Date: January 8, 2021
To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Post Docs
From: Clarence Lang
Democracies are fragile systems of checks and balances. To paraphrase our own Michael Berkman and Christopher Beem in a statement they penned earlier this week, it is a system that exists as a way for people to disagree and yet still coexist. It is a system built on the premise that we all have the right to be heard, and a responsibility to proceed from facts. Democratic societies are also strongest when we can trust and respect civic and political institutions when our perspectives don’t prevail.
When any part of our checks and balances fails or is put in peril – as occurred earlier this week in Washington, D.C. – the promises of democracy retreat further out of our reach. Like many of you, I was disturbed by what unfolded in our nation’s Capitol – but sadly, I was not surprised. History is littered with examples of democracies that have risen and fallen, and it is painfully evident that we have reached a tipping point with ours, as well. Although I was heartened to see Congress proceed toward a peaceful transition of the presidency, I remain deeply concerned about the durability and legitimacy of authority, in all its forms, and how we repair the damage that has been done before it is too late.
I am not an American exceptionalist – that is, I do not believe that the history of the United States has been a straightforward narrative of moving ever onward and upward toward a more perfect union, and that the setbacks that have taken place in other nations could not possibly happen here. Our history has been a far more tortured story, and we are in the middle of a long moment of reckoning with that history and its legacies. However, I maintain hope in the promises of a democratic society.
I agree with Dr. Barron, who expressed in his statement to the Penn State communitythat “[c]ivil discourse is the central tenet of an institution of higher education and key to the continued growth and success of our country.” I also agree that we have the responsibility to help students become critical and creative thinkers, and informed, active, and ethically engaged citizens – and to lead by example by pursuing those characteristics in our own lives. As a community of humanists and social scientists, however, we need to do more. This includes using our pedagogical and research expertise to lay bare the many disparities that have produced our current state of affairs as a society, structured our learning and working environments in higher education, allowed appeals to “civility” to silence as well as facilitate debate, and made institutions of higher learning both a culprit in maintaining inequality and a staging ground for imagining (and building) something better.
We did not reach this fork in the road on Wednesday, and we will not find our way forward overnight. I do not know our trajectory, but it is my sincere hope that we will continue to muster the collective energy and will to keep pushing onward, even if this does not immediately lead us upward.