Quintessential Kenyon: Student Life, Uncut

The Search for Lessons in Cleveland, Ferguson and New York

Sean Decatur
December 4, 2014

Maybe it is because I am the father of a 12-year-old boy or because the tragic event unfolded in my hometown of Cleveland. Regardless of the cause, the Nov. 22 shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer was a disturbing event for me. Just two days later, a grand jury chose not to indict a police officer in the August shooting death of Michael Brown, igniting protests around the country, including violent clashes in Ferguson, Mo. And then, as I was editing this blog last night, came the news from New York City about the decision of a grand jury not to indict a police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner. I generally reserve my comments on this blog space for issues about higher education. But these events, and the unfolding national conversations that they provoked, deserve attention here in Gambier. 

Like many Americans, I have been overwhelmed by tragic stories about violent deaths of young people in our communities, stories that anger, confuse and frustrate. The divides around issues of race and class in this country are so deeply entrenched that the multitude of responses to the news in Ferguson and New York — anger from some quarters, bewilderment over that anger from others — make it feel impossible that we will reach a state of shared understanding and empathy. At the same time, I also share a sense of frustration over how we as a nation respond to these events.

Our national responses play out as a tired, repetitive drama: Pundits and talking heads continue to dust off the same stock statements about race, racial politics and racial divisions; some politicians call (yet again) for renewed conversations about race in America; there will be more investigations of law enforcement practices, as well as questioning of the circumstances, motives and precipitating factors of the victims; there will be more celebrity protests, such as that of some members of the St. Louis Rams, and far too much hand-wringing over the meaning and appropriateness of these protests.   

The tragic loss of the lives of Rice, Brown and Garner — like the losses of many others over the span of history, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin — are painful not just because of the circumstances of their deaths, not just because of the suffering of the families, but because these deaths also shake our confidence in our legal system, raise challenging questions about the nature of justice and systems of power, and force us to confront realities of race and class differences in our society.

In fact, the events of the past week deserve attention in Gambier because of the challenging issues they raise. All of us at Kenyon make a commitment to lead well-examined lives, to understand the complexity behind tragic events, to learn lessons from both history and present-day, and to apply these lessons as we move beyond the Hill. The study of the liberal arts is not intended to be an exercise in self-indulgence. Rather, we engage in the study of the liberal arts because of an ancient belief that an understanding of the humanities, of art, and of the sciences (natural and social) makes us better citizens. Since classical times, a liberal arts education is seen to have social value, and those who benefit from this education also have obligations toward society overall.

Our work is not complete until we push ourselves to apply the experiences of the classroom to meaningful examination of the events of our time. Courses in political philosophy help us reflect on the nature of justice, individual rights and protection of the state. The study of history illuminates the narrative of how race, gender, class and systems of power shape communities such as those in Cleveland and Ferguson. Studies in psychology and sociology help us dissect the systems behind individual and collective action that create barriers for all of us to better understand the nature of difference. And the study of literature and art conveys the power of human tragedy and our struggles to understand it. 

We cannot and should not end with mere examination of outside events. Our work is not complete until we can use the lessons of distant events to examine and understand the dynamics, tensions and issues in our own communities. For we may find that the issues and questions raised by the events in Cleveland, Ferguson and New York City connect to the climate and culture that we create here on campus on a wide range of issues. For example, questions about the role that systems of power play in shaping institutional systems of justice resonate in prominent commentary  about sexual violence on college campuses

And, finally, even this is not enough. Where we identify problems within our own communities, we must continually work to improve and to find solutions. This is what it means to connect a liberal arts education to the actions of engaged citizenship.

The semester is winding down, and, as always, the sprint to the end can be exhausting.  But we should not pass up the moment to reflect, examine and look to the future in the wake of recent events. Students on campus have planned a March In Solidarity on Sunday, Dec. 7, at 1 p.m. on Middle Path. The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is sponsoring an open discussion on these events on Tuesday, Dec. 9, at 4:10 p.m. in Rosse Hall, featuring the perspective of professors Marla Kohlman, Irene Lopez, Glenn McNair and Ric Sheffield.  I encourage members of the Kenyon community to attend.