Massacring People and Meaning:
Why Liberal Education is Vital for Democracy and Our Very Existence
by Dr. Drew Koch
Massacres are as American as apple pie.
Unfortunately. And sadly. But seriously.
Before there even was a country, there were massacres – establishing white settler dominance on what would one day become U.S soil.
Our nation’s foundational story is based, in part, on a 1770 massacre in Boston.
Massacres eradicated Native Americans who resisted Manifest Destiny.
Massacres ended slaves’ lives when their forced passage became too inconvenient for their handlers.
Massacres punished black troops who dared oppose the Confederacy and African Americans who attempted to assert their rights in the post-Civil War South.
Massacres killed laborers advocating for safe working conditions, and fair wages.
And on, and on, and on . . .
Along with the massacres have come efforts to control the narrative about them. Paul Revere masterfully used the Boston Massacre as a propaganda tool to promote war with England. The Wounded Knee Massacre was initially portrayed as a battle initiated by the Sioux. Other examples abound.
In many instances, powerful elites tried to erase massacres from the historical narrative all together. Few of us ever learned anything about the Zong, Colifax, or Orangeburg Massacres during our formal educational experiences.
Yes, massacres, and the manipulated or buried narrative about them, have always been a tragic part of America’s history. Thus, it should come as no surprise that over the past two weeks, two massacres have entered the conversation.
One of these massacres never actually happened – a falsehood alleged to have occurred in Bowling Green, Kentucky; cited to legitimize a thinly-veiled and unconstitutional Muslim ban. The other massacre actually did occur.
Two weeks ago, a Republican party leader from Michigan used a Twitter post to call for “another Kent State” to silence student protesters on college campuses. And while all massacres disgust me, it was this action that compelled me to write this blog.
I am not writing to shame that party official. The fact that he deleted his Tweet – and recently resigned his position – leave me hoping that he realized his comments were unbecoming of a leader in a democratic republic.
In his study of massacres from 1900 through 1987, political scientist R. J. Rummel concluded that the more mature a nation’s democracy, the less likely it is to experience state-led or sanctioned massacres. Based on this analysis, massacres must be viewed as breakdowns of civility, decency, humanity and, ultimately, democracy.
This is why it’s nearly unfathomable for me to see that a major party official in the twenty-first century United States would call for a massacre. We are supposed to be better than this.
But there is hope. And it resides, at least in part, in how America’s colleges and universities educate their students.
I believe that education is the antidote to massacre’s poison and allure. Educational experiences that teach the art of respectful, civil discourse; promote reason over rabid extremism; base lessons on scientific method and findings rather than “alternative facts,” and advance pluralistic and global engagement over xenophobic isolation and extremism foster the conditions that lead to mature democracies. And I am convinced that liberal education yields the kind of learning that best nurtures engaged citizens of and leaders for a mature democracy.
In the present United States, it is easy to be disheartened by politicians calling for the death of protesters, initiating “extreme vetting” campaigns, and accelerating deportations. It is enough to make reasonable people – and I believe that is the majority of us – feel completely powerless.
But those of us who have the privilege to work in and with America’s colleges and universities have the power and ability to counteract this blight. We have agency – and it comes in the form of liberal education.
And this is why I must issue a call of my own.
In response to the former GOP party leader who asserted that it was “Time for another Kent State” because “One bullet stops a lot of thuggery,” I call on the all the state universities across the nation – as well as their community college counterparts – to redouble their efforts to advance liberal education.
Because while “one bullet” might stop “a lot of thuggery,” the application of liberal education across 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States can lead to the kind of thinking that can stop a lot of bullets and, in the process, preserve and enhance America’s promise.
Immigrants’ Child: Thoughts on Belonging in the United States and My Work Ahead
by Dr. Drew Koch
I am the son of immigrants. Like millions before, my parents came to the United States in search of a better life – for themselves and their future generations.
A close study of history has taught me that many persons did not arrive to this land in the same manner. Some were here long before the start of the Western European migration – first nations peoples who somehow did not “vanish” despite the best efforts to forcibly claim and displace them from their soil.
While force was being used to remove some peoples, it was simultaneously bringing Africans to these shores – in chains, as chattel labor, and, until recently, counting at most as only 3/5 of a human and then only for someone else’s benefit.
Yet others, such as Mexicans, were forcibly incorporated into the nation – courtesy of treaties that were signed without their input.
Even when peoples came willingly and legally, they were often less-than fully embraced. Exclusion acts, nativist anti-immigrant practices and movements, and even internment centers infringed on the rights of those who were lawfully admitted to till, shape and build the nation. The message was clear – you can come in, but you don’t exactly fit in.
As a child of immigrants I wrestled with what it meant to be American on a near daily basis. My first language was not English. My mother has a thick German accent. My father’s forename, Wolfgang, screamed “I’m not from here” even if his English was accent-free.
I was “the German kid” – routinely taunted on an elementary school playground by a bully and his toadies who greeted me during recess with “Koch ties his shoes in little Nazis” and “Heil Koch-ler!” In art class, the same classmates “lovingly” crafted and donned swastika arm bands and then saluted me as they exited at the bell. Somehow, the playground monitor and art teacher respectively but similarly chalked this all up as good-natured ribbing.
When I would visit family in Germany, aunts and uncles would tell people meeting me for the first time to pardon the fact that I spoke a dialect of German used 40 years earlier. “Er ist nicht echt Deutsch, er ist Amerikaner” – He’s not an authentic German, he’s an American – they would apologetically tell the new acquaintances before I got a chance to speak.
While at times painful and confusing, I would not trade this personal experience for any other. It has made me a culturally liminal person – someone who has had to learn how to span and be competent within many cultures simultaneously. It has made me compassionate as well as passionate – compassionate for others whose lives span multiple cultures; passionate about equity and inclusion.
My personal experience and study of U.S. history tells me that that the fights for inclusion, social justice and civil rights progress have been anything but linear. They have come only with vigilance and persistent pressure – by an alliance of the oppressed and their allies.
So, for those of you who feel alarmed by immigration bans, border walls and the rise of the Alt-right, know that I share your concerns. For those who speak with or have family members who speak with an accent, know that I too have lived this experience. For those of you who have wondered if you belong, know that I have asked the same questions about myself.
And the answers are simple even if the issues are complex.
You all belong, just as I do too.
I am an American, and so are you.
And I pledge allegiance, to the charge, of making a united state of Americans;
Through the work I do at the Gardner Institute, and my life outside the office;
In the pursuit of liberty, and justice, for all.
E Pluribus Unum.
Photo of the Pan American Airlines plane on which my father flew to immigrate to the United States from Germany in 1955.
The passenger manifest from my father’s immigration flight, March 30, 1955. (Passenger #5)