An Important Message to the Nation

December 1, 2016

To the Board of Trustees:

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency and the circumstances surrounding it, including the discrepancy between the popular vote and the Electoral College tally, the shock of the outcome, the sharp divisions within the electorate, the shape the transition of power is taking, and the role of the media have all triggered some reflection on the state of the nation, its institutions, and its politics.

I think it is my obligation to share with the Trustees of the College preliminary observations and conclusions with respect to how the politics of the day might affect Bard and its mission.

First and foremost, the election has made it clear to me that Bard is a far more important institution in the nation than we realize. Just as Bard assumed its distinctive mission in the 1930s, in response to the Depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe, the opportunity once again faces Bard to make a decisive contribution to the cause of democracy, freedom, and justice.

The reasons I think we must seize this opportunity now is true are based on these observations:

 1)   The election revealed not only deep resentment and anger that stem from economic inequality, but a general sense that the “establishment”—and more specifically “elites”—particularly of liberal political persuasions, failed to protect and support ordinary people.  We are faced with a nation divided on many grounds—from race, ethnicity, religion, to region, city, countryside, and class—and experiencing a shifting demography. Only education has the potential of forging a common nationwide ground for citizenship.

 2)   As consumers we may embrace and depend on new technology and the benefits of globalization, but the toll taken on how we conduct our public and private lives and how we form and maintain communities is extreme. We have become dependent on speed and convenience in communication rather than on sustained contact in real time and on substance. The fake and the real have become hard to distinguish. In these various senses, Trump is to politics and public service what Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, and Paris Hilton are to art and entertainment. Inquiry and research beyond what appears at the top of the screen from an Internet search seem superfluous.

 3)   The educational system has failed not only to inspire active participation—more voters did not vote than voted for any candidate—but also to impart basic information about our laws and the world we all live in. Most disastrously, education has failed to communicate respect for and understanding of distinctions between fact and fiction, reasonable and unreasonable opinions, the rules of evidence, or the constructive uses of skepticism and self-criticism—attributes that encourage curiosity and listening to others, particularly those with whom we disagree.

 4)    The disintegration of any shared notion of common citizenship in a free society has left the virtue of individual material self-advancement as the only dominant value. In this vacuum, a hollow notion of utility has become the criterion by which culture and education are judged. Science must be translatable into products, and nothing in the arts merits support unless it “does” something or makes money. What we do is seen either as a business or is justified on account of social utility.  Literature, the arts, scientific inquiry, the conduct of philosophy—indeed, the life of the mind and the work of the imagination—are not seen as proper ends in themselves.

 Against this Bard must strengthen its role.

 1)   We must reclaim the integrity and value of the liberal arts, and defend the notion of excellence and an elite not defined by money or power. The exceptional character of what our students and faculty can do must not be ether falsified or denigrated. Excellence in learning—the virtues of knowledge and talent in art and science are not inherently at the expense of the commons, and of others—and they do not threaten political egalitarianism. Indeed, a true republic requires a parallel free republic of letters, and therefore in the arts and sciences. We must not “dumb” down our curriculum or standards. We must resist the erasure of memory and the trivialization of the historical. We must deepen the taste and capacity for debate and dissent. We must cultivate a love and command of language.

2)   We must not abandon the patronage of art beyond mass entertainment any more than we should abandon the pursuit of science beyond what is obvious or easily comprehended. Bard has been a pioneer in the area of curriculum in the liberal arts. It has been in the forefront of placing the arts into the center of the purposes of the university. It must redouble these efforts—in the college, in its graduate programs, and the Fisher Center. We must seek out the broadest public since in today’s context vulgarity and ignorance are in the ascendancy.

3)   We must underscore the link between higher education and democracy, through the integration of civic engagement in the educational mission. This aspect ranges from the Center for Civic Engagement to the college’s work in the environment and land use.

4)   We must augment access to educational excellence to those who are underserved. This means sticking to financial aid based on need, and retaining a diverse student body. We must strengthen and expand the BHSEC network, BPI, Clemente, and all initiatives that seek to extend the liberal arts into the larger social fabric. Bard must continue to pioneer the improvement of the quality of public secondary education in the nation.

5)   We must combat xenophobia and isolationism through international programs in regions that are vulnerable in terms of freedom and educational excellence and readily subject to distortions in domestic public opinion. The programs on the West Bank, Central Asia, Russia, Berlin, and potentially Vietnam are particularly pertinent to this goal.

These are personal views that inform my commitment to Bard. The institution we have all been part of is more than a fine liberal arts college. It has shown the capacity to make a real difference in the country. The nation now needs it and its success more than ever.

With best regards,

Leon Botstein



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