An End to Silence

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“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
– Abraham Lincoln

The future, while always uncertain, seems to carry a darker tint these days. Regularly now, nearly on a daily basis, I encounter someone lamenting the troubled nature of the times in which we live. Each day brings a new kind of chaos, making uncertainty one of the most certain aspects of life. Of course, nothing about this is new. We will never know what tomorrow might bring, but it seems safe to say that anxiety about the future continues to rise.

As a historian, I have grown used to looking back on periods of great change and upheaval with scholarly interest. It is a comfortable position – observing and analyzing tumultuous events from the safe distance brought by time. The era I specialize in includes what historians broadly refer to as “The Age of Atlantic Revolutions,” successive centuries of revolt, war, and at times shocking levels of violence. Like myself, students find these events interesting as well. War and death are usually easy means for capturing and holding students’ attention. But even when students recognize the connections between past events and the present, the events remain distantly, and comfortably, in the past.

Living in the midst of great change doesn’t allow such separation. In particular, the present appears ever more to demand a call to action, one heeded by people from all sides of the social, economic, and political spectrum. The tenuous nature of the present has made me uneasy and, at times, hesitant. The emotional nature of the recent election has brought a new kind of charge into classroom discussions about race and privilege. Emotions, more than analysis, feed interpretations and perspectives. This shift in the nature of classroom discussions has given me pause. I found myself asking how, and should, I approach such topics?

My wariness moved beyond the classroom. During and in the immediate aftermath of the election, I debated whether or not to post (or repost) certain stories on social media. When creating and using various online platforms, I always kept the “adage” in mind: never post anything online you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see. This was (and is) especially true, as I am actively seeking longterm employment. In the highly competitive academic job market, any possible misstep could have real repercussions.

Then, as fall classes came to an end, I asked my students to consider the ways the past informs our understanding of the present, and they began a discussion about the outcome of the election. I had skirted the topic up to that point, but in that moment, my creeping caution went out the window, and I let the students take the lead. During that discussion the students made it painfully clear how badly they needed a space to confront these real and pressing issues. Where, outside of social media accounts, can students exchange differing views with their peers? Our online spaces do not always allow voices of dissent or alternative perspectives to come through. We have the luxury to craft the discourse, to shut out those with whom we disagree, and to create a space that reinforces, rather than challenges, our present worldview. The classroom is something of a sacred space where students can challenge and learn from each other. It was then I recognized that my responsibility as an educator supersedes any concern about employment.

Avoiding, rather than initiating, discussion in difficult topics is not why I walk into the classroom each week. I looked into the faces of my students and saw real fear about the future. I thought about my former students. International students, students from a wide array of racial and ethnic groups, students who learned English as a second, third, or fourth langue, students who are a part of the LBGTQ community. Students who now wonder what place they have in our present society, or who will stand by their side.  Politicians and pundits often voice concern about the kind of world we will leave for children. Who is asking about what kind of world these college students have to encounter as they enter adulthood? Concern for the lives of children is valid and necessary, but we cannot ignore the pressing burdens that weigh on the newest generation of adults.

The time in which we live features very real forces that seek to silence opposition and dissent. An abhorrent “Professor Watch List” publicizes the names of professors who challenge certain political views in the classroom (challenging worldviews, a.k.a. doing their job). The rise in hate crimes seeks to intimidate and silence those who do not fit within a racist perspective of what and who qualifies as “American” – a perspective that fits comfortably within the era of the late-nineteenth century. The Ku Klux Klan has revived itself and marches again in celebration of recent political developments. Our students see all of this and wonder what it will take to live in, or even survive, this world.

And yet, every day, new dismissals of “millennials” appear, steadily undercutting the value and ingenuity of these emerging adults. Students repeatedly hear these critiques, and as as result so many have internalized this disbelief in their, and their generation’s, self worth. It’s time we recognize these narratives as destructive in nature and listen, carefully, to what students have to say. Instead of dismissing young adults as foolish and self-involved, it’s time we hear their voices, understand their fears, and lift them up as we progress through this era of uncertainty. This is not a time for hesitation. This is a call to action. Across the country, thousands of students are taking up that call. Who will stand by their side?

It is possible this will have repercussions. Interviews or job offers may not come (though, in academia, that was already a strong possibility). But, as I tell my students when we confront difficult conversations of the past and today, these issues are bigger than the self. Meaningful change will not occur if we are unwilling or unable to look beyond our personal feelings or concerns to understand the broader, structural forces that perpetuate this fear and anxiety. It’s time we accept the responsibility of today, to help and support those who truly do not know whether there will be a better tomorrow.

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