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Arts on view
Promoting, not stifling, debate in wartime
Thirty years ago, during the Vietnam War, college administrations were often reluctant to provide forums for debate of national values and directions. Today, as our country engages in another conflict that tests our will and character, colleges and universities have an opportunity to lead, rather than be led by, the national discourse. It is our responsibility not to shy away from the questions that must be asked, uncomfortable as some of them might be. Colleges must be safe places to ask hard questions.
Among the difficulties of the Vietnam era, perhaps most painful and injurious to our nation as a whole was its failure to engage in an open and productive debate about the complicated issues surrounding the war in Southeast Asia. That failure shattered our national sense of unity and purpose, engendering suspicion and cynicism that have long plagued both public and private discourse. That failure also spawned an unprecedented storm of student activism, as young men and women rose up against what they saw as immoral and unjust actions by the government.
Recently, as students began to question the United States’ current war on terrorism, I heard an emeritus college president who had struggled through the travails of the late 1960s chortle that his successors—today’s college leaders, who came of age in the ’60s—were getting a dose of their own medicine. I replied that this was no accident: in fact,
I had sought to become a college president precisely to help make “the establishment” more responsive and responsible.
Like many colleges, Skidmore reacted to September 11 in more emotional than intellectual fashion. Consolation, poetry, candlelight services, moments of silence, donations, visits home were our appropriate “first response.” As days passed into weeks, shock and sorrow gave way among our students to a deep desire for understanding. Faculty and students organized panel discussions and guest lectures in order to delve beneath the terrible reality of the initial attacks and understand the widening spiral of events. We enlarged classes in international affairs, and faculty members are adapting course offerings for the spring.
The goals of higher education include teaching students to gather and sift information, analyze it critically through different lenses and perspectives, formulate hypotheses, challenge assumptions, and create new models. The value of these capacities for dealing with the unexpected, the unknown, the profoundly complex is crystal clear. These educational goals are no different from those of thirty years ago. But what has changed is that today’s students welcome the engagement of teachers, parents, and other voices of experience in the search for understanding. No more are we divided by the warning “don’t trust anyone over thirty.” This time we have an opportunity to work together to analyze, understand, propose, and debate the issues of our time.
In August the president of Skidmore’s student government chose as his theme for the year “Practicing Tomorrow’s Citizenship Today.” Recent events only heighten the significance of that goal and magnify the responsibility of colleges and universities to deepen the discourse, not only for our students but also for the public. Our search for the truth in these times will be difficult, producing revelations both unfashionable and at times unpleasant. For example, a recent lecture on campus by an Islamic cleric generated considerable controversy and ignited heated debate about politics, free speech, and religion. We must and we will continue to provide such forums for serious discussion of the issues. An open and honest search for truth, which is more often mottled gray rather than pure black or white, is what leads to both understanding and, in these times, justice.
Thirty years ago too many college and university leaders cowered on the sidelines or tried to stay above the fray. This time we need to be in the center, promoting understanding and debate. It’s our job and our privilege.