5 Questions for . . .
Meredith Derecho, class of 2018, East Asian Studies,Yale University
Lauren Britt-Elmore, recent graduate, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Javier Espinoza, class of 2017, Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA
Kirsten Hoyte, Department of English, Concord Academy
Michael Jeffries, Associate Professor of American Studies, Wellelsley College
Michael Salamone, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Washington State University
Jonathan Sawday, Walter J. Ong, S.J., Professor in the Humanities, Saint Louis University
Olga Shurchkov, Associate Professor of Economics, Wellesley College
4. In commencement addresses this year, President Obama made statements arguably meant as correctives to certain bents of mind of current students, including the following:
If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be -- what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you'd be born into -- you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now. (Commencement Address, Howard University, 5/7/16)
Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments. And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don't know everything. (Commencement Address, Rutgers University, 5/15/16)
Do students on your campus share his sense of the historical moment? Do they share his belief in the power of "logic and reason and words"?
To speak to the "logic and reason and words" thing, I definitely feel the silencing power of the mainstream activism and popular viewpoints on campus. For example, there's a residential college called Calhoun at Yale that's named after someone who was a big proponent of slavery, and a lot of students want the name changed. The students who want the name changed use a lot of passion and emotional words in their arguments and generally present their viewpoint in a way that's difficult to meet with "logic and reason." So students who don't care if the name gets changed or want the name to stay the same can feel like they don't have space to participate in the discussion.
Olga Shurchkov and Michael Jeffries
Honestly, I don't know how many students on campus share Obama's sense of the historical moment. Yes, I have heard from some that the Black Lives Matter movement and other revolutionary movements would define their (Millennial) generation. But many feel like those in power are not listening. Also, President Obama cannot speak for all Black Americans or other marginalized people. I would hope we're all invested in logic and reason, but if logic and reason were all it took to achieve social justice, we wouldn't need any of these movements that make our democracy legitimate.
I currently do not have a campus. But I can speak to my most recent alma mater, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Since it is a graduate school, there are students there who are old enough to have lived in a different time. For myself, I was alive when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell became the rule in the military, during the first Gulf War, and I distinctly remember 9/11. With that caveat, I wouldn’t say that my former fellow students feel this time is especially special. It is ironic though…my colleagues are expressing discontent with so many of society’s ills and do so much to change them: studying, writing, protesting, speaking out, gaining positions of influence. And yet the demographic and ideological diversity of those same colleagues, as well as the myriad of ways they can fight against society’s darkness, could only exist today. Women, people of color, people who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual, transgender men and women, Jews, Muslims, atheists…the mere presence of these people on a college campus proves Obama’s point that this is the greatest time in history. And yet, we are not content will simply “a presence.” We are continuing the fight of acknowledgement, of equal rights, of having the dominant culture see our truth. So in this way, this isn’t a particular historical moment…just one of many.
With regard to the second question, I can see Obama’s point. Using the tools of the oppressor to fight against him, or fighting from within the system can have a more powerful impact than if one creates one’s own tools. However, that argument is problematic to tell young adults. Because we are also encouraging them to be entrepreneurs and self-advocates when it comes to business, creativity, or family. We can’t expect youth to break all the rules in some realms but not others. I do agree it is important for people to be able to back up their claims with facts. Even more so, it’s vital that people know how to do the research in order to back up their claims. But so much of what needs to change in this world cannot be argued away. It is emotions that are binding people to their perspectives, not logic. And so logic can only go so far. People need to develop the skills and the courage to make what Ron Heifitz would call “adaptive” changes in order to make major shifts in their thoughts and actions.
Obama’s is a fundamentally whiggish view of history – that the past is an inexorable continuum leading to a more enlightened, healthier, saner, smarter, present. There’s a lot to counter this view, not least that the present generation of young people here in the US and in Europe (think of France, Greece, Spain) will be the first generation in a very long time to have to contemplate declining living standards, falls in real wages, jobs which are subject to the vagaries of the “market” in ways that were unthinkable just twenty or thirty years ago, lack of affordable housing, etc etc. My sense is that young people are getting wise to the almost criminal betrayal that has been perpetrated at their expense, and it may be that they will lose patience with “logic and reason and words” when those same tools have been used (knowingly and unknowingly) to disadvantage them and their children in the future.
Given Obama is at an HBCU, I think the handful of students of color in my program would consider the first statement true. But out of that HBCU context I think brown and black UCLA MSW students would consider it only half true. We live in a globalized world that is entrenched in white supremacy due to centuries of European colonialism. This makes time traveling exclusively a white privilege. There are plenty of college students today, not just at UCLA but all over this country, who want to “make America great again.” I think these students would prefer to live in a past when overt racism, sexism, etc. were more socially acceptable in the U.S..
Regarding Obama’s second statement, I think many in my MSW program, and UCLA in general, would agree with Obama. But it should be noted that every person in this country, including Obama, has notions of “logic and reason and words” that are warped by their social context. I personally do not trust Obama’s “logic and reason and words” given our social context of US imperialism which allows him to be the first Nobel peace prize winner to bomb another Nobel peace prize winner, and it be completely ok here in the U.S..
Such an interesting question! I don't know. I need to think about it. Off the top of my head, I think that they share his belief in the power of "logic and reason and words." They certainly think that through social action and reason, their voices can be powerful. I am less sure whether they share his "sense of the historical moment."
This is hard for me to answer. As an empirical social scientist, I would want to see survey data and not rely on my personal impressions. But even if I do rely on my personal impressions, my university is not exactly a hotbed of student activism, so it is still hard to tell. The students whom I know well (classes here are large, so this is a self-selected group) likely share this belief. Also, these statements (particularly the one from the Howard University speech) strike me as thinly veiled critiques of Donald Trump, who is not all that popular among students here.