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After Dinner Reflections

By Steve Harrison

Like many of you, John and I have been getting together with people we have missed for a year and a half. It’s surreal in many ways: that much time passing sometimes with little or no contact, and then magically after the prick in the arm, friends reappear—older, wiser, stronger or diminished, all of us shell-shocked to some degree, but all wanting to commune, to somehow speak our truths of the last 16 to 18 months.

This past weekend we had dinner with people like us, connected through John’s tenure at Cal State Fullerton, and our connection to town, our shared similarities in age and politics, and in experiences. As is often the case with people like us, the conversation veered toward personal philosophies and attempts to understand what we’ve all been through with COVID and the politics and policies of the Trump years. In many of these conversations I feel out ranked, out educated, and out smarted. As I’ve aged, I’ve begun to feel more secure in my place and appreciative of the gifts that I do have, but it has been a struggle.

One of my gifts, though I haven’t always considered it such, is my need to question, to try to figure things out, to look inside. The name of this column is not by accident or assigned by an editor. I have taken myself way too seriously and felt compelled to understand my world and my psychology. I’ve luckily avoided the need to self medicate (does sugar count?), but I have certainly self analyzed. It’s been a way to survive. I’ve always had to start inside to keep from coming apart outside.

Most of our friends, teachers and thinkers of some sort, have had a similar need—to make sense of the world and their experiences in it. John and I have been fascinated by why people study what they study; and really it is no different than why anyone does what they do—it’s all an effort to make sense of the world and find a way to fit in it. Sometimes the connection is quite obvious and sometimes a bit more convoluted, but like a pearl’s evolution, our interests and our studies have started with an irritating grain of sand. Discomfort has moved us forward.

As we made our way through dinner, relishing being in one another’s company, appreciating our comfort, grateful we had all survived, inevitably the previous president came up and the speculation of what this layer of American history means for us and the future. As educators and members, I suppose, of what has been characterized as the liberal elite (white, educated, privileged enough to pursue higher degrees), we have worked hard to challenge students to think, have a perspective, and have a voice.
It’s been seen by outsiders as an attempt to turn our students liberal, and perhaps in the most general way it has. Change comes from discomfort, and change frequently by definition resides in the liberal house, moving away from what we’ve known to something we perceive as better. Yet, I wonder how successful we’ve been or how feared we should be. After all, we are all retired now, and one must question our abilities to turn our students into mini-mes.

In a world tolerant of the Proud Boys, Holocaust deniers, anti-vaccinators, and Trump loyalists, I’m not sure that society has had anything to fear from the liberal elite. We haven’t flipped a generation, we haven’t turned America blue. I’m not even sure how educated our minions have become. Suspicion of expertise, reduction of studied beliefs to opinion, democracy’s tolerance of insider subversion, all come after a generation of “liberal” educators doing their best to save students from their pasts’ limitation. Perhaps, in an effort to do no harm, allowing everyone to speak their minds, trying for more democracy in the classroom, we’ve allowed a generation or two to think all opinions are equal, a feeling is the same as trained investigation, and everyone deserves a gold star.

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