnus, regardless of career, has framed their life around how to make the world a better place.

Liberal arts colleges offer an experience that challenges students’ backgrounds and perspectives. Our students, regardless of major, are educated in civil discourse, critical thinking and an understanding and appreciation of science.

The long-term health of our nation depends on citizens being willing to challenge societal norms and have uncomfortable conversations. These are the gifts of higher education, and a solution to the polarisation that threatens the future of our country.

Anne Houtman is president of Earlham College, Indiana.

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Reader's comments (2)

Do you want to mention that this liberal college with liberal economics is failing and projects to close in less than 18 months? Republicans also benefit from higher education and it includes economics.
And to quote the notorious Richard Nixon is very fitting.

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