From President Veitch

Fall16_JVcolumn

Teachable Moments From Election 2016

Whatever one thinks of the election results this November, I think we can all agree that the campaign itself was not our finest ­moment. Filled with ad hominem attacks on women, Muslims, immigrants, and other groups, it was a violation of the basic principles of tolerance and generosity that are essential to our collective lives. There seemed to be very little respect for the facts in the debate about key issues—healthcare, immigration, and foreign policy—that will determine our future. Surely we can do ­better. And colleges like Occidental have a meaningful role to play in that effort. 

In many ways, this was an election about the impact of globalization—from the movement of goods (NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) to the movement of people (Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants). It was also about the effect of globalization on whole sections of the country, which has left many in a state of economic dislocation and despair. Having seen that despair expressed through anger, we now have seen it expressed at the ballot box. Here, too, Occidental has an ­important role to play, helping our students understand the full ramifications of globalization on the election and how this may play out in the future. 

At its most basic level, this election was a powerful reminder of the value of an educated citizenry—and of Occidental's fundamental value as a college of the liberal arts and sciences. In classical antiquity, the ­liberal arts were those areas of knowledge that were considered essential for a free person to know to be able to take an active part in civic life (liberalis being the Latin term for "proper to a free person"—a far cry from its current use as a political epithet). Initially defined as music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the liberal arts curriculum has constantly evolved over time to incorporate new forms of learning and new ways of thinking about the world.

But I believe that the fundamental ­purpose of the liberal arts—to prepare in­dividuals to be better citizens—has not changed. All predictions aside, it was clear that the winner of the presidential race, whomever it might be, would face the daunting task of trying to unite a deeply polarized nation. We have seen that polarization at Oxy and on other college campuses, populated as we are by earnest young people with fervent moral concerns and a willingness to push boundaries. All this renders our task more urgent.

As I have said before, I believe colleges like Occidental should be engaged in the task of modeling a way in which we can ­engage in passionate but respectful debate about the messy, divisive issues we face. 

As institutions proper for free persons, we need to be a forum for debate based on facts, driven by data, and free of the ugly name-calling that marred the presidential campaign. We need to break free from the echo chambers that social media have created, in which we seek reinforcement for existing beliefs, rather than perspectives that challenge our assumptions. None of this touches the better angels of our nature or moves the conversation forward.

Our job as educators is to help bring the light, a duty symbolized by the lamp of knowledge that appears on the original ­Occidental seal. Unique Oxy programs such as Campaign Semester and the ­Kahane United Nations program help ­complicate the thinking of our students by requiring them to test the theoretical against the practical reality they find on the ground, whether in the General Assembly or a Congressional district in the Midwest. But there is much more to be done. 

We cannot shirk our responsibility as educators to use turning points like these as teachable moments. What institution is better equipped to bring multiple disciplines—history, politics, economics, cognitive science, sociology, philosophy—to bear on the questions of where we have been, how we got to this point, and where we might be headed? There has never been a greater need for an Oxy education.

Jonathan Veitch
President