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Vol. 42: Can tolerance be taught?
What Penn’s president could learn from Marvin Wachman
Across the U.S., protesters are besieging colleges and city councils with demands that these institutions denounce Israel, Hamas, antisemitism, or Islamophobia. But why should colleges (charged with educating post-high school twerps) or city councils (charged with patching potholes) endorse international political movements? Why let symphony orchestras, theater troupes, and professional sports teams off the hook?
Something similar occurred during the AIDS crisis of the early ‘90s. when gay men found themselves (a) dying in frightening numbers and (b) marginalized by scolds who suggested that AIDS was God’s punishment for gay men’s sinful habits. At this nightmarish moment, an AIDS coalition demanded that Philadelphia’s City Council pass a resolution endorsing the “gay lifestyle.” You or I might shrink from seeking approval of our lifestyle from a gaggle of petty politicians, some of whom wound up in prison. But people in desperate straits lack the luxury of such quibbling.
Only three years ago, following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Philadelphia Inquirer tried to placate anguished Black protesters by (a) firing an editor for a headline deemed insensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement, notwithstanding the editor’s cringing apology, (b) creating the position of “Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion” and elevating said vice president to the Number 3 spot on the paper’s masthead, above the managing editor and other journalists, and (c) declaring itself (in the words of its, publisher, Lisa Hughes) an “anti-racist organization.” And here I thought the Inquirer was a newspaper.
Yes, I get it: If you feel threatened (as most of us do), it’s natural to seek comfort from authority figures. And some authority figures are willing to oblige, even if they’re not really in the comforting business.
At my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, President Liz Magill has been pressured over the past month by financially sound but intellectually bankrupt donors to speak out against antisemitism on campus. (To read my recent parody of these billionaire bullies, click here.) At first, Magill responded — appropriately for an educator, I thought— with nonpartisan affirmations of abstract principles like civility, academic independence, free speech, and diversity of viewpoints. But last Wednesday Magill apparently yielded to the meddlesome magnates, announcing a multi-pronged “Action Plan to Combat Antisemitism,” including the establishment of a task force and a student advisory group to focus on the “Jewish student experience” at Penn, not to mention a presidential commission to deal with all forms of hate, including Islamophobia.
In effect, Magill said to Penn’s rich alumni what Lisa Hughes of the Inquirer said to Black Lives Matter: “If I agree that your cause is just, will you get off my back?”
How is Penn’s well-intentioned exercise in campus-wide sensitivity training likely to work out? Let me provide one insight from my own experience as a Penn undergrad in the early ‘60s— the boiling point of America’s civil rights struggle.
Washing the blackboard
My sophomore year, I took a sociology course called “Race and Ethnic Relations”— this at a time when Penn’s student body was roughly 99% white. Our instructor was a walking caricature of a limp-wristed ivory tower academic liberal. Each day, he furnished us with real-life stories dramatizing the senselessness of race prejudice. Of course, nobody challenged him or questioned his assertions; on the contrary, we all nodded affirmatively, and why not? I mean, what could be more ridiculous than judging people by the color of their skin?
(I know, I know— bigotry is fun. And racial conflict provides a good living for thousands of filmmakers, playwrights, and journalists. But we didn’t understand that back in those prehistoric times.)
Day after day, we students were marinated in this enlightened racial mindset. After three weeks, the instructor gave us our first exam. A few days later, when he returned our graded test papers, I overheard a nearby classmate mutter to himself, “That goddamn nigger-lover!”
But you ask: How can an educator eradicate the racial, ethnic, or political bias that lurks within students, short of beating it out of them with rubber hoses?
Consider the method of another Penn instructor who taught that same course in Race and Ethnic Relations. On the first day of class, I was told, students entered the classroom to find no professor on hand— only a maintenance man in overalls washing the blackboard. As the clock ticked past the appointed hour, still no professor appeared. After several more minutes passed, the maintenance man turned to the class and announced, “Professor Smith can’t be here today, so I’ll teach the class.” The professor— aka the man in the overalls— had delivered a vivid lesson about judging people by their appearance that few students would forget (and as you can see, I haven’t).
Ike vs. Stevenson in ‘52
When Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for president against Adlai Stevenson in the fall of 1952, I was a fifth grader at P.S. 9 in Manhattan. My classmates, many of whom held strong partisan opinions, jockeyed for the support of our immediate authority figure: our teacher, Sylvia Fried. When asked which candidate she preferred, Mrs. Fried wisely demurred. “I’ll tell you after the election,” she said. (And she did: She voted for Stevenson.)
Our principal, Gertrude Selkowe, was more proactive, seizing on the presidential election as a teachable moment. That fall, she conspicuously pinned a Stevenson button to one lapel on her blouse, and an Eisenhower button on the other. It was her way of urging us to get involved without telling us whom to support. Like Mrs. Fried, Mrs. Selkowe never revealed how she voted. Except— once, after the election, she remarked during a school assembly, “Just because my candidate lost the election, that doesn’t mean I should reject the result.”
Too bad Donald Trump didn’t go to P.S. 9.
But of course, Trump did go to Penn. Which brings me back to my critical question: How can President Magill best serve Penn students right now? Can a university president seize the current Gaza calamity as a teachable moment, without taking sides?
Killing with kindness
My role model is Marvin Wachman, the late president of Temple University. Many college presidents and administrators give lip service to freedom of speech and diversity of ideas, but deep down they wish these disruptions would vanish so everyone could just peacefully attend classes. To Wachman, the disruptions and confrontations were what education was all about— they were the best kind of teachable moments.
Wachman spent much of the ‘60s as president of Lincoln University, near Oxford, Pa. Yes, that’s right: He was a white Jewish president of an overwhelmingly Black institution during both the civil rights revolution and the Vietnam war. Barely a week passed there without some demonstration on the Lincoln campus. Wachman not only tolerated the protests, he welcomed them.
One morning, students gathered outside Lincoln’s Administration Building to protest the dismissal of a Black clerk and her replacement by a white woman. Wachman invited four protest leaders into his office for a conversation, which lasted an hour and a half. By that time, some 150 students were demonstrating outside. Wachman spontaneously went outside and addressed the demonstrators, standing on a wooden bench in the middle of the crowd— “the better to make eye contact with them,” he later explained. For the next half-hour, he answered their questions. When the rally broke up, he continued to dialogue with individual students, walking to the auditorium with some, to the dorms and the dining hall with others. The next morning, he called a meeting of student leaders in his office, followed that evening by a meeting of all students and faculty. There, students and faculty aired many deep-seated complaints, and the talks continued afterward in impromptu gatherings all over campus. By the time those two days of protests and meetings were done, many of the student protesters were begging to resume their classes. In effect, Wachman killed the protesters with kindness.
The end result, Wachman wrote later, “was widespread recognition by administrators and students alike that from this point on, at least, our institution would not resist criticism but would instead open itself fully to any discussion of campus issues.”
Havelock Ellis‘s mantra
In his subsequent memoir, The Education of a University President (full disclosure: edited by me), Wachman acknowledged that “the personal approach to student protest is more difficult at a large university.” But he did employ it with similar success when he moved in the ‘70s to Temple University, whose student body was ten times the size of Lincoln’s.
To those who wondered why Wachman so readily subjected himself to a seemingly endless succession of crises, protests, and threats of violence, he explained: “These crises constituted rewards in themselves, in that they provided dramatic learning experiences for me and for the students whom I was charged with educating.”
To my mind, Wachman was a walking affirmation of Havelock Ellis’s famous observation: “The by-product is sometimes more valuable than the product.” He understood the ultimate mission of a university, which is not to tell students what to think, but to teach them how to think. Action plans, task forces, advisory groups, and presidential commissions may not always achieve that goal. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of enabling students and faculty to talk to each other and listen to each other, whatever the forum.
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Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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