An open letter: What is education for?
Dear educators, students and leaders of Washington University,
The past week’s incident was brought to my attention in a seminar that comprises mostly black students. Some of my classmates were present at the time, and we shared feelings, discussed a wide range of implications of the incident and carried out an engaging, constructive conversation involving a variety of perspectives. Some of my classmates—who I deeply respect and love—were shaking in tears and frustration.
I have been trying to understand what has been going on with all the knowledge, skills and wisdom that came from you. My learning came from accomplished, remarkable professors who went beyond simply providing information. It often came from brilliant, compassionate fellow students who are capable of incredible things. This environment is well-kept, both administratively and aesthetically, by workers of all color who truly care about our community.
But looking at the University-wide response to the incident, I wonder, can we call ourselves educated when we can carry on with so much ignorance, violence and detachment even with members of our own community?
Here are some observations and questions for you, who have taught me the values of intellectual thinking, social justice, citizenship, democracy, community, empathy and love.
Why do we spend so much energy on accurate investigation and punishment? Can we sympathize with the freshman, who may not have been sensitized enough to act more wisely? But more importantly, we must find ways to apologize to students who were victimized and demonstrate that they are just as welcome as everybody else on campus. There are few efforts to console our friends, but insensitive criticisms are rampant online. The anonymity not only allows students to hide behind their insensitivity, but it also breeds fear on campus. Imagine walking through campus thinking that any one of your fellow students can be racist, or cares very little about your suffering.
Is it really more important to spend hours arguing over how “big” this incident was, than to walk up to a student who was affected by the incident and say, “I am sorry for what happened. I just wanted to let you know that not everyone at Wash. U. is ignorant or racist, and I want to make sure that you feel safe here. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you?”
Why do we distance ourselves from what happened? I know that I am guilty for saying insensitive things, sometimes even engaging in acts of microaggression for cheap laughter. I’ve witnessed many students rapping along the same song, and I am willing to admit that this is a serious issue.
How can we say the incident was nothing serious, when our fellow students are in tears, when they fear the rest of the student body, when racist comments are thrown at them every day? How can we tell those students who were affected by the incident how to feel before understanding their grievances and helping them feel better?
Other students prioritize homework and other professional obligations over being engaged in this issue. How can we be leaders of our society when individual work ethics trump the needs of our community? How can we have “global” aspirations when we can’t care for students who we interact with on a daily basis?
This is not a black and white issue, nor a Greek Life issue. We all know that we have a separated community, and we fear real communication. This leads to cases of sexual assault, racial slurs and other forms of exclusion and violence which will continually haunt our community. This is a Wash. U. issue.
How are educators dealing with this issue? Apart from your intellectual expertise, you have been around on this campus for much longer than the student body, whose memory, grasp of the administrative power structure and experience are severely limited. You have the power, authority and wisdom to bring students’ attention to the incident in class, and also to put an end to polarized, misguided and hurtful debates online that are dividing the student body. You must demonstrate how to react for justice.
Lastly, the administration should not prioritize its marketing concerns for fundraising and admissions and minimize the seriousness of the incident. What has been happening fully demands prolonged commitment for establishing safe platforms for constructive discussion, policy change and general improvement of Wash. U. culture.
I hope our community’s response does justice to countless lives outside of our community whose well-being and democracy depend on our values, care and commitment.