Liberal Higher Education & the Softening of America’s Political Backbone

August 30, 2016

If I had a dollar for every student I met in college who experienced a shift in their political views from conservative to liberal during their undergraduate studies, I might be able to pay my rent this month. Of course, there are those who aligned themselves with the conservative right after affiliating with campus organizations historically rooted in conservative politics and religions. Nonetheless, most academic collegiate experiences are liberal in nature as programs of study, readings, research, and discussions are fruitful and often challenge students to consider new perspectives and means for innovation. Popular news media and historically conservative networks fear the inherent liberalism embedded in the current college climate. Liberal education, at its core, restores individuality amongst students and provides a broader education that equips graduates to handle adversity, change, and diversity in their communities and workplaces. Liberalism and liberal education are initiatives towards equality and progress, yet too many people fear the word by solely equating it with hot button or ephemeral social justice movements. Unfortunately, issues of human rights, education, poverty, violence, and beyond supersede simple conversations of social (read: political back-burner) concerns.

To be liberal does not necessarily mean you support all the ideals of the Democratic party just as identifying as conservative does not mean you wholly back the Republican party. Liberality and liberal college education are, however, under fire for politically co-opting the college landscape and creating space for discussion and critique. As the result of media portrayals of current American politics, an all-or-nothing mentality often consumes college students as they struggle to find a candidate to support to exercise their political rights in the upcoming election. Aside from the inevitable decrease in voter turnout among college students who are living away from their designated polling stations, political apathy is sweeping the demographic because students are often overwhelmed and inundated with copious amounts of news media about the country’s political climate that are often impossible to decipher for truth. In addition to the information circulated by formal news media outlets, content dispersed on social media platforms and independent sites further complicates the political atmosphere and makes it that much harder for a student voter to determine what is fact and what is fiction. Individuals, organizations, and even major networks take part in elaborate, inventive, and even intimidating tactics to have their content noticed and receive public attention.

My life has been incredibly busy as of late, thus it’s been hard to carve out time for timely blog posts. Too many factors, however, prompted me to pull together my thoughts about infuriating commentary on recent events that defames liberal higher education and individuals who attempt to invoke social change. First, certain individuals and groups have explicitly stated their concern for what higher education does for the political climate of the United States. Call it softening, feminizing, emasculating, or – my personal favorite – castrating American politics, several outspoken personalities have become increasingly vocal about higher education’s quest for dialogue and change to be more inclusive and less oppressive, particularly in social contexts. Once upon a time, earning a college degree was an essential facet of the American dream. Now, the alleged ‘liberal bullshit’ that colleges espouse and the graduates they shape are using the tools from that education to offer commentary on improving our nation and world. Thus, my second point: America isn’t ready to lay in the political hot bed it made. We funneled money into education, advocated for it on national and global platforms, and begged for increased funding and resources to make education past high school a reality for more individuals. In that process, many people became educated. Educated in the sense that they realized the best solutions come from considering all stakeholders, that democracy should honor equality for all people, and that we should never stop striving for innovation.

I am part of that overwhelmingly, though not always humbly, educated generation. In college, I found feminism which ultimately contributed to me being a better, more inclusive, and more observant person. Higher education brazenly exposed me to uncomfortable realities and explained notions of privilege that situate me in a position to put my education to productive use for society. Today, my contribution is organizing my thoughts in this article in the hopes that someone will read it and consider their potential political impact. Contributions of our society’s educated populations take many shapes, but it is complicated to see the institutions that produce such educated individuals (who go on to comprise our justice system) reinforce marginalizing concepts of privilege.

The University of Chicago, for example, issued a statement to all incoming students regarding their decision to denounce trigger warnings and their campus as a ‘safe space’ for students. Ironically enough, such a statement was a trigger warning in itself. I completely understand a university’s commitment to academic freedoms and free exchange of ideas, but safe spaces aren’t always a retreat from tough and challenging issues. Rather, safe spaces allow controversial or sensitive topics to be discussed with respect and addressed as though traumatic life experiences have merit. Further, the presence of safe spaces prompt universities to teach sensitivity and awareness training that propagate respect and provide fundamental resources to students, staff, faculty, and community members that can contribute to their overall collegiate success. Offering space for mature and respectful discussion and consideration of issues reflects common courtesy in rather than the over-sensitizing of educative spaces. Confrontation of tough realities in the college domain is essential to fostering healthy discussions that can contribute to real change. Not every student has the same assumption of safety in their communities, campus or not.

Denouncing safe spaces in the collegiate landscape has and will continue to promote the utilization of other platforms to discuss social change. Our country thrives on this sense of competition. College acceptance and funding is far from exempt from the competitive atmosphere. It comes as no surprise that major national athletes have come under fire for stepping away from the game – their assigned role in society – to comment on larger and more complex political issues which diminishes their competitive edge. Colin Kaepernick’s decision to remain seated during the National Anthem sparked a media frenzy about privilege, the role of an athlete, and nationalism. Kaepernick, a 2010 graduate of the University of Nevada, utilized his platform to address systemic national issues about equality and violence. Although it has been critiqued otherwise, Kaepernick’s actions do not reflect a publicity stunt or defame the United States. Rather, his decision to sit displayed a public and controversial action, within his political freedoms, that began an important conversation about the formation of political identity. Responses to Kaepernick’s actions have called him weak, ungrateful, racist, and even blatantly told him to leave the country. His actions and commentary, however, aim to improve the very country we live in and all of its people. The same individuals who condemn liberality in higher education fear critiquing well-established institutions such as law enforcement, government, elected offices, armed service officials, and other positions with inherent national clout – Unless that person or position is of an opposing political party. No person or institution in this country is above innovation and evaluation. Embracing that concept is how we “make America great again”. So no, Kaepernick did not dishonor nor disrespect individuals who have given their lives under the American name because the National Anthem is a nostalgic symbol of our nation that no longer keeps its promise to all of its people. Inclusivity, conversation, education, and change in practice and in law will renew that promise.

Lest we forget, just a few short weeks ago the internet blasted Gabby Douglas for not putting her hand over her heart during the National Anthem at the Rio Olympic games. Although her intention was not indicative of political action or protest (she was simply overwhelmed in the circumstances), the backlash she received was not rooted in intellectual discussion or in consideration of major political ideologies. Rather, tweets at Gabby targeted her hair, her physique, her apparel, and, most notably, the sense of competition among women on her own team. Thus, gendered and sexist elements of the political climate are fueled in athletics and far beyond. It’s not surprising, then, that so many people feel that the country’s notion of masculinity is threatened by open lines of communication and dialogue about injustice; we are upholding rigid gender and sexuality-based binaries in our daily language and communications.

What do graduates of liberal universities, safe spaces, and nationally acclaimed athletes have in common? These facets and the discussion thereof reveal that the United States is its own worst enemy. This country is afraid of losing the very stereotypical identities that causes other nations to dislike us – toughness, insensitivity, and close-mindedness. By fostering respectful conversations and dialogue about issues related to social injustices, violence, and political affiliation, we have the power to make this country a place every citizen is proud to claim as their home and individuals across the world genuinely admire. If our political backbone is softening to include more voices in the conversation and work toward a complete picture of equality, so be it.

Maybe this post’s title is slightly misleading, but I’m glad you found your way here. Let’s start talking.

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