Acceptance Letters: Parents, college and letting go

A Parent's Take on the Liberal Bubble

Elizabeth Weinstein
January 26, 2017

In his farewell address on January 10, President Obama said, borrowing a phrase from George Washington’s own farewell address 220 years ago, “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.” That’s what we’re doing when we strive to make the world a better place. But in his call to action Mr. Obama also pointed out the dangers of living in our own “bubbles.” In addition to talking to and working alongside our like-minded friends, we also need to read and listen to the views of others, and spend time with them. If we all keep talking only to the people who agree with us, the bubble won’t burst.

Like many colleges, Kenyon is sometimes criticized by both those within and without its (formerly) ivy-covered walls for being a “liberal bubble.” As a lifelong liberal and the child of liberals, I like to think of the term liberal as meaning fair and even-handed, protective of the less fortunate, open to new ideas, and celebrating of diverse perspectives. But I’m afraid the use of “liberal bubble” these days actually refers to an isolated enclave of people whose self-righteous political correctness is oppressive.

The accusation of a college community being a bubble implies that students and professors lucky enough to spend their time reading, thinking, writing and communicating (for four years if not a lifetime) are part of a privileged group that can’t possibly understand the varied problems of the real world because they are too far away from it.

But recent events, disagreements, and even protests on the Kenyon campus have filtered through to this parent observer, especially as I try to keep up with my own two kids, who have been reasonably active and aware during their own four years. Reading the Collegian, which my son helps edit, and keeping up with the online Kenyon Thrill and some other blogs, I’ve wondered if the liberal bubble label means anything at all. Kenyon doesn’t seem to me to be a bubble of any kind, but instead a place that is openly grappling with the big questions: those of racial awareness and social justice, sexism and violence. Any parent who views a liberal arts college as a way to protect their child against the ills of the world for four years would be deluded. But I really doubt any parent of a high school senior suffers from this delusion.  

Most of us are well aware that wherever our kids end up, the world will find them. So I think it’s good — right, appropriate — that students should argue in the pages of the Collegian about which speakers should come to campus with which controversial ideas. I think it’s appropriate that a young woman should state clearly and even angrily in the Kenyon Thrill that she does not think the college administration works hard enough to uphold the rights of those who have survived sexual assault. It’s appropriate that signs should be posted proclaiming that racial minorities on campus need to exercise a greater voice in college affairs, and it’s appropriate that students organize on campus to attend larger protests of national importance.

If Kenyon shows signs of being a liberal bubble, it might be because in the wider world, these voices might tend to be simply ignored or tolerated with less politeness than they are in the college world. Even louder and more strident voices, sometimes much ruder ones, might drown them out; or, alternatively, the humdrum activities of going to work and feeding the kids might make political and social commentary feel less essential in the day to day.

But exercising free speech in the social and the more traditional journalistic platforms of college is extremely important, and I don’t mean to imply that its relevance will fade for students as they graduate. As a mother, but also as a professional writer, I applaud all these students — my children and many others — who take the time to practice this basic right, and to keep on making their voices heard in as clear a way as possible. The best of our professors and administrators, on campus for a longer haul than the students, recognize and champion students who join them in maintaining a vibrant world of ideas and actions.