A Letter from Senate Chair Powell about Recent Incidents of Intolerance on Campus
Black History Month 2010 at the University of California San Diego was marred by several incidents that mocked its purpose. The Chancellor and her administration moved quickly to investigate each incident and to hear from those who were most traumatized. While it is too early to ascertain its motivation, the impact of such behavior falls most heavily on those whose communities historically suffered the effects of racial discrimination and its social consequences. To understand the impact of racial discrimination and its legacy, Black History Month is both an occasion for remembrance and an opportunity for education. As William Faulkner said, ‘the past is never dead, it is not even past’. It clouds and complicates the present, haunting it with symbols, including the symbols that are intended to hurt. When an educational institution becomes the venue for an ugly racial incident, it is good to remember what a crucial role education itself has played and must continue to play in righting the wrongs of the past.
The historic denial of liberty included most notably, denial of access to education. It must be hard for today’s students to appreciate that in centuries past, African Americans were denied the right to learn to read or write, and that in certain states, anyone who presumed to teach them ran afoul of the law and took the risk of public whipping. While the nation’s founders recognized that public education was a necessity for both economic prosperity and meaningful citizenship, the benefit was tenaciously withheld from African Americans. Taylor Branch’s book ‘Parting the Waters’ relates how, barred from school and excluded from Christian worship, African American leaders found a chink in the armor of racial oppression. They pointed out that since religious instruction requires competent preachers; if truth is to be propagated and error avoided, then the instruction of pastors must be of sufficient quality accomplish that purpose. The institutions of religious learning that sprang forth sowed the seeds of the civil rights movement and ultimately produced its greatest leader and the subject of Taylor Branch’s great trilogy celebrating the life of the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. The denial of educational opportunity could not go on forever, but the power of education once unleashed became a force in its own right. This is what we celebrate during Black History Month; the power of education to put all citizens on an equal footing, to equip them with the skill to work and the competency that a civil society needs from its citizens if government by the people is to be more than an aspiration.
Education provided by a state or nation is not only a benefit to the people; it can also act as a form of reparation for groups or societies to whom history denied it. Education as a reparation was the insight of John Henry Newman, who, in the same decade as the University of California was being envisioned, was asked to found a university in Ireland with the object of providing education to a rising middle class of recently emancipated Catholics whose forefathers had been barred from education, from the learned professions and from voting. At a time when land grant colleges were spreading through the United States, Newman, a graduate of Oxford University, saw three major functions for the university he sought to establish: practical education for economic competence, the pursuit of new knowledge through research, and the repair of historic inequities. Although he looked east to emerging societies and nations in Europe as he wrote his famous ‘Idea of the University’, it was in the United States that his vision would be best realized.
From the time of its founding, the University of California has had a vision of diversity. Its earliest charter asserted that students from all parts of the state, urban and rural, the coastal and inland regions would enjoy access to higher education. UC was ahead of many other national institutions in admitting women students and appointing women faculty. In the era of affirmative action, the university sought to include underrepresented minorities and rebalance a history of inequity that extends back through the centuries. Today, however, only private universities have a free hand in envisioning diversity. Black History Month is a time for reflection, when remembrance can have healing power. While ugly incidents traduced that memory at UC San Diego last week, let us hope that 2010 will provide a living lesson why this form of remembrance should inform our understanding of the reparative power of education for social conflict past and present.Henry C Powell