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A national imperative: a deep summer's breath

By Claire E. Sterk, Emory University president | June 23, 2017

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Our national discord weighs on all of us, but none more than the fresh, young minds of our nation. Emory President Claire E. Sterk encourages students to prioritize listening, reflection and rest this summer.

News headlines are a daily reminder of the insidious intolerance and hate that seem to have seeped into our midst. In the past year, dramatic changes in our national dialogue and in the tone of our discourse have taken place. Deep-seated, conflicting values and beliefs have risen to the surface exposing raw emotion and anger. This contentious atmosphere stems partly from anxiety about what the future may hold, but also from a “take-off-the-gloves” culture shift in how we interact with one another. This heightened noise level is too often drowning out voices of reason and measured thought. Nowhere is this a more worrisome prospect than on our college campuses, which have long embodied the spirit of open-minded inquiry and civil debate on the most challenging issues of our times. And yet, this summer break comes none too soon for our students.

A recent national survey from the Panetta Institute finds that 72 percent of today’s college students feel uncertain and concerned about the country’s future – the most negative view in the poll’s 16-year history. College campuses have seen first-hand how our national divisiveness can impact civil discourse and free speech on difficult but necessary conversations, such as DACA, controversial speakers and travel bans. The Panetta study also reveals that a shocking 35 percent of college students reported being harassed this past year for their political beliefs. Too often our students are encouraged to see the world in terms of a stark black and white dichotomy – rather than the luminous grey that permeates the complexities of our time. Now more than ever, the value of critical-thinking skills and inclusive discourse should be buttressed and reinforced among future generations as they are self-evident and essential to combating winds of intolerance.

To our students across the nation, I say, “Do not follow by example. Lead the way.”  Do not stifle your passion and your voices ― which are so vital to the future of our nation ― or remain silent in the face of perceived injustices.  We must all stand up for what we believe. Yet, we cannot let this soundbite culture and acrimonious punditry reinforce a shallow and divisive worldview that denigrates and dismisses all those who may disagree with us. Our diversity of opinion and beliefs is what makes up the unique and rich fabric of our nation.  

In my first year as Emory University president, I have had many conversations with students personally impacted by this caustic environment – some who felt threatened and disrespected; some who worried about their futures as immigrant students; some who felt that their free speech was being challenged; and some who believed their voices were simply not being heard. Even though not everyone came with an open mind, one of the key reasons these conversations were constructive was because we chose to listen. We respected the fact that no matter our backgrounds or beliefs, we all wanted to be heard without judgment. As a foreign-born social scientist and the first woman president of Emory, I have learned first-hand how important it is to always honor that edict.

Our national discord weighs on all of us but none more than the fresh, young minds of our nation. As educators and parents, it is our job to address this anxiety in order to restore and strengthen our next generation’s hopes and optimism for the future if they are to become the impactful leaders and change-makers our country will need to thrive. 

The advent of the summer of 2017 could not be more timely – as a national pause is in order.  Over the next three months, I urge our students to prioritize one goal above all others: Take a deep summer’s breath.  

After a year of high-decibel living, polarizing rhetoric and tumultuous change, this summer is a time to drown out the superfluous and listen to the important sounds that may be getting lost. Listen to ideas that challenge your own. Listen to the neighbor with the bumper sticker you deride. Listen to your own inherent biases. Listen to what drives your real passion. Listen to the purpose you envision. Listen to the change you want to create. Listen and embrace those quiet voices. Make this your summer’s work and rest.

In drowning out the cacophony of these discordant times and reflecting on the mindset that will empower you and those in your midst to create meaningful change, you will find renewed grounding and purpose. You, our students, will return to college in the fall reinvigorated and inspired. Your voices strengthened.  You will continue to fight passionately for your beliefs, but you will also be our champions of measured thought and reason, our deep listeners and seekers of complicated truths. Most importantly, you will have restored faith and trust in your immense potential and the limitless possibilities that your future, and that of our nation, holds.