The horrific clash between white nationalists and counter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia riveted observers worldwide. The images of young men with tiki torches marching on the hallowed lawn of the University of Virginia and the violence that erupted in the city’s renamed Emancipation Park particularly disheartened me. While in Charlottesville, I took my undergraduate and law degrees from the university, attended the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s School that is adjacent to the law school, and met my now wife of 37 years, Paulette Jones Morant, who joined the first class of women and African Americans to matriculate in number to The University.
My 7.5 years in Charlottesville coincided with the university’s massive cultural change brought on by coeducation and integration. Despite isolated incidents of bigotry, misogyny and prejudice, the university and Charlottesville remained grinding works in progress, striving to manifest the Bill of Rights authored by James Madison.
The events of the past week, however, have cast a pall over the university and city. Considerable doubt clouds the reality of civil and racial harmony in that otherwise peaceful locale. My heart breaks at the thought that the university and the city that ushered me into adulthood and paved the way for my career now have these ugly racial incidents as a distinguishing feature.
Countless individuals will no doubt engage in endless commentary about the events that took place in Charlottesville. This inevitable discussion may hopefully shed light on factors that led to the expressions of hate and violence. Equally important, this commentary may provide a blueprint for positive action that diffuses such negative behavior. A myriad of questions should emerge in this colloquy, including: What factors fuel the white nationalist movement? Why has the movement attracted a significant number of followers, many of whom are white men under the age of 30? What steps can be taken to reduce bigotry and promote greater appreciation of the diversity that has defined this nation since its establishment?
Bigotry and prejudice have their roots in ignorance and misunderstanding. Elimination of these ills requires education, which, if encouraged and supported, can become a foundational catalyst for comprehension and creative problem solving. As the esteemed Nelson Mandela once observed, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
Overabundant rhetoric has paid lip service to the importance of education as a fundamental necessity. Rhetoric alone, however, does little to ensure a program of education that leads to positive change. The time has come to ensure that institutions of learning, both secondary and higher, have the resources and political encouragement needed to provide quality, holistic education. “Holistic education” connotes an educational mission and curriculum that includes the historical and sociological roots of human interaction, the function of government within a democratic society, and an appreciation of a truly participatory democracy engaged in civil discourse. Those who foster holistic education recognize that knowledge comes from the study of doctrine in a diverse, inclusive environment that is reflective of 21st century society. This educative model can become the catalyst for understanding and provide solutions that combat bigotry and prejudice.
To ensure true efficacy, a holistic program of education:
1. Provides a fundamental understanding of democracy and its underpinnings, and explains the function of government in a modern society;
2. Demonstrates the rule of law, due process, and the historical functionality of free speech within a complex democracy;
3. Establishes the salience of civility as a fundamental norm of intellectual and dialectic exchange;
4. Recognizes that a homogeneous educative environment remains anathema to the fostering of robust dialogue and critical problem solving and, thus, requires a fundamental appreciation and fostering of diversity and inclusion;
5. Fosters diversity and inclusion in all demographic and ideological forms, thereby enriching the educational experience and ensuring robust debate.
On the same day the violence occurred in Charlottesville, I encountered a young man wearing a hat that bore the University of Virginia insignia. He had considered attending the university but harbored doubts after viewing the disturbing scenes in Charlottesville. I implored him to base his decision on the school’s established reputation, not on a sensational event instigated by individuals who lack a true connection with the university and the Charlottesville community.
The gratitude expressed by the young man considering the University of Virginia prompted greater reflection on my part. If he attends the university, I am confident he will experience a pedagogy influenced by the events that initially gave him pause. The university should, and no doubt will, utilize the tragic events of last week to foster a greater understanding of the rule of law and morality, and encourage civil discourse that rejects racism, violence, and hate. Other educational institutions must take heed as well, thereby providing a silver lining to what has been an ominous cloud.