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Like so many fellow citizens, I’ve been watching television and reading news reports—lately with horror and deep concern. In the midst of the Israel-Hamas war, college campuses have become small war zones of their own, with antisemitism and Islamophobia rampant, with university officials struggling to respond effectively. Extremism is at work almost everywhere I look, and divides seem never to have been deeper or wider.
I had these deeply troubling thoughts on my mind when I stumbled on an article on “Why Campuses Need Centers for Pluralism” by Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America and author of We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy (2022). Patel sees the current divisions on campuses reaching a crisis point, where many students “are in extreme distress, feeling profound isolation, and a handful are even taking part in actions that border on physical violence. Some are no longer willing to sit in class together. One can only imagine the tension in the dining hall, the relationships that have crumbled and the number of student groups that are melting down.” Across the country, writing teachers don’t have to imagine such tensions; they are living with them every day.
We can, of course, look on such times as offering up teachable moments—or at least we can hope for such moments, when we can guide students in gaining more information about and understanding of the history of the Middle East, though doing so is not likely to resolve current tensions or change hearts and minds. Patel admits as much, before going on to say that, as one who has devoted his life to “proactively engaging religious diversity” he believes that being able to work with people with whom you disagree is the single most important value for a diverse community. Imagine if doctors who have different views on the war in the Middle East refused to perform heart surgery together. Or if firefighters who had different politics regarding gun control refused to fight fires together. Or if Little League coaches with different views on abortion refused to coach together.
Patel argues that campuses should develop Centers for Pluralism, whose goal would be to prepare students, faculty, and staff alike to engage across differences, becoming “models of cooperation between people of different identities and ideologies and training grounds for leaders who can bridge divides.” He recognizes the difficulty of doing so, especially in the present moment, arguing that too many campuses have developed policies and practices that increase tensions rather than building pluralistic cooperation, so much so that campus offices that traditionally facilitated cooperative dialogue instead “actually help fan the flames that now threaten to engulf” the campus.
Patel believes that the last ten years or so have seen the growth of a robust “pluralism field,” and he gives many examples of such groups at work (see his article in Inside Higher Education for names of these groups and links to them, as well as links to a number of campus-based pluralist projects).
The need for Centers for Pluralism, Patel says, has never been more crucial, first because of the horrific Middle East war we are witnessing from afar but also from deep divides over issues related to gun control, reproductive rights, or the election of 2024. What we need, in Patel’s view, are leaders who can help people who disagree on X still work effectively together on Y or Z: “We want students to be protesting respectfully on the quad, but we also need them to be working together to find cures for cancer.”
Having spent much of my life advocating for and teaching collaboration and collaborative strategies, Patel’s argument resonates with me, and reminds me of the role writing teachers can play in creating the kind of classroom ethos that can accommodate differences and disagreements while also providing students opportunities to listen across those differences and to do so in a safe space.
Right now, as I hear of so many hate-filled acts taking place on and off campus, I know I do not have all the answers or the strategies necessary to find ways to listen to one another with the goal of understanding, especially when we do not agree. But I also know that I—like writing teachers everywhere—must keep on trying. As Wayne Booth once famously remarked, “The only real alternative to war is rhetoric”—that is to say: the kind of talking and mutual conversation that respects differences, listens actively, builds understanding, and, where possible, seeks common ground.
Image by Jozsef Varga via Wikimedia Commons
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