To my students

Today, I had to step in front of a classroom filled with several hundred students enrolled in my intro course, “Cultural Anthropology and Human Diversity.” Here’s what I told them.

This election season has been very difficult for me, as it has been for many of us. It has been difficult because of the negativity of the campaign and the outpouring of hate that it provoked.

It has been difficult also because there was no debate of ideas. Truth and evidence seemed to have very little value.

For me, we all lost on Tuesday. We lost our sense of reason and, it seems, our ability to think rationally. Faced with disappointment and fear, too many people have let themselves be seduced by simplistic rhetoric. Rather than try to really grasp the complexity of the problems that face our society, too many people simply preferred to point their fingers at easy scapegoats, be they wall street bankers, establishment politicians, China, or Muslims and migrants.

And so, as an educator, I wasn’t sure how to react to Tuesday’s election results.

Ultimately, I am more than ever committed to my job and convinced of its importance.

I am convinced of the importance to help you understand the complexity and diversity of human societies. Soundbites and tweets cannot capture this complexity and I hope that this classroom provides you with tools to elevate yourself above the simplistic and to marvel at this beautiful mess that keeps us all living together.

I am ever more dedicated to showing you that there is nothing natural about inequality and oppression. The inequalities and oppressions that we experience today are the results of deliberate human choices. We have created them and we have the power to undo them if we decide it is important to do so.

Finally, I want to recognize that this university has not always done enough to create a truly inclusive campus. It’s trying but more work needs to be done. So here, I want to address myself to all of you who are the members of visible and invisible minorities, to all of you who have experienced the weight of discrimination because of your skin color, your ethnicity, your national origin, your religion, your gender, your sexuality, or your disability. Today, more than ever, I stand with you. I stand as one of you. I realize that the responsibility of creating inclusive spaces starts with all of us, but that we, faculty, have a large role to play in this. And so I pledge to you today that I will continue to work to make my classrooms the kind of place where respectful debate takes place, where experiences are validated, where simplistic assumptions are challenged, and where minds are expanded.

The purpose of a liberal education

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.