Critical Thinking on Display: "Coming to the Table" and Processing the Presidential Election
By Benjamin Gee '18
In early January, with the upcoming winter term and resumption of classes looming over the horizon, a curious proposition was communicated to the student body via an email from a University-sanctioned account. This email contained an offer for all students to participate in an upcoming event called “Coming to the Table,” sponsored by a namesake Steering Committee comprised of seven students spanning four class years. The aim of this event, according to the Committee, was to provide a forum for student discussion on the recent Presidential election and to share the various reactions – anger, jubilation, fear, and more – that all disparately arose from Donald Trump’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton. The Committee professed its faith “that W&L students are uniquely situated to bridge these ideological gaps by engaging in civil discourse with one another,” encouraging students to come and engage in one-on-one conversations with people of different political persuasions than themselves.
Why was there need for a University-wide email sent from an Administrative account that expressed a need for civil conversation? The answer is not difficult to discern when viewed in context of W&L’s one-sided reaction to Trump’s victory in November. The campus felt distinctly muted and quiet the day after the election; the speaking tradition was even more neglected than usual, with students mutely walking heads-down, carried forward by an air of somber gravity; the Colonnade appeared covered in a funereal shroud grimmer than the biting winds of fall weather. Throughout the following week, several events were held to “discuss” the election, and offer Administrative support to those experiencing acute distress from its result.
However, these forums soon proved poor sources for civil discussion. Anti-Trump students, the majority presence at these events, declared their shared hatred for the President-elect, sometimes extending this resentment towards the people who voted for him. A smaller group of non-Clinton voters including third-party, abstaining, and Trump voters, felt clearly intimidated into silence, given no opportunity to explain their own voting decisions. Although the school Administration, Executive Committee, and other major representative bodies all helped organize these events, little was actually invested into ensuring that all W&L students had an opportunity to speak and represent their positions in these public settings. In reality, the angriest students were given full moral authority – and according to many of these outraged students, Trump voters did not deserve a chance to speak or explain themselves. They were unworthy of a place at the table.
In its email to the student body nearly two months later, the Steering Committee of “Coming to the Table” wisely recognized the unfortunate single-mindedness that had pervaded previous University attempts to begin a conversation on the election and its consequences. Accordingly, they identified a need to facilitate non-public, one-on-one interactions between students: “Immediately after the presidential election, many of us attended events to share our reactions following a long campaign season. While students were able to express their immediate concerns in a group setting, there was limited opportunity for meaningful, one-on-one discussion with other students.” In the interest of providing these discussions, all students received an invitation to the event on January 19.
When the day arrived and students began filing into Evans Dining Hall, about fifty students had accepted the invitation, including the author. We were sorted into tables of five-six people, carefully organized with a balance of persons with different political views. After a short introduction from the Steering Committee and the provision of dining options, conversations began at the tables, with each taking on a life of its own. The author’s table contained an even mix of liberals and conservatives, including a few Trump voters and several Clinton supporters. The conversation was defined by an eager curiosity tempered with mutual respect. The left-leaning members of the table gave questions to the right-leaning attendees, asking for explanations on their positions for gay marriage, abortion, immigration, and religious freedom, alongside many other issues. The right-leaning students then reciprocated, inquiring into the rationale behind liberal positions on several other contentious issues. Persons from both sides reacted with encouragement and gratitude to these honest professions of principled belief, engaging in a constructive dialogue and learning from the opposing side’s arguments. The Steering Committee’s fine goal was amply accomplished at this table, and at many others – W&L students directly confronted their ideological differences, addressed each other as equals, and grew in understanding for one another as a result. The “Coming to the Table” event, as originally conceived by the University-sponsored Steering Committee, succeeded in its mission of providing a forum for civil discussion between students.
However, in a larger regard the event’s success underscores a troubling source for worry in our modern political climate. Like most schools, Washington and Lee University rightly prides itself on its dedication to educating students in the virtues of independent thinking. The school’s mission statement reads, “Washington and Lee University…develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely” - a mission that bears no uncertain significance to our role as civically engaged citizens, and as political participants in our democratic republic. To think independently, we ought to be capable of weighing very different arguments on the same intellectual scale without our biases and prejudices overturning any possibility of reasoned judgment. However, today we face new and impactful threats to our independence of mind. The Internet’s wide plethora of partisan activity lures us into quaintly self-constructed ideological echo chambers, reinforcing our beliefs to the exclusion of any contrary evidence. Our choices in books, movies, social media, and even our personal associations grow increasingly tied to our political views. Everyone, both Republicans and Democrats, face this challenge of increasing close-mindedness.
At Washington and Lee, the Liberal Arts education we receive is intended to liberate us from dependency on outside authority figures – teachers, Professors, and administrators – when learning about and engaging with the world as independent thinkers. After the divisive election in November, W&L students should have proven capable of autonomously processing the electoral result and learning from the positions on each side of the campaign. However, the “Coming to the Table” event was not a casual, everyday occurrence where students met and civilly resolved their differences – instead, it was a University-sponsored event by students from the upper echelons of student Government and campus activism. The initiative of these students is to be admired, but the necessity of their efforts reflects badly on our abilities as W&L students to civilly interact with one another when independent of supervision or external inspiration.
The 2016 election will be justly remembered as particularly bitter and aggressive. After such an election, it benefits the country to seek ways to repair the divides that bind us apart, and communities like Washington and Lee are no exception. In the aftermath of this divisive affair, W&L students ought to have led the way in bridging partisan divides, seeking to genuinely understand why someone might vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or neither at all when their decision was different from our own. The “Coming to the Table” event was a helpful step along the path towards restoring mutual respect, but the good work done there ought to have come from us ourselves, rather than from the beneficent encouragement of well-intended Administrators and student leaders. Only individual students, replicating the intellectual humility of “Coming to the Table” in our daily lives, can truly change a culture of near-crippling political divisiveness. In the future, individual students will hopefully more boldly live out the values of critical and independent thinking that we cherish so at Washington and Lee. Whether we can or not is a good indicator of what this institution has given us, and what we have given it in return.