November 7, 2023
This has been a challenging few weeks around the world and on campus. In the face of challenges, it is tempting to say “I knew it all along, this proves my priors.” But there’s usually more to a challenge than the obvious - and even if we were right all along, it’s worth testing our assumptions. Questioning our assumptions - asking hard questions and accepting hard answers - requires safety and trust.
One of my hopes for your time at GW is that you sometimes feel intellectually uncomfortable, but never feel physically unsafe.
As a teacher, I want you to change your mind (and then change it again, then again). Ask what citizenship requires, or if the idea of citizenship even makes sense. Wrestle with whether or not the ends justify the means (and if so, when). Was Plato right? If so, is it impossible to teach “the art of politics” and wrong to even try? What if the whole point of the enlightenment was misguided? Was Rorty right that it’s all contingent, or is there a deeper truth toward which we should be working? What is the role of identity in politics, and politics in identity? How should we, as Danielle Allen urged, foster democratic friendship? As a teacher, I want you to take time seriously considering that you might be wrong.
But you can only wrestle with those questions if you feel safe. You need to know that your thought experiments will not be met with threats or violence. It has to be OK to be confused or conflicted, to say “I don’t know” and to change your mind. You need to believe that how you pray, or if you pray at all, will not put you at risk. How you look, who you love, where you’re from, and all of the other things that make you, you, should never be threatened.
Whether or not members of our community feel safe asking, and answering, hard questions is up to each of us. We need to tell - and show - each other that we see each other’s humanity, even if we think each other’s policy positions are misguided at best.
We are not marbles in a jar, making noise as we rattle around 805 21st St. We’re a community of people who ask, argue, laugh, commiserate, and care for each other. At our best, we grow and succeed together because we’re a community rooted in trust. Now is a time for each of us to be at our best. We need to build, and build on, our trust. Only then can we ask and answer hard questions, together.