Tuesday, October 21, 2014
October 21, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: Ruth Simmons
[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On two vital conference contributions from the most inspiring keynote speaker.
As I’ll note in tomorrow’s post, each of the conference’s speakers offered provocative contributions to our ongoing conversations; but one presentation definitely stood out, to me and it seemed to many of the attendees: Thursday’s pre-lunch keynote address by Dr. Ruth Simmons. I’ll admit that my initial knowledge of Simmons was based mostly on one problematic fact: that during her long and successful tenure as President of Brown University, she vocally opposed the efforts of Brown’s graduate students to unionize. While it’s certainly important not to forget those kinds of labor issues and realities—as the conference speakers too often did, on which more later this week—Simmons is of course defined by much more than that fact; and in her keynote address, she used a couple other complex aspects of her life and story to add crucial contributions to our conversations.
For one thing, Simmons connected the conference to our Houston setting in potent and provocative ways. Like most elite private universities, Rice exists in many ways separate from the city in which it is located, or at least it is easy to perceive the two settings as separate. Yet as Simmons talked about her experiences growing up in and then subsequently returning to Houston’s segregrated Fifth Ward—known, for obvious but still complex historical and social reasons, as the “bloody Fifth” or “bloody nickel”—she reminded us, forcefully, not only of the presence and interconnection of multiple communities within any American city and space, but also of the vital need to consider our more impoverished and threatened communities in any conversations about higher education, education in general, and the American future. For example, Simmons remarked on a painful perception of hers as she returned to the Fifth Ward in recent years—that not only do its young people have no more options (educational or otherwise) than did she and her peers half a century ago, but in many ways they seem to have fewer such possible paths.
Such significant, sobering perspectives were not all that Simmons contributed to our conversations, however. She also made the case for higher education’s transformative potential, its ability in particular to broader and deepen our perspectives (individual and communal) of other communities and cultures, other stories and histories, our fellow citizens of America and the world. And she did so in inspiring ways through her own story—of her arrival at New Orleans’ Dillard University as a young woman defined in part by both understandable anger and a concurrent, circumscribed worldview (both natural results of a childhood in the segregrated South); and of the ways in which her educational experiences, beginning with those undergraduate years and continuing into her graduate studies at Harvard University and the rest of her academic career, effected sea-changes in those perspectives. Simmons used current events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri to make an entirely convincing case that it is education—and perhaps only education—which can help change our historical, cultural, and communal understandings, just as it broadened and strengthened her own. I can’t think of a more important goal for the future of American higher education.
Next follow up tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?