I was taken by surprise at the community meeting about race week before last, but I shouldn’t have been. The highly emotional expressions by students of color about the misery of bad treatment at Skidmore were very sobering to me who believed things were better than that. I discovered that we have an advanced case of racial distrust here.
But then I remembered where we were—America! We’re mostly Americans, having grown up in a generally racist society (with pockets of exceptions). And we brought this racial distrust to Skidmore with us from our bubbles of origin. So naturally we perpetuate the same bubble here. But there’s hope.
The calls for action were heartfelt, and promises were made to come back with good proposals for action. Yes, some were dismayed that they had heard this conversation before at Skidmore. A SkidmoreNews clipping from 1994 posted over a water fountain recently read—“Race Relations at Skidmore One Year Later: is it getting any better?” Apparently not, but the good news is that the conversation has been renewed.
So, we ask, who’s to blame? Who is responsible for the continuing racial hostilities here? Can’t more be done to prevent this kind of unnecessary pain? We are overdue to “pop the bubble,” as this paper put it last week.
The bubble which I blame for our distress is not whiteness, privilege, affluence, or ignorance alone, although all of these do contribute greatly. But so do some bad habits of mind. Americans seem to live and move forever in a “domestic bubble,” as if we always sat in our comfy living rooms when in reality we have left home to occupy a larger, public space with very different rules of communicating. Public discourse is what you say to one person that you can say in front of everybody. This rule applies whenever we cross the threshold to take a job, participate in any institution or—go to college.
Many don’t seem to adjust to the new reality. Back in our living rooms, where we are accepted or at least tolerated by everybody under that roof, we are accustomed to exhaling our opinions, predilections and fulminations. All well and good—that’s what private space is for. Abroad, however, we travel in a different medium—stepping outside of the house, we move into the community, into the city or the college and so become, for lack of a better word, citizens. And there is an ethic very specific to citizenship.
Suddenly we are put in a wholly different relation to the people we encounter—relationships are public relationships, friendships are friendships of strangers, and everyone is a candidate, absolutely everyone in the dorm, the dining hall, on the team, and in class. Like the liberal institution to which we belong, we suddenly become equal-opportunity friends motivated by curiosity, empathy, avidity for learning, and what I would call a kind of civic love. Danielle S. Allen says that such friendship “is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences of personality, experience, and aspiration.” She calls this “the citizenship of trust-building.” This habit of mind needs to be a 24/7 proposition and should eliminate everything from anonymous slurs to overt harassment if practiced faithfully. That’s a big IF.
The distinction between the private and public spheres is pretty much common sense, but to many the existence of the public sphere is non-existent. As far as students are concerned, the campus is not an example of a public space. It is a social space, an extension of private space (which students wish desperately there was more of!). The discourse of the private sphere extends out indefinitely, invades the (invisible) public one, and the pain and destruction begins, visiting the un-evolved attitudes of the living room upon hapless others.
At the performance after the community meeting that Friday, James Baldwin looks out at the audience and lovingly exhorts the audience: “Take care of each other, protect each other.” Beautifully said, and not that hard to do, really.
"Where the hell am I"?
OK, if you were lucky enough to hear Cornel West last week, you had to come out of there dazzled and a little dazed. I sure did. West has a reputation for being a “great speaker,” and he lived up to that big time. An hour and a quarter without notes of any kind, citing Seneca, Plato, Chekov, Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Alfred North Whitehead—a tour de force.
But it was more than an “interesting” talk. It was humane intelligence. It was passion. It was poetry, as one student characterized it. We were moved, we were pierced, we were shaken, we were lifted, we were chastened, we were challenged, we laughed, we practically cried. What was happening to us in there?
Cornel West takes the very big risk of speaking to his audiences personally. As a public intellectual working in an academic setting, West is unique in the way he makes a direct appeal to us as moral beings. He posed fundamental questions for us to answer about the meaning and purpose of our individual lives. He talked not just about values but about lived values. He asked us: what does it mean to be human? Who have we helped, who have we served, what vision have we served? Do we have a vocation or a career in mind? What’s a college education for?
He began with a startling proposition for students to contemplate: education is about facing death. “Deep education” means facing the fact of death, the fact of our own deaths and the many forms of death that social and political oppression takes. So, if you’re an American, you have to grapple with the two-plus centuries of social death inflicted on African-Americans (and many others). Not a comfortable enterprise. Do we have what it takes, he asked at the end? Can we endure such an education and incorporate it into our personal decisions?
To some ears this would sound pretty radical. But it is wholly traditional, and West continuously made that clear. The essential imperative for the human enterprise is to pass on tradition, which for him is summarized in his rhythmically reiterated expression, “Socratic questioning and prophetic witness.” How traditional—Socrates and the Bible!
You know all about Socrates and critical thinking, of course, but did you know what “prophet” means in the phrase “prophetic witness”? The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures—like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Amos, among many others—maddened kings and populace alike with relentless attacks against the exploitation of the vulnerable and popular abandonment of God. These God-intoxicated originals gave voice to God’s empathy for those who suffered. They pronounced doom for the delinquent leadership of the nation, but also comfort for them if they repented of their sins. The discomfiting message of the prophets was, “Few are guilty, all are responsible,” and so took everybody to task. (These are the words of the great Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel whose participation in the civil rights movement right next to Martin Luther King was mentioned by West in his lecture.) Their words were like “a scream in the night,” yet they also brought assurance of God’s compassion for humankind. The prophets ultimately sought the redemption and reconstruction of social and political life, and the root of their mission was divine inspiration. Not only a modern-day Socrates, Cornel West is also a bona fide modern-day prophet.
Being a “Rev.” on campus myself, I kidded him afterwards, asking him whether we shouldn’t call him “Rev. West.” He strenuously declined. Then perhaps an “evangelist for justice”? He said yes to that. Like James Baldwin before him, although he left the church of his up-bringing, the church never left him at all.
You can read much the lecture’s content in his 2004 book, “Democracy Matters.” But if you can do that, what is the necessity of hearing him say it all in person? Why? In order to be questioned personally by someone who himself takes the kind of risks he wants us to take. In order to hear someone who has survived the lash of discrimination and the boot of derogation speak of hope. To be in the same room together and leave dazzled and a little dazed into a new Skidmore day.
--Rick Chrisman 4/13/2011
“Where the hell am I--?” Have you awakened in the middle of your room in the middle of the night silently screaming that question in your dreams yet? I hope not. Because the answer to this question will probably not materialize until you’ve left Skidmore. It can take that long to figure out what a wonderful, crazy, unreal place college is.
You certainly realize you are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Noise till midnight, mind-bending concepts, people you can’t avoid, awkward silences in the classroom, academic standards too high for you (or too low), dark thoughts that can’t be shared, no pets, no dog, no cat, siblings are disappeared, pressure, pressure, pressure, hang-overs due to medicine for pressure—plus all the hazards of working and living in the sameplace. When will this unnatural state be over!
Well, at least it’s an improvement over high school, right? I mean, the manic hallways, the rumor mill, the bullies, classes at virtual DAWN! Get me outta there! What’s not to like in college, compared to that? Besides, no parents, and it’s all in a good cause, right?
You think, “M-m-m-m, what was that again? A bachelor’s degree—four more years of school on top of the last twelve for a ticket to security, may be worth it. Don’t see many jobs out there right now, do you suppose I can stretch this out a little longer. . . ?”
All that uncertainty can make college seem a little like hell. If it weren’t for that, a person could really enjoy this excursion through beauty and knowledge. So it’s best not to dwell on the uncertainties right now. You think, More medication. But the walls close in anyway, and things just feel worse.
I blame it all on the view. On a lovely campus like ours, the view is surely lovely enough but I believe that the view is just not l-a-r-g-e enough. You can’t see very much from where you sit at any one time. You can’t see, for instance, all your peers in other colleges across the country, in urban universities, in art schools, in community colleges, in church schools and military schools, in beauty courses and computer classes, all leaning over their books and into their futures, too, wondering what will evolve for them. You can’t see them and how much they are like you. And you can’t see the others who didn’t opt for college, who are hammering out their destinies on a day to day basis, too, some in entry level jobs, some picking up from summer jobs they had, others in the military (we are a nation at war, don’t forget). The view is too limited to see them either and how much they are like you.
I think I should lobby President Glotzbach to raze the Wilson Chapel (you knew we have a chapel on campus, right?) and build in its place a sort of Eiffel Tower that we can climb up in whenever we want and get a view of the world around us, to remind us where we really are. You could go up to a first mezzanine (climbing stairs, never elevators) and see Saratoga and, with the binoculars installed on the railings (free for once), you could see all the families (like yours) raising children who will follow you and your peers into the seats you leave behind one day, when you go on your way. On a platform a little higher you could view the great natural valley we live in, the Hudson River coming down from Canada and flowing toward Albany (you can just see it) while it waters the crops and the souls who live nearby. Another couple platforms up and you could see the extensions of this country around the world, the perfervid commerce, the syndicated TV shows, the charitable enterprises, the overcommitted military (we are a nation at war, don’t forget). And what you would see from the top! You would really see that you are not alone in your tasks and that exciting responsibilities ahead await you.
I wish people could always see where we really are. And really enjoy college. It isn’t hell at all, far from it.
--Richard Chrisman, 9/22/2010