The state of civil society at Macalester

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This "Household Words" column appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

The campus community has wrestled thoughtfully and respectfully with 'hard questions'

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Stephen Carter, professor of law at Yale University and among our most powerful writers on topics including religion, race and ethics. Carter's central point was that the basis of civil society, and especially civil society within a democracy, was a willingness to wrestle with complexities, to argue cogently for one's beliefs, and--maybe most important--to treat those with whom we disagree charitably and with respect.

Not surprisingly, Carter notes little evidence of this willingness in the political discourse of the present moment. "We've become extremely good at announcing our positions," he observed, "but terribly bad at defending them." And then, in a remark that possesses the strangely eloquent power of simple truths, he noted that "the reason hard questions are called 'hard questions' is that they are hard questions."

Carter's lecture led me to reflect upon the state of civil society at Macalester and, by and large, to be encouraged. Twice in recent months the willingness of this community to wrestle thoughtfully and respectfully with "hard questions" has been tested and, at least in my view, twice we have passed. The first instance was during this year's iteration of the Macalester International Roundtable, an annual symposium focused on matters of national and global consequence. Speakers including Niall Ferguson, Tariq Ali and Michael Ledeen addressed the issue of America and global power from a range of perspectives, some of which are clearly minority viewpoints on the Macalester campus. With a few exceptions--there are always exceptions--we were up to the challenge, and the discourse over three days was intense, provocative, civil and deeply valuable both substantively and symbolically.

Even more visible has been the ongoing discussion of balancing quality and access at the college, a discussion that for some can be distilled down to the question of whether or not we can and should maintain our current version of "need-blind" admissions. I cannot in this column summarize the substance of this discussion; for that, I refer you to my letter in the last issue of this magazine, the Macalester Web site and any number of issues of the Mac Weekly published throughout the fall.

Here I will simply note that in a variety of settings--an open forum for alumni, an on-campus debate, meetings with student government and the Alumni Board, faculty meetings, informal discussions and e-mails--the majority of the exchanges have been reasoned and fair, reflective of a community that cares deeply and thinks energetically about hard questions. One recent graduate wrote in a message to me that "Macalester alumni react with their hearts but decide with their heads." While I am not sure that heart and head, emotion and reason, can or should be so neatly disentangled, I take him to mean that our alumni are prepared to move beyond pronouncements and to engage with the kinds of nuanced challenges that the broader public, unhappily, too often seems inclined to look past. The evidence suggests that he is correct.

There is, of course, another view: that is, that less thoughtful and more demagogic tactics work, that they "win," and that therefore one should adopt them on behalf of a cause in which one passionately believes. Certainly this assumption appears to dominate the current political landscape on both the national and local levels, and there is some evidence to suggest that it is accurate. My response is merely to observe that each of us must come to an understanding of what constitutes "winning." If prevailing in a battle of ideas means adopting tactics that undermine the nature of civil society, there may be times when it is better to lose.

Near the end of his lecture, Stephen Carter recalled a long-ago conversation with the great Thurgood Marshall, for whom he had clerked nearly a quarter-century earlier. Carter had asked Marshall to describe his impressions of John W. Davis, his opponent in Brown v. Board of Education and perhaps the foremost litigator of his time. Passing on the opportunity to attack, Marshall instead surprised Carter by volunteering the following observation: "John W. Davis? A good man. A great man. He was just all wrong about that segregation thing." This came from a person who had literally risked his life in the fight for equality and justice and who had every reason in the world to treat his antagonists with the deepest of contempt. If Marshall could demonstrate such humanity and grace, what should the rest of us ask of ourselves, who have been much less sorely tested?