January 14, 2021
Dear Members of the Bard College Community,
I want to extend to the entire Bard College community—students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, friends and their families—my very best wishes for the New Year 2021.
Despite the extraordinary turn of events since the November 2020 election, there are reasons for optimism. The process of vaccination against COVID-19 has begun, and a new Federal administration under President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will take office on January 20. No greetings for the New Year, however, should fail to recognize and thank the faculty, staff, students, of Bard for their exceptional resilience, good will and exemplary conduct. I am proud of their dedicated service, and the loyalty and commitment being shown by all, including the trustees, and many supporters of the college, both now and during the past many months.
First year students began the Citizen Science curriculum this week. Regular classes for the Spring 2021 semester will start on February 1. The months ahead will be hard, but the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is visible. The essential restrictions of social distancing and mask wearing will eventually recede. Teaching and learning in person will resume, and along with it, our public life, particularly in the arts and culture that are so vital to Bard.
Let me apologize in advance for the length and character of this New Year’s message. In addition to the thanks, good wishes and welcome with which I began, I think it appropriate if perhaps not incumbent on me to comment on the historical moment we are in and its implications. The views I hold are entirely my own. Their expression is intended to stimulate debate, and not to frame consensus.
I do not wish just to add one more voice to the more familiar aspects of the reflection and punditry already in the public sphere. I share the sentiments of outrage, surprise and fear and strongly condemn violence and White supremacy, which were on stark display in Washington last week. Rather I will attempt to link the politics of the present and recent past and the challenges facing this country to the mission, place and character of Bard. The pandemic, perversely perhaps, will have a lasting impact on how we teach and what programs we might undertake; a great deal has been learned about what technology can and cannot do, and how it can contribute to Bard’s commitment to excellence and equity in higher education. In terms of our pedagogical strategies, we need to prepare for a post pandemic era that will be more than a return to what was once “normal”. We need to realize a marked advance over the past.
What should the response of the college be to the political turmoil we are all facing regarding the transfer of power in Washington, the conduct of politics over the past four years, and the economic, social and cultural devastation we have witnessed since the pandemic began? Every college and university in this country should take the opportunity of the current hiatus in “business as usual” to re-examine its purposes, culture and practices, and therefore its place in the link between higher education and democracy.
My reflections start with the assumption that the Trump presidency will end and President-elect Biden will assume office. At the same time what is now called “Trumpism” will not fade away. The actions, habits and sentiments of those that stormed the Capitol show little sign of going away. The response by law enforcement placed a spotlight on the disparity in the treatment of Whites as opposed to Blacks and people of color. The “polarization” everyone talks about is therefore a dangerous continuing reality. A large number of citizens, throughout the country, in both “red” and “blue” states sympathize with what Trump has come to stand for. They believe the lies about the 2020 election and reject the incontrovertible facts of science regarding the wearing of masks. They are disinclined to question their convictions or even to debate them.
Consequently, when legitimate disagreements on matters of policy will come to the forefront—on education, health care and the administration of justice—the prospects for reasoned compromise seem remote. The style and strategy of Trumpism have poisoned our entire political discourse, encouraging the shouting down of opposing views, the hurling of slogans, epithets and insults, and the fueling of righteous indignation. In this context our institutions of higher education must find ways to respond and intervene to increase the probability that reasoned debate and discourse can prevail and that the ideal of “domestic tranquility” explicitly invoked by the United States Constitution, can be achieved, with stability, in the 21st century.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Governor of California, an Austrian by birth, released a video after the failed insurrection and assault on the Capitol. He invoked the so-called “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht) on November 9-10 1938 when civilian mobs, and paramilitary groups, egged on by Nazi authorities looted, pillaged and destroyed the homes and businesses of their Jewish neighbors and burned down synagogues in every village, town and city.
If one seeks insight from the history of Nazism and European fascism perhaps it is rather the failed Munich Putsch of November 8-9 1923 that offers the more appropriate parallel. Several thousand Nazis stormed a major public building in the capital of Bavaria in an attempt to overthrow the government. They were stopped in an armed confrontation with the authorities. 20 people died—four police officers and sixteen Nazi Party members. Adolf Hitler and his co-conspirators were arrested, tried and sent to prison.
At first it appeared that the radical right within the fragile and new German democracy established after World War I had been stopped. Yet a decade later, the leaders of the Putsch, and a resuscitated Nazi party, using democratic and legal means, established a one-party dictatorship. They suppressed freedom and dissent through terror; they disseminated lies by controlling the media and fomenting hate, and they won the overwhelming loyalty of the German people. Between 1933 and 1945, over 55 million people lost their lives in the European theater of war against Germany: dissidents, Jews, Roma, Slavic minorities, homosexuals, children and adults with illnesses, and, of course, ordinary civilians and soldiers.
The 1923 Munich Putsch took place in a democracy, unlike the 1938 Night of Broken Glass, when the one-party Nazi dictatorship and the legalized racism it instituted were firmly established. Furthermore, shortly after 1923, it appeared as if the enemies of freedom and tolerance had lost and the cause of democracy and justice properly served. The putsch leaders were imprisoned, Hitler was silenced and the Nazi party made illegal.
What emerges from this historical example is the question of whether the insurrection of 2020 in Washington, although a failure in the short term, will, in retrospect become a harbinger of the death of American democracy in the near future, or whether it will inspire this country to act in the years ahead to strengthen democracy and avert the fate of Germany in the 1930s. I think democracy’s demise is unlikely, but only if we are not complacent and do not delude ourselves that the worst is over. If we do not address the underlying issues that divide us, and defeat a politics based on falsehoods, invective and prejudice, with words and deeds, the future may be bleak, even if our worst possible outcome fails to match the unspeakable brutality of the Nazi regime and their collaborators.
What contribution can Bard, or, for that matter, any institution of higher education, make to strengthening democracy in America in the years ahead? The unique character of Bard College—its undergraduate programs, its faculty, its eight public early colleges in seven cities, its work in prisons, its international presence (now strengthened by the Open Society University Network) and its prominence in the arts—provides us a special opportunity to help advance this cause.
In order to do so, I believe Bard must be guided by five fundamental principles, all of which seem to me vital and necessary to advancing freedom and democracy in our times:
We must affirm a common shared allegiance to truth telling, and the ideal of the truth. This requires the vigilant and self-critical pursuit of the means by which we can differentiate a lie—a falsehood—from facts and true statements. We must promote an understanding of different degrees of certainty, ambiguity, error, revision and reasonable doubt, as well as the limits of the appeal to subjectivity. Only on the basis of a shared allegiance to truth telling can a pluralistic democracy, one made up of citizens committed to a wide range of inherited and chosen identities, survive much less thrive. The limits of truth, particularly regarding those matters of belief that are not based on shared rational criteria subject to evidence and proof, such as religious faith, need to be understood and respected. That recognition protects the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution, in private and public, and prevents elevating any particular faith, de facto, as dominan t in the formation of our laws and public policies.
That a large sector of the population believes lies is terrifying. The plausibility of clinging to falsehoods is compounded by the Internet and social media, which have helped to camouflage lies in the garb of truth through the use of psychologically manipulative rhetoric and algorithms. Even worse is what may be the most persuasive response to any confrontation with facts one does not like or wish to hear: the assertion of a conspiracy, a hidden reality unseen and therefore immune to verification.
Conspiracy theories are most effective when they contradict the facts with perverse precision. The claim that election was stolen in terms of “real” numbers—uncounted votes, double counting and fraud—seems strengthened by the presentation of the evidence of the actual votes that were fairly counted. The assertion of relevant facts becomes the proof of the hidden conspiracy.
Anti-Semitism has long been buttressed by such conspiracy theories. Well known facts are deployed to make the point. Jews are comparatively few in number. This makes any prominence individual Jews might achieve suspicious and the idea that Jews control the world of finance and international politics plausible. Jewish dietary laws are well known. The more Jews asserted the religious prohibition of the consumption of blood, the more appealing the charge that Jews use Christian blood in the practice of Judaism became, well into the 20th century. Facts have given long standing and recurrent conspiracy theories their allure through distortion and fantasy. The allegiance to the truth must therefore include contesting theories that lack evidence, testing hypotheses with facts, and rejecting claims that not only have no basis in fact but are constructed in a manner that suggests the existence of evidence but eludes scrutiny and consequently proof or disproof.
What higher education must promote much more effectively than ever before is how to understand what is true, what might be true, and how to distinguish that which is false or doubtful. We need to broaden the capacity to judge and differentiate competing claims, whether about history, politics, disease and the environment. At the same time, we must acknowledge where the language of truth and falsehood has its limits, as in aesthetic judgments. And we need to remain skeptical regarding assertions of absolute certainty without abandoning our willingness to accept the truth when it is clearly justified.
The virtue of a shared and vigilantly self-critical commitment to the truth is that it requires the respect for a common ground, overriding differences in religion, ethnicity, gender, age, nationality and sexual preference. Advancing human knowledge in pursuit of greater shared understanding of the world we live is our mission. It can serve as a basis for living together, with all our differences, in peace and harmony.
To advance truth telling, we must strengthen our focus on language and its uses. Language, it is said, is the parent of thought. It is the universal instrument of teaching and scholarship. Communication with language is, however, harder than we might expect. This fact explains why translation from one language to another is so difficult. Therefore, cultivating a disciplined self-critical analytic understanding how language evolves and is used, as well as how it might be used and has been used in the past is a fundamental aspiration of a college curriculum. A rigorous command of the complex skills of speaking, writing and reading is indispensable.
Every individual should be encouraged to command language in a manner that resists adopting, thoughtlessly, collective habits. Thinking for oneself, with a keen awareness of where our thoughts and rhetoric come from, and with a will to forge one’s own views and means of expression should be among our students’ most cherished goals. We must resist adopting linguistic orthodoxies, fashionable speech acts that function as signals of specific ideologies, including reductive labels and epithets. Platforms of communication that demand brevity, and numerical limits for words and characters inspire uniform shorthand solutions. We should encourage sustained speculation, debate, improvisation, patience, and experimentation in the use of language.
These first two principles frame the third: academic freedom. It has been suggested that academic freedom is not an innocent universally valid axiom. Is it perhaps a cultural prejudice that masks the historic and impregnable power of dominant elites within the university?
History, particularly the history of science suggests that freedom of research and teaching has been, and remains, the lifeblood of the arts and sciences throughout the world. Only in the context of academic freedom can we debate ideas and the achievement of excellence, make and verify discoveries, agree to disagree, judge certainty and separate truth from lies. In the context of the university, academic freedom anchors an overriding egalitarian assumption: that all individuals merit respect, and should be heard and that they should be free choose to define themselves, in their work and person, independently of how others choose to label them with the use of fixed group identities and stereotypes. Freedom of thought and expression, in the academy, if it is to be realized, in turn requires a high standard of civility and safety.
Beyond the foundational axiom of academic freedom, no catechisms can be imposed at the college to which students and faculty must subscribe. Therefore, ostracism and punishment of those who dissent with civility are inappropriate. Dissent cannot be confused with offense and we should restrain our sense of moral outrage when we encounter reasonable disagreement.
The fourth principle is civility, within the bounds of safety. The college must nourish a culture of civility that includes a commitment to listening. Civility demands a firm rejection of violence. It also requires respect for Bard’s transparent and legally authorized procedures by which internal disputes are resolved and judgments made regarding grievances and accusations. Calling people names, and using social media platforms anonymously are inappropriate. The fear that there will be reprisals for taking personal responsibility for bringing a charge is unfounded, given the record of the college since the late 1960s. In the same vein, spreading rumors, and refusing to abide by the verdicts of disciplinary procedures conducted by independent outside professional investigators when they do not conform with our prior expectations undermine freedom, civility, and safety for all. Last but not least, education, not punishment defines our purpose. In a place of learning, reconci liation and forgiveness take precedence over vengeance and retribution.
The assumption of personal agency and responsibility is essential to academic life. We must thereby honor those ethics in others and create an atmosphere of respect for opponents and kindness to strangers. We must not encourage self-censorship because of fear of public ridicule for holding unpopular views. The capacity to imagine someone different from oneself, immerse oneself in different cultures, acquire new languages leads to respect, affection and tolerance and is what we seek to encourage, particularly within Bard. We must nurture our capacity for empathy. The respect for each individual and the capacity for empathy are key to airing and mediating differences, resolving conflicts, articulating criticism and delivering unwelcome news.
We all know that we live in a severely polarized society. Too many of our neighbors and fellow citizens find the expression of anger, hostility and intolerance easy. There may be people so consumed by hate and prejudice that they can never be reached or engaged. But there are many more with whom we can begin a dialogue in order to lessen fear and ignorance. We have a chance to convince the vast majority in our society to respect difference and cultivate freedom in the service of a democratic pluralist and diverse society, one that sustains a high standard of social justice.
Owing to the commitment to truth, language, freedom and civility, the college stands opposed to a vision of a homogeneous nation defined by one religion and dominated by one race, in which radical economic and social inequality is tolerated in the name of arbitrary or inherited privilege. This contradicts the self-evident truth of the fundamental political equality and dignity within the human species.
The fifth principle that should guide the college as we enter the last phase of the pandemic and prepare for a post pandemic era is a commitment to advance the cause of recognition, repair and reconciliation in this country on the issue of race. My comments on this principle will be brief out of respect for the gravity and self-evident truth of the matter. The events of the past year, particularly the multi-ethnic and multi-generational Black Lives Matter movement, have created a unique moment in the nation’s history. We face the opportunity to confront the history and legacy of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, the effects of the “Jim Crow” era, and the persistence today of discrimination, prejudice, inequality and violence based on race.
It said often that democracy is fragile. Its fragility derives from its inherent messiness and inefficiency, its vulnerability to manipulation and an unsustainable concentration of economic power. Democracy is equally vulnerable to mass movements and populist sentiments nurtured by propaganda that exploit anger and frustration created by neglect and ignorance.
Education may be democracy’s best protector. Our colleges and universities therefore have a role to play in rendering democracy less fragile. Education in America, however, has failed consistently to do so. More Americans finished high school after the end of World War II than ever before in the nation’s history; since the 1970s more Americans have gone on to college. 21st-century Americans have experienced more schooling, credits and degrees than their predecessors. Yet the polarization in society has remained extreme. The level of political discourse has continued to sink and our public realm has been, once again, tainted by violence. We need, rapidly, to provide all in this country an education marked by excellence and equity that rallies the nation in the defense of freedom and democracy.
We should all be proud of Bard. Its contribution to the culture and politics of the country is admirable. But we must do more. We must advance our mission with greater ambition, courage and impact.
I thank you for your consideration and welcome you to 2021 at Bard College.
For more information
Bard College Office of Communications
PO Box 5000, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504