Tuesday, April 2, 2013


I confess that I remain a big Simon and Garfunkel fan, and that, in my opinion, Paul Simon was one of the most gifted songwriters of the 20th century.  Two passages of his have particular relevance at this time, I think.

From “The Boxer”: Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
And from “The Sound of Silence”:  People talking without speaking
                                                   People hearing without listening

Although these lyrics were written in the 1960s, they remain poignant – and accurate, it seems to me.   Far too much of our current political discourse, and far too much of our media coverage, can be aptly characterized as “talking without speaking”, or “hearing without listening”, or simply disregarding everything except what you want to hear.  Moreover, if you are deliberate in your selection of cable channels, radio stations, websites, and media, you seldom have to hear or read anything that you do not already believe.  Consistent, frequent reinforcement of one’s convictions and biases makes it easier to disregard anything different.
To make matters worse, the contemporary tone of much of our public discourse, analysis, and commentary is often vitriolic and, all too seldom, measured and civil.  Those who disagree are not merely wrong or uninformed; they are evil, unpatriotic, sinister, fascist, traitors, bigots, Yankees fans, or worse.  “Facts” are fungible and inconvenient data, no matter how reproducible or extensive, are suspect, or dispensable, or considered as the product of some conspiracy.
In such a climate, we must be attentive to creating environments where dialog and discussion are robust, honest, even pointed, but civil and mutually respectful.  This is part of the mission of all of America’s colleges and universities – or should be.  Such an environment principally depends upon a community-wide commitment to civility, reason, mutual respect, and the quest for truth. Diversity in that community is a substantial source of strength; it is an extremely desirable asset that should be vigorously pursued.  If our community is too homogenous (composed mostly of people who look like us, think like us, and share our assumptions and worldview), then dialog and debate may be constrained, and our intellectual growth stunted.  Colleges and universities can provide excellent settings in which to build diverse communities that foster meaningful debate and dialog.  In this context, all forms of human diversity are valuable: political, economic, racial, social, ethnic, religious, origin, orientation, and more.
Deep engagement with the thought and perspectives of other periods of history, and across the breadth of human culture, is also essential.  This is one reason that all students should pursue the study of the liberal arts.   It is mere prejudice to believe that contemporary thought or analysis is inherently superior to that of the past.  Of course, all areas of knowledge build upon the past, and this is particularly evident in the sciences. Our understanding of the universe and all of its laws is far more advanced and comprehensive now than at any previous time. But this should not blind us to the wisdom and truth revealed or discovered by our predecessors.  Measuring our understanding and assumptions against the insights and conclusions of previous civilizations and cultures can be both very challenging and very illuminating.
To succeed in building communities that are diverse, welcoming, and supportive on one hand, and intellectually challenging and demanding on the other, is not easy.  A certain degree of institutional fortitude is also required because both internal and external criticism will surely come.  But higher education must persevere in this. It has never been more important, not only for the reasons cited above but also because our students need the wisdom and skills that can only be gained by living and participating in such an endeavor.