After Paris, Education Remains Critical

James O’Leary, Contributing Writer and Frederick R. Selch Assistant Professor of Musicology

A close friend and colleague from Paris sent me a dispatch from her university. She wrote:

“I’m just coming out of the Sorbonne, where the French president and members of the government had come to participate in the ‘silent minute’ with us and our students (we lost three students in the attacks, as well as colleagues and students from other universities, so the Sorbonne was chosen as a symbol for the national ceremony). It was so moving to sing the national anthem together. And I was proud of my students for showing up to class, even though we were all crying when we tried to talk, but it’s important to keep teaching.”

Her final phrase — “it’s important to keep teaching” — struck me as peculiar. After all, in light of atrocity and terror, class can seem merely trivial to many of us.

Yet I passionately agree with my Parisian friend.

In the past few years at Oberlin and at other campuses around the country, we have been roiled by terrors that are more regular, yet for many, just as horrific as the scenes from Paris. We’ve been shaken by killings of young black people that defy sense and credulity, perpetrated by the very people who have sworn to protect us; by a justice system that seems either unable or unwilling (is there is a difference?) to bring these cases to trial, let alone conviction; by the faces of children who live in poverty without sustenance or shelter despite astounding wealth that parades itself with brazen élan; by a country with the dream of equal pay for equal work, liberty and justice for all, all men are created equal, still seems to elude us, even after centuries of relatively continual bloodshed.

In universities, students are fed up, a position toward which I and most other faculty are sympathetic — sympathetic because we all want peace, no matter what political beliefs we may hold individually. What we have is not peace.

The strategy for many students has been to disrupt the academy — to halt class, to stop work — until some kind of progress is made. Why should we talk about Joyce, Beethoven, cellular pathways or supply and demand in a world gone mad? Enough, at last, is enough.

But I think this particular kind of disruption is counterproductive. First, although glossies advertising the college celebrate community, there is an equally important aspect to every university that often — and strangely —remains tacit: the university is a place of work. This work is inherently progressive, even if it aims toward politically conservative conclusions. It is, by its very nature, critical and revolutionary, questioning the very foundations upon which we interact with everything around us, from voting in an election to turning on iTunes. There is no other place for such unabashed critique. Politics? Business? Religion? None enjoys the protection of thought that the university does, and in any democracy, such freedom is vitally important. I believe it is time for us in the university to reclaim our work, to remind the world that we are not embroiled in arcana, fiddling while Rome burns. We are the ones carrying the torches.

Second, in light of terror at home and abroad, it is important that work, this work, continue. We face not just a physical war, but an ideological war that seeks to strangle rational minds with fear. It is important that we take up this war on every front — not just with guns, but with thought. Although the former seems more immediate and effective, the latter is just as vital to any democracy. It is also more fragile. Free, critical, dangerous thinking is something we do not lament until it is gone.

Finally, even when the subject is ugly, what we do in class celebrates humanity itself — what it has produced, what it has accomplished in adversity, what it has endured, what it envisions for its future. Such celebration is not merely a vacation from the real work to be done. It is part of the work. Why? To many, a celebration of humanity will sound naïve. But if the fights ever end and if the goals are ever achieved, what kind of world will we have produced? Will we even know how to answer the question?

To my colleagues, to my students: I suggest we heed my French friend’s words. I’m not asking that we ignore the fight for justice, but merely that we prepare ourselves to fight it in as many ways as possible. Even amid terror, it is important to continue to think freely, openly, critically, skillfully — humanely. The goals of class and the goals of justice are not mutually exclusive, and the passion we feel about the world should be honed and intensified in our learning. In the end, classwork is a privilege that we all share proudly, even in disagreement; that unites us against unreason, even in disagreement; that emboldens us toward mutual understanding, even in disagreement; that affords us the freedom to improve and to imagine — a freedom that terror would otherwise steal.