Episode 1: A story from last month’s faculty meeting
A colleague of mine, a wonderful professor who teaches Spanish at Augsburg, gave the opening words at the March faculty meeting. “Adelante!” she said. “Forward!” She then recounted stories of women fighting for human rights in Mexico and Central America. Her words were very moving to me and all who heard them. Then she said (I paraphrase):
“There’s one more thing I have to say, but I’m nervous saying it. In fact, I’m just an adjunct and I could get fired by saying this, but, Augsburg is a racist institution.”
Of course, she is right. Augsburg is a racist institution and always has been. I personally know this because I have written the sesquicentennial history of Augsburg and in four out of ten chapters of that work I attempt to expose Augsburg’s institutional racism, its anti-Semitism, its misogyny, homophobia and trans-phobia. But she is not right about one thing: she is not right that she can be fired for speaking the truth as she understands it. Academic freedom keeps that from happening. Why doesn’t she understand or believe that?
Episode 2: A story from the Faculty Senate
A colleague reported on the findings of the Equity Task Force, whose task it was to collate all the findings of various listening sessions, meetings and workshops that have been happening this semester around the topic of diversity and inclusiveness. To make sure I understood the report, I asked if I could re-cap the Task Force’s finding.
“First,” I said, “the Task Force determined which items required action, rather than just being comments or complaints disconnected from any action.”
“Second, the Task Force determined which actions should be undertaken by the faculty, as opposed to the staff or administration.
“Finally,” I said, “the Task Force determined that the faculty might educate the greater campus community on issues such as tenure, ranks of professors, etc. Did I get that right?”
“Correct,” said the Task Force chair.
Then a colleague chimed in, directing her comment to me.
“Please don’t say ‘educate,’” she said. “It’s condescending.”
Wh- What?! To use the word “educate” is condescending?! As someone who has long thought of himself as an educator, I was gobsmacked. I cannot think of appropriate commentary, so I’ll just leave you with these select lines from Augsburg’s mission statement:
"Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders … An Augsburg education is defined by excellence in the liberal arts and professional studies …"
“What is the responsibility of an educated person in a democracy?” This is the central question of one of my courses, which we begin by playing a game: The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BC.
The Threshold of Democracy, or "the Athens game," as we call it, was developed at Barnard College. It is one of an ever-growing series of historical role playing games called Reacting to the Past, which have been developed over the last twenty years and which are played at more than 300 college campuses across the country.
The Athens game includes debates on a range of topics that seem eerily familiar: should Athenians allow foreigners to participate in their democracy? Should Athens increase military spending or use more funding for education and the arts. Should the Athenians build a wall to protect themselves? But the most revealing part of the game, in terms of how students revealed their attitudes, was the trial of Socrates.
Historically, the Athenian assembly levied two charges against Socrates. The first was impiety against the gods. For Socrates, the gods described in Homer and Hesiod, with their passions and pettiness, were as flawed as humans and offered no guidance for a moral life. He chose instead to listen to a voice inside his head, which we might call his conscience, but which Socrates called God. For failing to acknowledge and worship the Athenian pantheon of gods, and for replacing the pantheon with his own single god, the assembly charged Socrates with what the Greeks called asebeia, impiety. Because he was a teacher who expounded such radical ideas to his students, Socrates was also charged with the better-known crime of “corrupting the youth of Athens.” In 399 BC, jurors chosen by random lot found Socrates guilty on both charges and sentenced him to death.
We played the trial of Socrates in the penultimate game session. On the side of the defense, there were passionate arguments from Socrates’ supporters. Many of them advocated for the rights of free speech—a concept that was actually foreign to the ancient Greeks. (More on that later.) Like their counterparts in ancient 5th-century Athens, the student jury in our 21st-century classroom again found Socrates guilty. When it came time for sentencing, some of the students playing the game stuck to the views of their characters and argued for the death penalty. The character of Gorgias the Younger, a rhetorician, spoke against death, but only because he feared that Socrates might become a martyr and hence more popular and influential than before. Ultimately, the students chose to ostracize Socrates, to banish him from Athens for a period of ten years with no opportunity to return—at least not until long after they had graduated. Clearly, the historic verdict of death by hemlock offended the students’ liberal sensibilities (and rightly so). The students did show mercy, in a way, but they still chose to punish the teacher who had offended society with his words.
In the final game session, students chose to abandon democracy and elect a tyrant. One of the characters in the game had a secret mission. Throughout five weeks of the game, that student made backroom deals with other players in the game. When one faction supported education for democracy, the student claimed to support it, too. But they said the opposite to the faction that opposed education for democracy. The student supported those factions that wanted militarization, but also those who wanted to support the arts, even though the Athenian coffers could not finance both. The student flattered and made promises that could not be kept, told our 21st-century “citizens of Athens” what they wanted to hear, and in the end was elected as a tyrant, with absolute authority to make all decisions for the city-state.
None of the students in the class were old enough to vote in the 2016 election. Yet as high school students, most of them would have been torn between supporting the first female candidate for president, Hilary Rodham Clinton, and the socialist idealist Bernie Sanders. Very few, if any, would have backed Donald Trump. I say this with some confidence because that’s the kind of student that Augsburg attracts: liberal, progressive, activist, sometimes radical. So why did they choose to elect a tyrant as their final act in the Athens game? This might have been ironic, just to game the game, as it were, to do something outrageous just because they could. But I think there was more going on here. I think that, having tried direct democracy, with its muddiness and conflict, its frustrating slowness and disappointment, they chose in favor of getting things done with as little friction as possible. It didn’t matter that the tyrant who promised this life likely could not deliver. Unlike 2016 America, the game was over and no one would have to wait around to find out.
The Athens game is truly a work of genius. It energizes students to take charge of their own educations and I only wish that I had been clever enough to invent it. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to link the game’s outcomes to the moral and political sensibilities of its student players. It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study of the games outcomes over the last twenty years. Would students in the George W. Bush era have supported remilitarization in ancient Athens? Would students during Obama’s presidency have supported payment for civic duties so that more citizens could participate in democracy? I acknowledge that my interpretation here might be a load of crap, influenced by the events that recently happened in my classroom. I am definitely looking for answers, for an understanding of what happened. I could be wrong here, but the hypothesis is at least interesting.
I can say with some certainty that a high percentage of my students would not have voted for Donald Trump. Augsburg University began as a Lutheran seminary. It was pietistic in its faith and conservative in its values, for example, supporting prohibition of alcohol. Through the early part of the 20th century, many at Augsburg believed that movies were sinful. Social dancing was forbidden on campus until 1963. As one Augsburg professor put it, dance was “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire.” But the late 1960s changed the politics at Augsburg, whose students protested U.S. involvement in Viet Nam and civil rights abuses against blacks. Since then, Augsburg has moved increasingly to the left. This fact creates some tension with older more conservative alums, who are capable of making large donations to the school, but who no longer see their values reflected on the campus. For students and faculty, however, this creates an even bigger problem: living within a bubble of political thought.
Diversity at Augsburg has increased dramatically over the last ten years, with an entering class in 2018 with 45% students of color. Diversity of ideas, however, has not kept pace. We have a liberal administration, a largely liberal professoriate, and a largely liberal student body. For their part, the students don’t seem to see a problem with this. They feel more comfortable around those with similar political views. I share many of their liberal views. But living in a bubble—with no exposure to other points of view, where the few conservative students on campus are afraid to express their opinions—is dangerous. It is especially dangerous when so many of our brothers and sisters have opposing views and we are unable to speak to each other.
This is why I assigned William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.
In 1951, when Buckley was only twenty-five years old, he published this first book, which he dedicated to “God, country, and Yale, in that order.” In it, Buckley critiqued what he considered to be religious and political biases at his alma mater Yale University. He called out professors whom he felt were disparaging to religion, even in the religion department. He exposed professors he saw as promoting collectivism, discouraging individualism, and forcing students to embrace liberalism. He reviewed course reading lists for signs of indoctrination toward Keynesian secular socialism. The book received mixed reviews, but it launched Buckley into the public eye. He became an intellectual celebrity in the days when such a thing existed—think Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and yes, James Baldwin. Buckley started the National Review, an important conservative editorial magazine, and eventually hosted the public affairs show Firing Line. Some suggest that Buckley started the modern conservative movement. He was certainly its herald.
Although I disagree with almost everything in Buckley’s book, there is no denying the importance of his work, especially for understanding American conservatism. God and Man at Yale still resonates almost 70 years after its first publication. The 50th-anniversary edition has an opening essay by the conservative intellectual Austin Bramwell, an introduction to the 25th edition by Buckley, a foreword by the conservative journalist and economic historian John Chamberlain, and a preface by Buckley, all of which account for almost 60 pages. The book itself is only 180, not counting the appendices. This is all to say that the book is worthy of our attention, especially for a group of liberal honors students living in the bubble of a liberal-leaning liberal arts college like Augsburg.
To a person, every student in the course hated God and Man at Yale. The one exception was an exchange student who had grown up under a dictatorship, who said that they loved Buckley’s work. Interesting that such a student should love a book by the founder of America’s conservative movement. I have no idea what to make of that.
The students who disliked the book are close readers, and they quickly assessed many of the flaws in Buckley’s arguments. They noted his cherry-picking of evidence and at times his lack of evidence at all. As students at a Lutheran university that is welcoming to all faiths and no faith, they pointed out the hypocrisy of Buckley’s desire for Yale to return to its “true Christian” roots, by which he seemed to mean Catholic, though Yale had been founded by Protestants. Students also noted how frequently Buckley made accusations from his class lecture notes, which would be impossible to verify.
Students showed the most clarity in their critique of chapter 4 of God and Man at Yale, which is entitled “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.’” To begin with, they recognized that Buckley is all over the map in his attempts to define academic freedom, though he largely sees it as a tool to protect liberal professors, i.e. those identified as anti-religious and/or anti-capitalist. My students recognized the hypocrisy in Buckley’s argument against “laissez-faire education,” where all sides of an argument get an equal hearing and students get to decide the views they want to hold on their own. For Buckley, academic freedom exists only up to the point that it challenges the orthodoxy of Christianity and capitalism. The students uniformly balked at this notion. But did this mean that they saw academic freedom as absolute? If they didn’t accept Buckley’s limits on academic freedom, did they have limits of their own? Where the matter of “trigger words” is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”