Calvin Butts on Public Education

Question: What are you trying to accomplish at SUNY Old Westbury?

Rev. Butts:       Well, now, I’m trying to make sure that the budget cuts that we have to endure in the State of New York do not hurt the progress that we’ve made.  We’ve taken the college with some 40 plus majors, 46 plus majors and added at least 8 graduate programs.  We are the most diverse college.  We are one of the most diverse colleges in the nation and we are certainly the most diverse college in the SUNY system and I want to maintain that diversity.  When you come to SUNY Old Westbury, you’ve got white, black, Latino, Asian, but you’ve got everybody else also.  You have Muslims, Christian, Jewish, Catholic.  It’s a very wonderful community.  It’s a microcosm of the 21st century world.  I want to continue to build on that.  I want to continue to increase the number of students.  We are now at about 3,500.  I want us to remain a small college, but I’d like to get our headcount up to about 5,000.  We’re on 605 acres of land and I want the beauty of that land to attract particularly young men and women from urban settings, not only in the 5 counties of New York City but also from upstate New York, you know, Buffalo, [Utica], Syracuse, but I also want to attract from around the state in terms of increasing our population.  Most important, as we continue to shine this jewel and make it sparkle, we’re doing great now, you’re welcome to come and visit us.  I want to make the case for public education.  It cost too much money for something that should be a right.  I’ve got young men and women.  We have young men and women in our country who are bright, but they can’t afford $20,000, $40,000 a year, $20,000 a semester, plus you got to add on room and board and books.  I can give, when I say I, the State University of New York can give a young men and or women a quality education.  I’ve got a wonderful faculty, wonderful faculty for right now, room and board, tuition $14,000 a year.  That’s what I want people to understand and especially poor people and particularly black people.  I’m a graduate of a HBCU Historically Black College and University, Morehouse College, I love it.  I love all the HBCU’s but I can give you a better education than HBCU at half the price or quarter the price.  Come.  That’s what I want to do.  I want men and women who are struggling everyday.  I mean, this mortgage crisis is terrible.  You’re seeing, you know, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch being sold.  Lehman Brother is failing.  People are struggling out here.  Gas price is going through the roof, but yet education and that’s why we spend so much time building the public schools in Harlem.  We know about charter schools and vouchers and, you know, that’s another discussion, but most of our children particularly poor children, black and white will have to go to public schools and we should not abandon these schools.  And so, our commitment, I’ve created an education [carita].  I can get you and head start which is [legislation] of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.  I can bring you through kindergarten in a public school setting, middle school up to high school, all public schools and then take you to public college.  It’s a [carita] and the parents have little expense than if they had to go through the private school.  That’s part of my calling.  That’s why I can do Old Westbury with great joy because it’s all a part of trying to empower most of us who are in America.  We don’t have a lot of money.  We’re struggling everyday, that’s the common ground.  That’s the cruel hoax of race.  The poor white person and the poor black person ought not to be at each others’ throats trying to scapegoat the other.  We’re in the same boat.  I have traveled this country completely, and I’ve seen poor whites, they’ve got the same issues – drugs, alcohol, early pregnancies, broken families, trying to make mortgages work, same thing that poor black people are going through.  And that’s the commonality.  That’s what made Martin Luther King, I would argue so dangerous in the end because he was bringing poor people together as they used to say the long-haired hippie and the afro black.  He brought us together and we were marching.  That’s what made people in the higher places afraid because we are realizing who we are as Americans.  We found the common ground and we discovered where the real focus of our attention ought to be.  So, at Old Westbury, I want to continue our focus, I want to keep the diversity so that black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, “so to speak”, we all see our commonality.  We can respect each other’s religions, languages, but we know what we want.  So, you take a fellow like Barack Obama, a Kenyan father, a mother from Kansas and he has an opportunity, went to Harvard, great!  Everybody can go to Harvard, at least can afford to pay for it.  So, now, I’m saying don’t spend all of these money, come to a public institution, and we’ll do a good job for you and that’s I’m a preacher for the public institutions.  You know, I’m just trying to spread that gospel all across the country, all across the tri-state area because it makes sense.  And I’ll put any member of our faculty up against anybody else, any other faculty person and some of our students are doing very well.  They’re in all kinds of jobs all across the country.  They are doctors, lawyers, Oscar winning film producers, all out of Old Westbury.  So, you better ask me another question ‘cause then I, I’ll get off on Old Westbury.

Calvin Butts discusses SUNY Westbury and why more people should consider higher education at public institutions.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.