Mfi Nov15 Blog

How a liberal education saved a racist from himself

As I’ve written here before, I’m a huge fan of liberal education because there is ample evidence that the 21st century economy will increasingly rely on workers with broad knowledge who know how to collaborate, be creative, communicate and critically think. These are the very skills that are built by the liberal arts.

First, it should be noted that the term “liberal education” has nothing to do with political ideology, though some critics have unfairly accused many American colleges and universities of being breeding grounds for the left. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently offered one of the best definitions of liberal education I have seen: “Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

Recently, the Washington Post published a fascinating feature story that perfectly illustrates how a liberal education empowered a student to deal with the “complexity, diversity and change” of America’s racial landscape. Derek Black was raised from birth to be a leading voice in the American white nationalism movement. Black – whose godfather is white supremacist icon David Duke and whose father is the creator of one of the alt right’s most popular websites – was from an early age home schooled and steeped in his parents’ white nationalist worldview. As a tween, he developed a website to indoctrinate children into white nationalism.

His parents, confident that their son’s belief in the inherent superiority of white people was impenetrable, didn’t flinch when he told them he wanted to attend the New College of Florida, a small liberal arts college in Sarasota, to study medieval European history. But a funny thing happened to Derek Black once he was on campus. After he was outed as a spokesperson for the white nationalist movement, a Orthodox Jewish student at the school made a conscious decision to embrace rather than shun Black. He invited him to weekly Shabbat dinners and there a small and diverse group of students had insightful discussions that challenged the racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim ideas that formed much of Black’s identity.

Black soon found himself taking classes and reading essays and books that exposed him to the cultural contributions of non-whites. After much study and soul searching, Black ultimately denounced white nationalism.

Last week, after reading a Detroit Free Press article about a now-viral video of white Royal Oak middle school students chanting “build the wall!” (a nod to President-Elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to construct a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border), I found myself desperately searching for positive news about race relations in America. I found solace and inspiration in the story of Derek Black’s transformation at the New College of Florida.

Obviously, I don’t believe that liberal education is a panacea to cure American racism. But our country needs more critical thinkers like Derek Black. Liberal education gives students the intellectual tools to question concepts and ideologies – like racism – that are unable to withstand the scrutiny of thoughtful analysis.

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Kim Trent

Kim Trent was a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future's mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. She also serves on the Wayne State University Board of Governors and is especially interested in education policy and race, class and gender issues.

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