“Diversity” Extends to Ideology, but “Alt-Right” is “Not Alright”
It has now been over a full year since the 2016 presidential election. Yet, I still remember vividly the dark and raw thoughts I had the morning of November 9, 2016. When I woke up and learned of the election results, I was horrified that so many people had made a conscious decision to elect a person who embodied and condoned the evils of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, to be the world’s most powerful leader. Most of the discussions I had that day with my family, friends, and colleagues centered around our inability to understand the political stances and ideologies that were reflected in so much (but not the majority!) of the popular vote.
In that grim day after the election, I remember thinking that educators, like myself, must have completely missed the mark. As a professor of theology, I was particularly troubled. The election had touched one of my core beliefs deeply—that is, the purpose of theological education is to form persons to think and act responsibly in the church and society. I remember thinking that my field had failed, and that we needed to rethink everything we had been doing in the classroom up to then.
As I read the analyses that were pouring in that day, one particular headline caught my eye: “Trump won because college-educated Americans are out of touch. Higher education is isolated, insular and liberal. Average voters aren't.” The article was written by Charles Camosy, a professor at Fordham University, who was proposing that the election reflected a divide in our country between those who have a college degree and those who do not. “The reality is that six in 10 Americans do not have a college degree, and they elected Donald Trump,” he declared. I had been thinking more about age-old racism and the divide between whites and non-whites as the reason for the election results. But, Professor Camosy presented a different analysis, one that has been troubling me and my role as a theological educator ever since I read it that day. He said: “College-educated people didn’t just fail to see this coming — they have struggled to display even a rudimentary understanding of the worldviews of those who voted for Trump.” What really stopped me in my tracks was his remark about how college-educated persons, “have especially paltry knowledge about the foundational role that different philosophical or theological claims play in public thought compared with what is common to college campuses . . . . [M]any professors and college students don’t even realize that their views on political issues rely on a particular philosophical or theological stance.”
This statement made me pause, because it resonated deeply with my own experience, and, therefore, called me to task. I began thinking: Are the ideologies expressed in my assigned readings and classroom assignments monolithic? In my efforts to form persons to think and act responsibly, have I promoted an insular way of thinking?
As educators, we have a great opportunity (and perhaps even a responsibility) to present certain sets of values persuasively. I even state some of these values explicitly in my course syllabi. For example, I want my students to know that I value the theological voices of those on the margins, both in history and contemporary society. I am edified when students come to adopt this value of mine as their own. In addition, if certain values, like racism, ignorance, and bigotry, are displayed in my classroom, I clearly denounce them and explain why.
But, in my effort to rethink everything I have been doing in the classroom, Professor Camosy’s article has led me to consider a different approach: that I should be giving some attention to racism, ignorance, and bigotry, before simply denouncing it. In the classroom, this would entail assigning readings from the alt-right, for example. The goal would be to better understand the political and theological stances that undergird these values, which are often underrepresented in higher education, so that we and our students would understand them better. If I want my students to think and act in the world responsibly, shouldn’t they be able to understand the values they will be encountering and engaging outside of the classroom?
In the required texts and readings assignments on my course syllabi, I strive to include diverse authors. I understand “diversity” in this sense to mean the inclusion of writings by people traditionally marginalized because of their race/ethnicity, gender, class, etc. But, lately I have been thinking that I might do better to reconsider my definition of “diversity.” Perhaps it should include those marginalized by educational levels, age groups, geographic regions, values, and political standpoints?
To be honest, what has held me back thus far in assigning texts from certain political standpoints, such as those that are entangled with white supremacy, is my own aversion to them. I also do not want to be misunderstood as promoting the values espoused by such writings--or worse yet, risk students being convinced by their rhetoric.
So, I’m curious: What do you educators, who might be reading this, think is at risk in extending this definition of “diversity” or not extending it? On the most practical level, have any of you begun to include diverse political standpoints in your reading assignments? If so, how do you present the material to your students? Do you follow any rules or guidelines? Perhaps most importantly: Is your working definition of “diversity” effective, do you think, in preparing students to intellectually and socially engage with the world outside of the classroom more effectively?
 Carles Camosy, “Trump won because college-educated Americans are out of touch,” Washington Post, November 9, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/09/trump-won-because-college-educated-americans-are-out-of-touch/?utm_term=.3634cedb1e19 (accessed December 13, 2017).
Stephen Ray says
Stephen Ray Ella, As I read your piece two thoughts came to mind. The first handing to do with what I call “white self-regard.” This is the tendency of most white people to believe that only a minority of white people are motivated in their politics and economics by racial animus. This, even though study after study has demonstrated across decades that a plurality of white people are indeed motived by racial animus. What this means is that our students do not come to this issue tabula rasa. Most of them have been shaped with this self-regard as one of the deep structures of their being. This is why no matter the age or where they go white people seek to reiterate white spaces and use every lever of economic, social, cultural, and legal power they have to do so (think gentrification). This means, of course, that the alt-right is simply the explicit demonstration of the deep structured commonsense around which a plurality of white people build their lives and identities. This brings me to my second point. Because I believe it impossible to be Christian in our time and not be touched by the anti-semitism which imbues our sacred scripture, song and practice, I do not and will not allow Heideggar to be taught in my classroom. At some point the recognition that the souls of my students have already been touched by the evil in which he traded leaves me unwilling to give him court. Instead I explain why are reading Sartre, Camus, and the early Tillich as expositors of mid-twentieth century phenomenology. When one’s knowledge and practice fails to deliver one from the evil of ethnically cleansing the university which has been given into your hands, one is hardly an exemplar worth “knowing.” It is this sensibility which shapes my response to your question. That which is evil ought be named so. It is up to each of us to choose whether will serve God or evil.
Ella Johnson says
Thank you, Stephen, for your response. I appreciate your wisdom once again, which has shaped my pedagogy more than you know. I agree on both points. Have you found any texts that have been especially effective in helping white students to recognize “white self-regard”? I’ve been thinking that Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s “Sin of White Supremacy” may be helpful–particularly in Christian contexts. Perhaps this could be assigned and then show how alt-right opinions are a demonstration of such? Do you think this would be effective?
Robert Brandstetter says
Naming Evil: Bias in the Classroom
For the longest time my teacher’s union has advocated that I do not discuss political issues in the classroom or advocate for any one party but remain unbiased, possibly indifferent even to the various pros and cons of the political spectrum. However, in the run up to the recent American election the politics south of my Canadian border seemed to be open territory for rich classroom discussion. In some cases I ran into Trump supporters in class and so the collective discussion became an interesting one. It gave me an opportunity to name and denounce evil both from a moral and a theological perspective. What’s interesting about faith based values is that it allows for rather large sweeping moral statements when it comes to how we should be treating our neighbor – no matter their identify, social location or even political persuasion. Maybe Trump just needs more genuine love in his life to help him become more compassionate I could argue. Maybe we need to show compassion for evil in the way that Viktor Frankl identified the best ways of being in the world when confronted by violent oppression? Sometimes it’s good to ask the best of our youth to rise up.
But practically, my classroom is in fact focused on a diversity of texts that tend to support voices that we rarely hear in order to help examine ideas beyond white liberal mainstream values. Examining the philosophies of transgendered sexuality or Black Lives Matter helps to broaden the discussion around what it means when we say that everyone has a right to breathe the air of this planet – no single identity should be threatened by violence. Who are the violators I ask my students, and how do we change their minds? While I would like to believe that love and compassion are the solutions, I still find I place my greatest emphasis on valuing and centering the marginalized or little heard voice because even that challenges a predominantly centrist view that believes it is good, when really it is often quite limited. In fact, it has a lot of work to do to move our society towards a space of equity.
As for presenting the texts of the neo-Nazi, even for purposes of argument and debate, strikes me as dangerous territory in the secondary school level I teach in. I’d rather teach Morrison’s Beloved in my class and explore the formation, impact and ultimate evil of racism inside a moral framework that teaches empathy for the voice that is not centered and to recognize why it needs to be championed. I don’t really have time to waste in my class presenting texts of hatred and would rather place more emphasis on voices who have to contend with hatred and to teach youth of privilege to better understand their role in society, and why it is their obligation to fight against the discriminations and oppressions that their own privilege may contribute to.
I can see how in a post-secondary institution it is critical that we morally examine the texts of hate and to try to understand their thinking, impact and value, if any, to our culture. But personally I think that there is already more than enough visible hatred at work in the world to talk about, especially given the global refugee crisis and the world’s dominant rejection of their plight. To be perfectly honest, I would much rather the voice of hatred disappear altogether and stop delaying moral progress, not that I would censor it, but I would greatly appreciate a society where hatred is not given a free voice to speak or is embarrassed to do so because the moral majority is not just informed, but working tirelessly on raising up others to an equitable space in our culture.