Two Forgotten Things to Heal a Divided Society

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Fall 2008 is when I first came to study in the United States. Joined with other college students at a small town in Indiana, together we witnessed the election of the first African American President. We believed the wheel of history, that of the United States and that of the world, had moved forward. Watching such a progressive social movement was a euphoric experience for many of us.

This year, it was different. After an unprecedented divisive campaign, 60 million American voters spent the night watching the election unfold in horror. Yet at the same time another 60 million voters were elated and thrilled. When I woke up the second day, I felt an unusual quietness in the classroom, disbelief in the air, as if students and professors were in mourning. What had just happened, in many people’s minds, was a move backward.

Let us take a step back. We are in a complex world with many trends going on, such as globalization, technology advancement, massive immigration, civil and women’s rights movement. In much of the developed world, the downside of those trends manifests itself in a painful way – job losses and diminishing economic prospects – making the unprepared segments of the population feel disoriented, angry and forgotten. To many people, the present is vastly different from the past and the future is no longer as bright as it used to be.

Negative feeling is infectious. The result of this election sent the other segments of the population into an emotional black-hole that is also painful. Moreover, in this volatile situation with complex problems that frequently out-run our abilities, it is now increasingly tempting to seek simple and quick solutions, such as populism, nationalism, xenophobism, political extremism, sexism or racism, hoping to undo the changes in the world.

As the Chinese proverb goes, “good medicine tastes bitter;” right solutions cannot be that simple. Though we feel angry and forgotten, we should not forget the importance of two things: empathy and liberal arts education.

Empathy should be cultivated. Technological advancement has made the world increasingly judgmental: within a millisecond we can produce and spread judgement by simply swiping right or left on the screen or pressing the like or unlike buttons. Technology connects us but also lets us feel disconnected. What really connects us on a heart-to-heart basis is empathy. With empathy, we listen to both ourselves and to others, acknowledge the time and space that we live in, promote pluralism rather than extremism, and make compromises when needed. Here at school, empathy is one of the most frequently mentioned words by professors and business leaders, yet unfortunately in today’s civil society and political arena what we have is the opposite – voters and politicians are increasingly militant, combative and unwilling to compromise.

Liberal arts education should be championed. Unlike vocational training which mechanically molds students into generic and homogeneous workers, through the teachings of history, political science, art and philosophy, liberal arts education imparts civic values and transforms any person to a disciplined citizen. By engaging in critical thinking, speaking and writing, a person can develop an enduring framework to think through things, a noble set of principles to live by, and a proper degree of decency to express him or herself. This is why liberal arts education fosters both humility and humanity which endows a person with appropriate pride – so even in bad times when things get tough, a person can still take the high road.

As much as we all feel angry and forgotten, we should not forget empathy and liberal arts education. Negativity has a function in that it makes us seek what is right. Sometimes, what is right is just not obvious. Let us not choose simple solutions (if these simple solutions were right, they would have been implemented and the problems would have already been solved.) History is less a straight line than a zigzag: whenever there is significant movement forward, there is significant backlash. Not every social movement is a movement – some social movements are in fact counter movements against earlier social movements that are already well under way. Education matters for it is why we are here today. Today’s problems should be solved in a civil and educated approach, driven by empathy and powered by liberal arts education, rather than through incivility and downright hatred. We should draw on lessons learned and not re-live them again.