“What Can a Liberal Arts Education Offer in the Age of Trump?” That was the question posed to a panel of scholars during a discussion hosted in the fall by the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts. Six professors offered interdisciplinary perspectives and encouraged access to information, open discussion, respect for varying viewpoints and civic engagement.
Political science professor Paul Steinberg opened the panel by noting that during historical moments of upheaval, individuals and organizations like Harvey Mudd can give in to individual and collective depression or engage in a reassertion and rejuvenation of our “best instincts: questioning and research and dialogue and collaboration and an open and respectful exchange of ideas.”
Steinberg added, “Historically, institutions like Harvey Mudd and The Claremont Colleges have been the lifeblood of democracy and social justice, especially during uncertain times.”
So, Steinberg asked, how might we tap into this richness?
By reading, suggested literature professor Ambereen Dadabhoy. She offered a defense of the complex and enigmatic nature of literature and its unwillingness to tell readers what to think. “It makes us better analysts, better thinkers, better readers. It doesn’t supply answers. By practicing the critical thinking skills that literature teaches us, we become better navigators of our social and political culture,” she said.
When information is taken away, history of science professor Vivien Hamilton argued, the results can be dangerous. She defined ignorance as more than simply not knowing. It can be the result of deceit and deliberate action, or knowledge hidden behind structures of secrecy, or knowledge lost because it’s not valued as highly. “Understanding what we’re seeing unfolding before us is the first step toward effective resistance,” Hamilton said, adding that it was important to reject narratives that belittle women, demonize immigrants and criminalize people of color. “This kind of ignorance is harder to see. We’re left with a gaping hole, a shadow of knowledge that could have been but isn’t.”
Psychology professor Debra Mashek referenced conversations that could have been but were not because of political homogeneity on college campuses. When students and professors attempt to learn and to teach in an ideological monoculture, she said, “we miss the opportunity for our viewpoint to challenge and be challenged. Viewpoint diversity enables us to realize the ideals of a liberal arts education in these politically uncertain times.”
Creative writing professor Salvador Plascencia brought viewpoint diversity to the forefront of his remarks, weaving Trump’s tweets about Mexican immigrants into his own descriptions of crossing the border “documented, undocumented, in the morning, at night, on foot, in a bus, as a resident alien, as a naturalized citizen. It’s an impossible psychic line,” said Plascencia.
Cultural geography professor David Seitz invited the community to think about the geographical scales at which people experience citizenship and belonging and how place is differentiated hierarchically. “The idea of whether a space is safe isn’t just a metaphor,” he said.
Finally, Steinberg suggested to community members that if they want to change the world, they have to change the rules. He said the question of who gets to make the rules is itself governed by rules, and he urged students to participate in rule-making at the college level.