Remembering a Wall that Went in the Right Direction

Hello from Fog and Flame,

It is Sunday and I need to have a productive day, in spite of grading a few hours or more for the last 5 days, sans yesterday, I need to put in significant time again today. As the end of the semester comes closer, moving rapidly toward a close, the number of house focused on this necessary evil will continue to occupy both my time and the temporal lobe of my students’ brains. Some of their struggle is based on a less than stellar usage of their frontal lobe thus far in the semester. Yet, as humans, it seems too often we fail to adequately use our frontal lobes. The consequences are legion and the complexity of that lack exponential.

This past week I must say that I have observed really outstanding work from a number of my students in a variety of classes. The realization of the conceptual walls they often face was some of my focus this week. On Wednesday, after the release of an offensive video from a student (and everyone in that video should be held accountable in my opinion) a week ago, hundreds of students on campus held a protest in the quad about our campus lack of diversity, lack of inclusion, and a seeming increase in fearing for safety. Let me note as an older faculty, I do not experience all they do; as a person who is male and white, I also experience things quite differently. Therefore, nothing in my statements above or meant to minimize their concerns or assertions. As I have been focusing some of my own reading, I have been examining the concept (and alarming reality) of white privilege. I would not be a person who believed how pervasive this is or the degree to which this affects us until recently. Again, I must give credit to my Dominican daughter as I refer to her for her popping that bubble almost 6 years ago.

The walls that many of my students confront, most in a sort of metaphorical, or non-physical, way are nonetheless real. When a student is noticed first for the color of their skin or their language than their ability, there is a wall they must manage. When a student does well and someone is surprised because of the color of their skin or their language, there is a wall they must manage. When a student comes from a particular location, a particular socio-economic class, or they are in a particular program and decision are made based on those attributes, there is a wall they must manage. The psychological, emotional barriers placed in front of students affect inclusion and their sense of safety. The issues of being first generation and unprepared or underprepared are walls, but these walls are much more difficult to scale. The falling to unprepared or underprepared is more than an intellectual thing; it is emotionally; it is about a level of maturity; and it is about what is expected of us as professors when we are already being stretched in so many other ways. As I write this I feel we are at points being asked to be their parent as well as their professor. I can already believe the response this will illicit, but we are being told both yes, do that and no, you shouldn’t. There is much more here I could write, but my initial intent was to write about a different wall.

In 1985, as a seminary student I was fortunate enough to study abroad. On that journey, I went to what was then the Demokratische Deutschland Republik (DDR) also known as East Germany and we went through Checkpoint Charley in Berlin. The Berlin Wall was formidable as a physical barrier, but it was as much so because of the emotional impact that area had on the residents of East Berlin. As we proceeded through the wall, the scrutiny of the East German military was intense. The examination our bus was subjected to was serious. A few days later, while in a flat in Kreuzburg, I had the opportunity to look into the area that was between the two walls on East and West (referred to as no-person’s land). It was a long 50 yard wide sandbox. Periodically and strategically placed were guard towers. As I stood on an outdoor balcony of the flat I looked through my camera at the guard tower. The guard in the tower was peer back at me with binoculars and he had an AK-47. I felt a bit outmatched with my 35mm camera. During that trip I met an East German seminary student who was married with children. Hans Jürgen and Maria where their names. I remember saying to him that I would write and hoped he would write back. He informed me it was not possible to write. The shock of that realization hit me like a right hook from Rocky. I was stunned and at a loss for words. He asked that I would write from time to time and that he would appreciate my words and prayers for his family. As commemorated this past weekend, it was three decades since the wall came down. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell I received a letter from my German friend from a free Eastern city. In his letter he wrote about the profound change in his life and how the atmosphere of being walled in was now gone. Yet, there was something more profound in his letter. He wrote, “Someone will have to teach us or help us understand freedom.” I read and reread that sentence, and while I understood the words, comprehending the depth of his desire to learn about such a concept was beyond what I could wrap my head around. Freedom was not a concept for this white American citizen, it was my reality. It just was. For the first time, in such a personal way, I had an inkling of this incredible truth that was an untruth for him. For the first time I tried to comprehend that unparalleled element, that WASP privilege that wax how I had experienced life.

In the decades since, the concept of freedom has certainly been an ebb and flow thing in our world. I believe that the role of personal freedom is intrinsic in democracy, but I also believe that John Locke was correct in his Second Treatise on Civil Government when he asserted

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all [humanity], who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in [their] life, health, liberty or possessions . . . (and) when [their] own preservation comes not in competition, ought [they], as much as [they] can, to preserve the rest of [humanity], and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another (Locke)

He also noted in the social contract that when the government did not fulfill its duty to the people or become untrustworthy or a breach of obligation by the obfuscation of its moral duty or responsibility to its citizens, they forfeit their right as a government to rule. It seems to me more than I would have ever believed possible that we are at a place where we need to question what those who fail to hold someone accountable are doing? While I am not a supportive of the actions of Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky, and I am not supportive of his lying to Congress, he was impeached for both moral impropriety and lying. Certainly, in spite of the denial of our current President of the multiple accusations of sexual impropriety and what seems to be lying about payments are quite parallel to what impeached Clinton. Second, the entire Ukraine affair and what seems to be an incredible number of things (e.g. the Helsinki Statement, the accounting issues with his Foundation, the emoluments that seem to be many and often, and the list could continue) would seem to be more than enough if we use the Clinton yardstick to move him to impeachment. I have listened to about 98% of the testimony. Even in the last 24 hours he has castigated one of the aides to his Vice President because she disagreed with him.

Amazing how the Southern Wall has somewhat disappeared from view, but the walls that have been created within our government, between our political parties, and amongst the public, which not physical generally, are much more enduring and insidious. I am continually dismayed by the things I read on both sides of the political divide. I wonder where I stand at times, not because I do not know what I think, but because I believe we have lost our moral compass as a country. One of my academic mentors noted in his own Facebook post today how there seems to be a disconnect between the morals of what  conservative Christians profess and their support of this President. Let me note, I am not perfect, and I am certainly guilty of some bad choices earlier in my life, but the other day one of my students said to me that what makes me a great mentor is the things I profess I live. That was an incredible compliment. Again, I am not perfect by any means, but I do try to be consistent and what I say I do and vice versa. As I work on this, I think about some of the things that are happening and try to look at them from the academic rhetorical lens that is what I seem to put most things through. I am not as partisan as some think. I think I am more like my father than I might have thought. I believe the Democratic party stands for certain things, and socially, I probably follow in my father’s footsteps. In terms of fiscal policy, I am probably more in line with the Republican stance, but that would be the classic stance, not where I see many mainstream Republicans of today.

So where does that leave me? Probably more in the realm of disillusioned, disheartened, and concerned. We need to step back and think about the importance of truth. Truth is not a partisan issue it is a moral and fundamentally human need. We need to step back and tear down the walls of mistrust and bigotry. When we build walls because of ignorance and fear, we miss out on amazing possibilities to learn and grow. When we see anyone different as “the other,” we fail to see them as gifted, as helpful, as equals. The walls keep us from progress and from the possibilities of new learning and growth. It is time to accept people in the glory of their humanity. I realize not everyone is good, but again, if we treat the other with respect, we are most often going to receive respect in return. I think that is just a better way to live. Here is a song addressing my thoughts today. Once upon a time, America was a beacon of hope; it seems we have lost that. Styx sang about that in the 1970s.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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