An Invitation to Inquiry

By Jonathan Miller-Lane, Middlebury Faculty

The context in which we do our work in higher education has changed dramatically in recent decades and these changes have an impact on our specific experience at Middlebury. Institutions such as Georgetown, Brown, Harvard, Princeton and others have publicly shared how they historically and systematically excluded particular bodies and minds from participating in the free exchange of ideas on their campuses.  This process has been part of a larger recognition that the 19th century idea that higher education can exist in a value-free void in which we are objective scientists investigating our particular fields is deeply flawed. There is no void within which one can undertake objective inquiry or in which ‘free speech’ occurs. As President Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard has argued, “there have to be certain commitments within which knowledge is pursued and transmitted and that we have to, as institutions, commit ourselves to undertaking our work and forming young people within sets of commitments to justice, to truth, to values that matter to us as a society.” 

I would argue that this is precisely the case that many students have been trying to make for many years and the events of March 2017 are the most recent efforts to wake us up.  Many of you have seen, “Abroad at Home,” a video by Tim Garcia, Middlebury class of 2014, in which students from traditionally underrepresented groups speak about what it is like to be a student at Middlebury. During the 2015-16 academic year, protests erupted at Middlebury and on campuses across the country, not because of a single incident or racial epithet; but because students were fed up with duplicitous campus cultures that tout diversity while tolerating pervasive racist and sexist practices, symbols and policies.  We held three town forums last year, two in Dana and one in Mead Chapel. They were all packed and students wanted to talk, share, and listen to each other. And, still, our response is to imagine how to create more support groups for those of us who find the Whiteness of Middlebury exhausting and intolerable and to lament that if only everyone were more rational we could solve the ‘problem’ some are having.

Yet, as any of us who were at last week’s Spring Symposium witnessed, there is no absence of intellectual or rational capacity on the part of Middlebury students.  What I hear many students asking the faculty and administration to do is to direct our cherished ability for critical inquiry towards our own practices and our own assumptions:   

1.    Who is Middlebury assumed to be for and who is considered a supporting cast who needs support?

2.    What are the ontological and epistemological assumptions that I embody and that underlie my teaching practices as a professor?

3.    How might I interrogate, in class, the cultural/political context in which I choose my objective scientific questions, how those questions are funded, and how they are evaluated during professional reviews? How might such an inquiry open up previously ignored lines of investigation for my students?

4.    Whose perspectives and lived experiences are validated in my professional understanding of what matters, and whose are ignored?

This work will require faculty to enter into deeply uncomfortable terrain, but the work is essential for the education of our students—those from historically overrepresented groups as much as, if not more so, than for students from historically underrepresented groups.  After all, as Ta Nahesi Coates argued two years ago in his address in Mead Chapel, it is the “Dreamers” who have some serious work to do.

At this moment and in the months ahead, we have a unique opportunity as an unrealized, potential community of faculty, staff and students to engage in a fearless interrogation of who we are and to what degree our website rhetoric mocks the reality of what it is like for many of us to live and learn on this campus.  Our responsibility to undertake this work will be relentlessly disruptive and worth the confusion in our Outlook Calendars that will necessarily follow.

Jonathan Miller-Lane, Associate Professor of Education Studies and Faculty Head of Wonnacott Commons writes in about the faculty’s duty to reflect following the Murray protests.

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