Every year before the first day of classes we have “Convocation,” where faculty who wish to participate dress in full academic regalia, and a faculty member gives a welcoming address to the incoming students, this time the class of 2014. It was hot — we’re having 90 degree weather and wearing those robes was uncomfortable to say the least (the students, of course, had shorts and t-shirts). But it’s worth it, it starts the new year by bringing together faculty and new students and talking about what a liberal arts education is all about. Liberal education isn’t about politics, but about education to liberate oneself to be able to think and act without being controlled or manipulated by custom, propaganda, or misinformation.
The speaker today was Dr. Jonathan Cohen talking about community — what a college community is all abut, as well as how his field of philosophy investigates the meaning of concepts like community. The students read a piece about building community by Martin Buber, a German Jew who was born in Vienna in 1878, fled Germany in 1938, and died in Israel in 1965, still working for the peaceful reconciliation of Jews and Arabs.
Dr. Cohen talked about how Buber defined community as a group connected by a “living center,” and commented about how relationships are central to life. After the talk we divided into discussion groups with some questions Jonathan put together to facilitate discussion. We had a great session, though we never got beyond the first question.
We talked about the context of the piece we read — a 1930 speech by Buber to a German Jewish youth group. Before the Third Reich, German Jews were a group that often stressed the “German” part of their identity more than their Jewish background. Ever since King Frederick II of Prussia, a believer in enlightenment values, banned discrimination against Jews, they were able to rise higher in Prussia and then Germany than in most other European states. The German Kaiser made a friendly visit to early Jewish settlements in Palestine, and many German intellectuals convinced themselves that Antisemitism was weakening as Europe modernized.
By 1930, that was changing. Hitler and other German nationalists responded to the economic turmoil facing Germany by starting a movement urging “true” Germans to take back the country from the socialists, pacifists, internationalists and liberals who deep down hated what Germany stood far and were stabbing the country in the back. For Hitler the Jews were parasites, weakening Germany from within. The truth, of course, is that German culture was enriched and shaped by German Jewish contributions, but spouting a nationalist message made that easy to ignore and reject. Whether it was Einstein or Schoenberg, German Jews were corrupting rather than advancing the culture.
Yet this worked to build community. When the Nazis took power, they created a strong sense of German solidarity, with efforts to foster a sense of shared values amongst Germans. Even flying hero Charles Lindbergh returned from a visit to Germany saying “we can learn from the Nazis,” seeing them united and proud of their country, while the US wallowed in depression.
In fact, if history stopped on November 8, 1938 (the day before Kristallnacht initiated official violence against Jews) and we were to judge Nazi rule from 1933 to 1938 we’d no doubt criticize Antisemitism and racism, but also be impressed by the positive role fascism played in building an emotional sense of community.
Yet note how this community was defined and shaped: the good Germans vs. bad “others” who were set to destroy Germany from within, internal traitors who needed to be defeated. The Communists, Socialists, Liberals, pacifists, internationalists and Jews were all espousing ideas that undercut true German values. Germans had to reclaim their core values and identity by defeating and silencing these traitorous voices. And though it seemed to work for the short term, the very nature of that sense of community assured war. The fundamental logic of the Nazi sense of community was to secure “true” German values by defeating evil and treasonous enemies who caused the depression and the defeat of Germany in WWI. The need to eliminate “the other” was foundational for the Nazi sense of national identity.
Buber’s idea of community, however, was different in that it is positive. A community comes together around a living center. It is relational, we build connections with others, find common ground, and develop a sense of shared identity. There are “others” outside the community, but difference does not mean division. A positive community is not defined in opposition to others, or by demonizing and dehumanizing others, but rather on relational dynamics within the community. Such positive communities can also be part of larger communities; other-ness is not a barrier to building new relationships.
We as a country are in difficult times right now. We need and yearn for community — that is another of Buber’s points. For all our talk about individualism and self-reliance, humans are communal by nature, we need to work together and have meaningful relationships. Yet politicians and demagogues can twist that yearning for community into something ugly. If they focus on demonizing the “other” — Muslims, Liberals, right-wingers, illegal immigrants, socialists or capitalists — we risk creating communities built on a necessary need to defeat and even destroy those who are outside that community. Even if it doesn’t go as far as Germany in the 30s, it would inevitably weaken our country and endanger our values.
We still yearn for community. We build it in a positive sense in a college community through our shared desire to learn and advance a true communication (not just facts being handed down for students to learn). As a country we have to find a way too come together to listen to each other — deeply and respectfully listen. Even as work through disagreements, we must avoid the temptation to demonize the other or paint others as traitors, evil, or somehow inferior. That path can give one a feeling of self-righteousness and even purpose, but it’s a delusion.
I think we as a country are up to the challenge. As a faculty member working with students my goal is to do what I can to play a small role in helping our larger community cope with the difficulties we face. I believe students with a strong, liberating liberal arts education can learn to not only think for themselves, but not be deluded by emotional appeals to fear and loathing of others.