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Remarks by Mariko Silver at 20th Anniversary Celebration Benefit

Mariko Silver delivered the following remarks at Humanity in Action's Twentieth Anniversary Celebration Benefit on December 8, 2016, at Christie's in New York City. Silver is the President of Bennington College and a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow.  

 

The story of Humanity in Action begins, at its heart, with Europe in 1933. In 1933, Europe was entering into a crisis that threatened fundamental values and principles, institutions, and individuals. Fast forward to 2016, here in the United States. We, as a community, as a nation, are facing significant uncertainty. This, too, may be such a crisis. The questions are of degree and proportion.

As Michael Kunichika said on this Tuesday's Humanity in Action Fellows call: "the totality of the threat is hard to gauge."

For many the threats are individually and personally existential: state sanctioned violence already kills Americans with alarming frequency and deprives many more of liberty. Our "law and order" president-elect has promised to incarcerate more and has named targets. His chosen National Security Team has also indicated a willingness to escalate violence and intensify militarization. 

Will our systems—democracy and its institutions, our economic system—face threats to their very existence? 

In order even to approach these questions we must be able to differentiate cultural criticism from censorship, fundamental values from partisanship and sour grapes. We are in a moment when too many people seem not to be able to tell the difference and in which the dominant discourse, led by the president-elect, is deliberately blurring the lines.

In part, academia opened this door. We worked hard to bring multiple voices and multiple truths to the fore. This work has been and remains essential work. In fact, it is ever more essential in our present moment.

But just because there are multiple truths, does not mean that there are not falsehoods. And these falsehoods, as we see now regularly (at a pizza place in D.C., for example) are powerful and have consequences. 

As a college president I see that we must ensure, in our scholarship and our teaching, that while we illuminate multiple truths, we concentrate equal effort on cultivating in our students the discernment and tools they need to know what is false.

We also must be more deliberate in teaching them how to turn a cacophony of feelings into analysis and deliberate action. That bridge, between feelings and analysis—along with the distinction between opinions and facts—are the anchors of an education, and they made a real difference in how people voted in this election.

As is often the case, we look to history for solutions—perhaps we are drawn to the past because it is something we know, and provides a rootedness and comfort in a time of great uncertainty. Yes, we should learn from history, but at the same time, we must consider the possibility that what we are seeing now is a true and irreparable rupture and that what will require us to make something new. We must equip ourselves, our students, our institutions for that. We can, as others have said, move from safe spaces to brave spaces.  

Let us, too, not be confused. What is now much maligned as identity politics is not the divisive cudgel of the minority left. It is the emergence of voices from communities that are traditionally unheard. Now is the time to amplify those voices, not silence them.  

And, let us not forget, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently reminded us so eloquently, that identity politics as a cudgel is "a white invention: it was the basis of segregation."

I want every student (but at least every Bennington student) to learn not just how to survive in the world as they find it, but to make the world as they want it to be. Taking this view seriously means, for one, transforming the way we approach higher education from the bottom up. 

As I said to the Bennington faculty at our faculty meeting last week: We--you--have the power, too. 

I went to Yale, but it was my experience with Humanity in Action that truly introduced me to Kierkegaard, Foucault, and Hegel; to different concepts of what K-12 education, incarceration, and a social compact could be; and to modern European anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism. 

It also introduced me to an extraordinary community of inspiring friends. My Humanity in Action compatriot, Heather Lord, taught me so much about how to engage people directly and not wait for them to come to you. There are more stories than a few minutes can hold. 

My own commitment to changing our world by transforming our institutions has been cultivated over the course of my career, which has taken me from the world of higher education to the world of Washington politics and back again. What I’ve learned in this trajectory is that institutions—even the most seemingly immovable ones—are made by people, and can be changed by people. You in this room know this, but it is important to remember that not everyone does. 

For me, this journey was, and continues to be, undeniably shaped by Humanity in Action.

Thank you, Judy.

 

 

 

 

 

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