OpEd: Making America great through knowledge, love and respect

November 2016

This is not another post mortem on the recent presidential election. I don't have the expertise to make grand interpretations (although apparently neither do the "experts"). I am also a life-long Independent who seldom finds a welcoming home in either political party. And this Thanksgiving offers the gift of grateful deliverance from a campaign that confirmed politics and the national media are seldom the best sources of values to inspire us as citizens.

Faculty and administrators who have spent our adult lives on college campuses cringe when pundits condescend to us as not living in the "real world." Well if this campaign is the best the "real world" can offer, spare us all!

The divisive, sometimes hateful, rhetoric of the campaign ironically arose at a time when the nature of "free speech" was already being debated on college campuses. So in these troubled times, perhaps our universities might be laboratories to address two of the challenges central to my university's mission statement (and our country): that students and all of us be "engaged citizens" and "ethical leaders with moral courage."

"Knowledge Joined With Love"
This concept from the great Franciscan, St. Bonaventure, suggests that the power that comes from learning must draw on the heart as well as the head and be applied with compassion, even kindness. A college education ideally cultivates habits of the heart and soul as well as habits of the mind, creating citizen-leaders who demonstrate charity and empathy as well as intelligence and strength.

"Words Do Matter"
Contrary to what was claimed during the campaign, what we say does matter. Our words hold up a mirror to our integrity. We must say what we mean and mean what we say. Honesty demonstrates respect for other people. Dishonesty is not acceptable, in the classroom or in the public square, even if it is expedient.

And HOW we speak matters too. Speaking respectfully to (and about) others is a precondition for living in a residence hall or in an inclusive democracy. Do we show respect for, even openness to, the views of others, even when we disagree profoundly? Do we acknowledge we might sometimes be wrong or less than fully right?

Intentions matter too. When we speak carelessly and cause offense, have we intended to hurt or humiliate others, or are we simply expressing ourselves forcefully? Alvernia's core value of humility suggests we do more than merely avoid intellectual arrogance. Are we genuinely seeking "common ground" or do we assume we have little to learn from those who differ with us? In universities and in our communities, we must engage with those different in background and perspective, including those who may lack the privileges we take for granted.

"One Nation under God with Liberty and Justice for All"
We know well these familiar words. Both concepts are essential: Liberty and Justice. Freedom of thought and expression are enshrined as the fortunate gifts of Americans. Pursuing what is best for each of us is part of the point of college and America. But social responsibility matters too. Doing and saying what we want are not absolute rights. Our expression must not harm others or restrict their freedom. As the late Dr. King prophetically proclaimed, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!"

Our American "pledge" emphasizes "all" not just those in the majority. It includes migrants and immigrants. The poor as well as the wealthy. Muslims and Jews as well as Christians. The powerless and the privileged. Franciscans believe community develops through relationships that call us to be "a servant to all."

Inclusive community, on campus or in our communities, celebrates our diversity. But also our unity. Our shared commitment to come together for the "common good"- - whether at a food bank, an interfaith dialogue, or a tutoring assignment in the inner city--provides the opportunity to reach beyond our comfort zone and connect with others.

In a country so deeply divided, our communities, like our campuses, need what the Springsteen song celebrates as "the ties that bind." With attention to what we say and how we speak; with the recognition that we have much to gain by listening carefully (and lovingly) to others; and with a desire to build bridges that unite us instead of walls that divide us, may we seek to model "the real world". . . as both “engaged citizens” and “ethical leaders with moral courage.”

Thomas F. Flynn


Published:

Reading Eagle, 11.23.16

Thomas F. Flynn 
Thomas F. Flynn, Ph.D.
President of Alvernia University




1.888.alvernia
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