Well, it finally happened. I should have expected it. In fact, I did but the timing surprised me. Teaching a class called “Cultural Anthropology and Human Diversity” to roughly 800 students, I knew a moment would come when one, or some of them, would feel so uncomfortable that they’d complain about it. It didn’t happened when I introduced them to Marx and discussed social and economic inequalities. It didn’t happen when we talked about gender and sexuality. They didn’t even react too strongly when I forced them to face their own white privilege. No, the topic that put at least one of them over the edge was immigration. Apparently, pointing out that the political rhetoric of those who demand ever more deportations and the militarization of the border is fueled by nationalist and xenophobic sentiments rather than actual economic pressures was simply too much for at least one of my students who then felt the need to write a formal complaint about me. Fine.
The incident wouldn’t be worth lingering over if it hadn’t encouraged me to think about the purpose of what I do. In an age when both our students and our politicians want us, university faculty, to provide practical professional training, I continue to believe in the virtues of a liberal education that helps our students become independent thinkers, creative spirits, and engaged citizens. These are qualities that the humanities and social sciences can foster.
A colleague of mine directed me to this fantastic essay by historian Bill Cronon, one of our most illustrious colleagues on the UW campus. Rather than summarizing Prof. Cronon’s excellent points here, I invite you to read this short text for yourself. I hope that it will inspire you just like it inspired me to continue using our classrooms to encourage curiosity, tolerance, as well as personal and civic engagement.