John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Massacring People and Meaning: Why Liberal Education is Vital for Democracy and Our Very Existence

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.

Massacres killed civilian inhabitants of villages where we waged war, unarmed prisoners of war, and students who protested against war.

And on, and on, and on . . .

Along with the massacres have come efforts to control the narrative about them. Paul blogfebRevere 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.

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