The Octagon

POLITICAL ANIMALS: College opens door to campus debate; alumni share stories of heated protests, death threats over ideological differences

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In “Politics,” a work of political philosophy, Aristotle said that man is a “political animal,” indicating that humans derive their identity and character from being involved in their communities. (The word “politics” comes from the word for a Greek city state, “polis.”) This story is the last in a series of four covering political issues in the classroom. 

The college campus is undoubtedly a platform of greater discovery and exploration than a high school campus. This – combined with access to new parts of the world, the maturity that comes with age and the political tilt of many colleges and universities – allows college students to be more politically active.

In an April 23 Octagon survey of 23 Country Day alumni from the past three years, 57 percent said their college or university is “very politically active.” 

For Isabelle Leavy, ’17, at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, this means that students are invested in the national political scene.

“Being a part of the political climate of the U.S. is kind of a big deal at Oberlin,” Leavy said. “Even way back when, we were one of the first school to accept African-Americans and women.”

Oberlin has a history of being famously progressive and liberal, Leavy said, a spot of blue in red Ohio, and that’s a big draw for politicians.

“Obviously, that makes everybody a little bit involved,” she said.

Oberlin student groups often schedule walkouts, speakers series and voting registration events.

“The campus is great and very supportive, and everyone who works here understands the political climate and is accommodating and kind,” Leavy said.

However, she added that there are many – particularly those who are members of religious groups in nearby areas of red northeast Ohio – who are “not okay” with what the students at Oberlin are doing. 

Leavy said that there are a few men she can recognize, whom she’s seen protesting on campus once or twice. 

“They have a big sign that says a list of people, and then it says ‘are going to hell’ at the bottom,” she said.

“I think it’s homos, liars, cheaters, liberals, atheists – all these people ‘are going to hell.’”

The student body responds consistently, she added, by having “tiny little protests.”

“Some people are sensitive and try to explain why they’re wrong while some people just yell,” Leavy said. 

“Anybody that walks by just joins in, and they yell at them. There’s this one guy who plays trombone at (the protesters) every time they open their mouths, which is pretty good. People do a lot of making out in front of them to make them uncomfortable.” 

And while Leavy said that it’s not exactly pleasant to walk around campus and hear in the background, “You’re going to hell!” through the protesters’ megaphones, she added that “part of being in a political climate is sometimes getting a little attacked.”

Claire Bauman, ’09, who attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, also had an experience on campus with a religious group, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), in the spring of 2013, her senior year.

At the time, Bauman said, the WBC was picketing soldiers’ funerals and on that “road trip” decided to stop by Vassar, a college known to be fairly progressive.

“So of course the WBC hated us,” she said. 

“They made jabs at us. They said we were an ‘Ivy League whorehouse,’ which everyone ultimately took as a compliment. And they disliked us because we promoted a ‘faggot agenda,’ to which we were like, ‘OK.’”

The campus came together to form a counter-protest, and the main street in front of campus was closed down for the protest. So when the four WBC members showed up, they staked out an area at the closest intersection off campus, and nearly the entire school participated in the counter-protest. 

“The culminating event was forming a human love chain, I think it was called, around the main building on campus,” Bauman said. “Hundreds of students held hands around the entirety of the building.” 

Bauman said the event provided Vassar with a chance to unify.

“It was really cool and inspiring,” she said. “Now I’ve lived in Chicago for four years, and I’ve gone to some protests, women’s marches and anti-Trump rallies because they’re popular. I think having that really positive experience at Vassar was probably a part of that.” 

What hit home, Bauman said, was the importance of visibility and public support. 

“I didn’t graduate long ago, but even when I was on campus – on an accepting campus – transgender students weren’t necessarily out or a large population,” Bauman said. “Gender nonconformity wasn’t necessarily a huge topic of conversation.

“The role that colleges can play in visibility and acceptance is important.”

Visibility of race-based issues came to the forefront this year at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where Grant Miner, ’15, is studying (though he has been at the University of Exeter in England for the past academic year). Miner said the Snowden Multicultural Center’s Whiteness Group was formed there for students to “discuss the construction of whiteness and how it plays a part in oppression.”

According to a Feb. 1 article in the Kenyon Collegian (“Whiteness Group asks: How should we respond to the play?”), the group explores “what it means to be a white person while benefiting from societal privilege, as well as what it means to be a white ally to marginalized groups.”

The group also advises white students to not ask a person of color a question – instead, the white person has to figure it out for themselves, Miner said.

The group gained national coverage, and Miner saw headlines like “Whiteness group silences white people.” 

“A student who was involved (in the Whiteness Group) was getting regular death threats with people yelling, ‘Our president is black!’ and yelling the F-word through the phone, being like, ‘I know where you live!’” Miner said. 

“It was a national s–tstorm.” 

Another Kenyon student created what Miner termed a “reactionary publication” called the “Campus Constitutional” that generated blowback from many of the students. 

“Their headlining article was ‘Male privilege does not exist and is a dangerous concept to believe in,’” Miner said. “People were just really incensed.”

In fact, many were angry enough to boo the creator of the publication publicly when he came to actor Pete Davidson’s stand-up comedy show in Kenyon’s largest auditorium.

Emma Williams, ’15, also attends a traditionally politically active school, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where students are unafraid to make their opinions known, Williams said.

However, unlike Oberlin, where Leavy said she believes the student body would not be particularly kind to conservative students, the predominantly liberal Cornell has a strong group of conservatives who make their opinions known, especially about the political imbalance.

“A concern that Cornell’s conservative and Republican students have raised before is that there are disproportionately more liberal professors on campus than there are conservative professors,” Williams said. “They feel the ideology is imbalanced in terms of course material and teaching.”

As a government major, Williams has spent lots of time in politically focused classes and said that though she’s noticed Cornell’s professors are more liberal, they do a good job of sharing the arguments from both sides.

(Photo by Emma Williams)
A professor speaks at a Cornell University (Ithica, New York) student rally on May 1 to protest former vice president Dick Cheney speaking at their school about U.S. politics, an event hosted by the Cornell Republicans.

But in the days following President Donald Trump’s election, an exceptional circumstance, Williams said in two of her classes the professors expressed the sentiment of “Don’t lose hope.”

“My entire American Government and Politics class was just a big feelings circle, where the professor would pass the mic around and people would talk about how the election impacted them,” Williams said. “Some people got very emotional.”

Williams added that it’s common for professors to show up at political events and rallies on campus, which can be “interesting.” 

At one “moment-of-silence” gathering in the fall semester for an African-American student who was reportedly assaulted and called racial slurs, Williams said it turned into a controversial event for a moment when a professor started leading a chant about Palestine.

“The first part was Black Lives Matter, that kind of thing, and everyone was totally on board,” she said.

“But then he started chanting about Palestine and giving a very pro-Palestine message, and that made some people uneasy.

“It was a weird situation. I remember just kind of looking at my friend when he switched to a pro-Palestine chant. And I’m totally fine with him doing it. It was just not the message that had been spread about this particular gathering.” 

But in the classroom, Williams said, most professors try to keep lectures and discussions as balanced as possible. What professors teach students comes from written texts and is backed by evidence, and if they make their personal beliefs known,  it’s almost always in service of a discussion.

“I’ve never had an experience where a professor is dictating to you what you should believe,” Williams said.

“It has the effect of making conversations about political science, which can be kind of abstract sometimes, very real. If we didn’t talk about different viewpoints, I think I would be getting less from my classes than I am now.” 

Originally published in the May 8 edition of the Octagon. 

By Sahej Claire

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