THE BLOG
12/24/2014 09:31 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2015

Educators Need to Get Off the Sidelines in Race Debate -- Colleges, Particularly the Liberal Arts, Must Lead

College campuses have always been grounds for debate and free thought. This is well known: the idea of the college campus as a home for activism is woven into the history of many of America's most important movements for social justice. In the recent protests of police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, students have staged "die-ins," organized forums, and marched in solidarity across the country.

This moment, however, has also been marked with racism, ugliness and apathy. Lynched effigies and nooses were discovered at UC-Berkeley, the traditional "home" of progressive campus activism. Knox College in Illinois initially suspended -- rather than supported -- a student athlete for her decision to protest the Ferguson decision. And colleagues have reported that the recent events have been met with a shrug on many campuses, where concern has been minimal, or left largely to students of color alone to engage with, through organizations like the Black Student Union.

Those of us who are committed to higher education, especially the liberal arts tradition, are always touting how we prepare our students to be "global citizens." I am no different from everyone else. I tout the value of the liberal arts in helping provide students with a broad educational experience that provides balance and enlightenment across a variety of areas and a deep understanding in the discipline of choice. Even amidst the recent push for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, for instance, we must prepare scientists who are creative, innovative, and critical thinkers who will take the humane approach to applying their knowledge, discoveries, and inventions to the real world. All students - even tech and science - need to be on track to becoming "global citizens."

But if a college education -- particularly the liberal arts -- prepares global citizens to be more humane, why then are we constantly battling racism and discrimination in this country? Why then is man's inhumanity to man alive and well not only on the streets of our cities and small towns but also on our university and college campuses? There is no rational defense of this.

Even before this national moment of reckoning with race, I have been on liberal arts college campuses where acts of racism in the form of verbal and written attacks have been staunchly defended by students as freedom of expression and by faculty as being protected under the "right" of free speech. Divisive speech that perpetuates historic discrimination and mistreatment of people based on issues such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, is destructive to our society. We study history and philosophize about the past of some distant place or period, pointing out what was good and what could have been done better but we do not seem to be able to apply the lessons of the past to 21st-century life in the United States. Why?

The people have taken the streets in protest of the treatment of the oppressed. Regardless of the position you may take in the issue, we need to listen and take seriously the concerns of the people protesting the recent events. It is time for the educators to stop philosophizing and pontificating and to begin educating and preparing our students to be global citizens who have a respect for and appreciation of diversity in all its forms. It is time to provide our students with a safe environment in which to ask questions, to have civil discussions around the hard issues, and to fully develop those critical thinking skills we oft proclaim as one of the assets of a liberal arts education.

In higher education, we have talked about "writing across the curriculum" and a plethora of other "across the curriculum" initiatives to better prepare our students for success beyond the classroom for decades. Why not infuse humanity across the curriculum and guide our students in such a way that the ethical and humane treatment of their fellow (wo)man is second nature?

I believe the students are key to this country's ability to solve this age-old problem of racism, oppression, and discrimination. A college campus, particularly a liberal arts institution, is the ideal place to develop and enhance the skills and experiences that foster the type of problem-solving that will be needed to address and mitigate these challenges.

Our small class sizes and close working relationships with our excellent faculty and staff help students translate the theoretical presented within the classroom to the application of real-world experiences. It is time for us to walk-the-talk that has been associated with our institutions for hundreds of years. It is time for us to truly prepare all of our students to be global citizens equipped to lead this country to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all.

Tuajuanda C. Jordan, PhD is President of St. Mary's College of Maryland, www.smcm.edu