Fighting Fear Through the Commerce of Ideas
Mid-December, and semesters are ending, so that students and faculty, administrators and classified staff can all take a break. Christmas is less than a week away, the New Year is supposed to bode well, and we are expected to be looking joyful and bright.
But something is amiss.
As The Economist magazine put it in a Dec. 12 cover story, we are faced with “...a serious threat to the openness and tolerance that Western societies take for granted.”
The Economist calls this threat fear, and recent presidential debaters have called it a sense of insecurity, a feeling that we are not “safe.”
As I sit in an office at one of the six institutions where I am teaching this semester, I am reading final assignments from students who are technologically aware and well-connected. My students may have been born in Romania or Russia or Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Haiti, Mexico, England, or even right here in California, but they all seem to share an eagerness to learn. They express neither fear nor insecurity, unless a bad grade or incomprehensible syntax in a foreign language can be called fear- or insecurity-inducing.
In a semester-ending session, of one of my French conversation classes this morning, less than 12 hours after the most recent presidential candidate debate, a student asked in broken French how many of us in class today were really, truly afraid, how many of us felt unsafe, how many of us sensed la trouille, a French word for bone-chilling, immobilizing fear. And most of the class members agreed that, as one Englishwoman put it, the comments about insecurity, fearsomeness, and a lack of safety are, as The Economist wrote, “warping (the world's) agenda.” Rather, as two seasoned travelers in the class stated, ““It's idiotic to let a fear of terror tear down our plans. That would make them know that they had won.”
The Economist calls upon us not to give in to fear, not to feel ourselves immobilized by la trouille. Rather, the magazine states, we should “draw on the power of liberal ideals,” and this is what we at the community college are good at:
“New technology, prosperity, and commerce will do more than xenophobia to banish people’s insecurities,” The Economist writes, and I submit that our rich populations of community college students hailing from everywhere are bound to provoke the communication that will lead to the commerce of ideas that will make us all prosper. The more we know about each other, our students, and our students’ backgrounds, and the more we can promote the openness that The Economist cites as being a horror to terrorists and disseminators of fear, the better we can “overcome resentment, rather than putting up walls.”
The Economist suggests that we disseminate “the West's Enlightenment values.” As a professor of French, I have been doing that a lot this semester, and I hope that my fellows are doing likewise. We have been reading Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Rousseau, and Voltaire, analyzing the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert, and noticing similarities between seventeenth-eighteenth-century ignorance and a twenty-first century choice to be unaware. The French philosophers of the Enlightenment wished to dissolve the obscure, to “combat the darkness of ignorance through the diffusion of knowledge.” We at the community college can and should do this, and one easy, initial way to do that is to “stand for openness and tolerance,” as The Economist states. We have to break down barriers financial and physical, yes, but we must also dissipate this false sense of insecurity. We are safe when we know things. We know things because we are the community of what is most collegial: A cooperate relationship between ourselves and our mostly-adult students who share a common purpose with us to develop respect for one another and for Learning with a very big L.