Discord offers teaching moment

By Tom Foley

This has been a contentious couple of weeks in American political life, heck, in American history — from violent protests in Charlottesville and Phoenix, to national and local debates about statuary in public squares from Richmond to Philadelphia.

We have witnessed diametrically opposed interpretations of the same set of events by contrary observers.

We observe daily now the literal demonization of opponents and wide disagreements on even what constitutes a “fact.”

The divisions that were the hallmark of our national election have not dissipated much in the ensuing eight months.

These divisions appear on college campuses, too.

During the campaign, there were reports that supporters of the now president were harassed on some campuses.

Since the election, there have been incidents of hate speech or violence from the University of Pennsylvania to Reed College in Oregon, and from Villanova to Virginia.

So, while colleges are not immune to the distemper infecting society, we in higher education are uniquely positioned to shed light upon it as a national “teaching moment.”

Thomas Jefferson held that an essential role of education is to serve as a guarantor of democracy by forming enlightened citizens because, as he concisely put it, “light and liberty go together.”

Like other colleges and universities, Mount Aloysius is committed to enlightening the citizen-leaders democracy requires, to developing the “light” that Jefferson described — through our students — so we can best protect our liberties.

As modern educators, we use community service and civic engagement projects — activities which connect students to diverse groups of people and new situations that foster solidarity and fellowship and strengthen democracy.

Last year at our college, nearly 800 students volunteered on 514 different projects with 402 community partners, most within 50 miles of campus, but some as far as Camden, N.J., and Guyana.

We foster “light with liberty,” as many institutions do — through engaging speaker programs. In the past seven years, more than 60 thought-leaders addressed Mount Aloysius students through our Speaker Series. These efforts can counterbalance those divisive forces that might inflame fear and incite emotion. Many of the lessons imparted by those speakers seem to have a special urgency for our post-election world.

Their lessons underscored those sacred, rational and enlightened virtues on which democracy depends and that nurture those better angels of our nature that we will surely need now as guides on the path to national healing.

Our community can be proud that in these uncertain times many colleges in our region — through commitments to critical thinking, emphasis on service and civic engagement and the wisdom shared by multiple invited speakers — are meeting their responsibility by providing these lessons necessary to democratic life.

Now is a good time to recommit to those ideals and to redouble our efforts — remembering Ben Franklin’s challenge that, yes, we “have a democracy … if we can keep it.”

American decided long ago that democratic ideals are worth fighting for, and at Mount Aloysius is it our part and our purpose in that fight to develop in our students (and model in our faculty and staff) the tools that sustain (and built) both community and democracy.

Tom Foley is the president of Mount Aloysius College.