A President's Reflections

Critical Thinking and Social Justice in America

Posted on September 18, 2014

The following are the remarks I made at the Unity in the Community Dinner last evening on campus.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this evening.

What do I say – what does anyone say – about race in post Ferguson America?

I wish it were only Ferguson, because we might kid ourselves into thinking that sad place is an anomaly in 2014. But police killing of unarmed black men, and increasingly Latinos, happens in NYC, on Staten Island, in LA, in Phoenix, in Philadelphia, in…..well, you get my point.

A young Black man in America is three times more likely to be stopped by police. He is also three more times as likely to be in prison as in college. By the way, he is less likely to be found with drugs or guns than his white counterparts when they are stopped (though they are stopped far less often) and arrested more often despite that fact.

Indeed, people of color make up 30% of the US population, but 60% of its prison population. The Drug War was a war on the Black community, treating crack far more harshly than cocaine. Honestly, that war could have been as easily directed to college campuses and resulted in numerous arrests – but we don’t do that to middle class White kids. If we had, the war of drugs would have lasted a year. Instead, mass incarceration has torn apart black communities and families, prevented people from getting all too scarce jobs, and denied them necessary financial aid.

As our country becomes more Latino, we see institutional racism at work there too and particularly in the immigration debate. We now see some of the worst racist and xenophobic tendencies this country has ever exhibited, especially from Republican and Tea Party zealots who pander to those far right sensibilities in order to win primary elections.

The story is better for our LGBTQ community, but we have a long way to go and the encouraging advances of the last few years are also accompanied by a harsh backlash in many parts of the country.

We tend to address these issues as failing of the heart. How people feel about each other. An issue of getting along better.

I’m sort of giving up on that one. I don’t think it fixes the problem, because the problem is far bigger, systemic, and powerful than can be addressed by changing one heart at a time.

We need to do it through critical thinking and analysis, and giving people the tools to understand systems and change them.

Here at SNHU, we educate Justice Studies majors. Do we train them to understand the institutional racism at work within our judicial system? Do they read and discuss Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow?

We train Education majors. Do we train them to understand the institutional racism at work within America’s educational system? Do they read and discuss Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequities?

We train Business majors. Do we train them to understand the institutional policies that pay and reward women less than men, to understand that stakeholders include the communities in which businesses reside, to understand the ethical ramifications of decisions around supply chain management? Do we challenge them with Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years?

When we send SNHU students out into the community – as good hearted and well intentioned an activity as we can think of – do we give them the tools to move beyond charity to understanding how poor people are kept in poverty through systems rooted in commerce, legal systems, and exploitation? Do we read and discuss thinks like Nickeled and Dimed?

We do largely do not. A recent assessment of our graduates indicates critical thinking skills in the 60th percentile. We graduate great students who write better than we thought, who will be good employees and who will work hard, and who will be good members of their communities. I wouldn’t trade SNHU students for any others.

But I fear we are falling short and not giving them the tools to change their world. Honestly, not giving them the tools to fully understand their world. If we did, they’d be more critical of our society, more self-reflective and thoughtful about their place in it, and they’d probably be harder on the university. In all three cases – our society, their lives, and the university — they’d make us better.

My challenge to Dr. Lynott, our Provost, to our deans, and to our faculty will be to use this year to address the critical thinking skills of our undergraduates across all disciplines. To do so through the lens of social justice. To structurally embed that effort within the curriculum. To challenge every department and every major to show how they address the question. And to have the first steps in place by fall of 2016. Their target is to move critical thinking to the 80th percentile within five years. A big goal.

I will commit to three FT faculty positions attached to the General Education Program, but assigned to work with each of the three schools, collaborating with and supporting their colleagues. I will also challenge our Women’s Center, Diversity Office, and the Office of Community Engaged Learning to build into their work the skill development that allows students to first recognize, then critique, and eventually change the systems that reify and solidify inherently inequitable and socially unjust realities for far too many people in our country.

This is not a political initiative. I don’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican or something else still. I want students to have the critical tools to understand and they can decide for themselves if they want to fix the problems through political action – left or right, or social activism, or civil disobedience. But I want them to make those choices with intelligence and insight and understanding –- traits far too absent in our current political discourse, Fox News (or any news for that matter), or policy making.

We simply need new solutions and better solutions that don’t merely help this needy family or clean up that blighted neighborhood – -we need to address the systems that keep families in poverty and neighborhoods in decline. The only way we fix those problems is through education of a mind more robust and powerful than simply providing a major.

Here’s why I have hope.

We can do this – -we can make our educational program much better and we will.

You are smart and committed – you’re here after all.

These problems are not rooted in nature. They are human-made. So they can be human-fixed. We don’t have to accept them as “it’s always been this way” truths.

I need your help to make this shift at SNHU. The faculty and our academic leadership must lead the way. I have to find the money and hold us accountable. You need to demand this of us and desire it.

So I wasn’t really serious when I said I’ve given up on changing hearts. Let’s work on changing hearts. That work needs to continue. But let’s work on changing the world and that begins by giving students better tools with which to do it.

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