I entered Auditorium D in Angell Hall on an otherwise unremarkable Monday afternoon. Well, it would be unremarkable if it wasn’t the first day of class. Might I add, it was the first day of in-person classes in over a year. I found my seat and prepared myself for another long ride, but hopefully a refreshing one after a year of Zoom University. I got out my notebook, opened my laptop and was ready to jot down every word. As the professor began talking, going over introductions and so forth, I found myself starry-eyed for a moment. I truly believed this was going to be a good year. As time ticked on, and the class progressed, I was increasingly drawn in and enthralled by the subject.
My professor was discussing how we were going to be studying power in politics and Congress. He discussed the topics we would be covering, the details of congressional functions and power dynamics on Capitol Hill as well as some of the issues Congress faces. Then, he started to talk about the kinds of people we were going to be learning from. At that moment, my starry eyes were sharply drawn open, alert and aware. I felt as if I had been slapped in the face. It wasn’t a hand that slapped me awake, but rather a string of words woven together in a sentence that in essence conveyed this: we are going to disregard what these people did, whether they were good or evil, whether they were right or wrong, and learn from them nonetheless because they knew something about power that you ought to know.
My professor continued this sentiment by stating, “We are not here to separate good from evil, or judge these people for their actions. We are here to learn from them, regardless of how bad they are. We are going to learn from segregationists, from people who supported slavery.”
A puzzled expression crept onto my face, not that anyone could see it under my mask, as my professor continued to talk about how we were going to be learning from Al Franken, who notoriously resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct. The professor quickly moved on, disregarding an opportunity to have a serious discussion about a controversial figure, and class ended soon after. I was left to ponder the words that came out of my professor’s mouth as I walked back to my room.
Nothing he had said was directly confrontational, so why did I feel there was a conflict here? He focused on the aspect that we were going to be learning in this class. He wanted us to be able to take something away from the people we learn from. His desire was that we would leave his class with skills to acquire power on our own, and use it for our future goals. I still felt uneasy.
Reflecting now, I can see plainly what I didn’t at first. My professor was going to gloss over the negative actions of these men, at least to begin the class. As a student, it felt like he was prioritizing learning targets over ethical complexities. I was disheartened seeing a figure that is supposed to be teaching nuanced lessons skipping over important complications on the first day.
Perhaps the argument could be made that this was not his intent. Perhaps this was the best solution for him given the time constraints of the semester. Maybe he planned on going in more depth later on when we get to these individuals. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain his intentions for this approach in depth. The time constraint could be a very real issue, but surely discussion of the people we are learning from would supersede any time constraint.
Thinking about it takes me back to a different time. Two years ago, to be precise. Freshman year of college, not a care in the world, a new town, new friends and a new outlook on life. My friend group immediately clicked. I am not sure why, and I am not sure what made it work for that first year, but it was incredibly fun. We stayed up all night watching movies, skipping class and hanging out. We became acquainted, over time, with each of our fundamental beliefs, our politics, religion and so much more. The Democratic primaries were prime time for us to get to discuss our political beliefs — we debated, joked and generally just tried to enjoy our differences.
One example that comes to mind is an argument we had where only one of my friends was an outlier. They believed that drugs were bad, and therefore the current policy treating drug users as criminals was justified. They based this belief on their religion. None of us agreed with it because we felt that this policy stemmed from a bad place, namely racism and the War on Drugs, and moreover, it hurt people. The U.S. government’s drug policy tears families apart, ruins individuals’ lives and can often lead to death from a lack of proper support systems.
Predictably, no one “won” the argument, and the group remained polarized. After this particularly nasty debate, I remember reflecting on the argument with my friend. I remember her talking about how she tried everything. Nothing would change the mind of our other friend. Then she said a simple yet powerful sentence that I will never forget: “I don’t know how to tell you that you should care about other people.”
Today, the words still resonate with me. I carry them with me everywhere I go. To me, they mean that despite our beliefs, despite our differences, we should always remember that in the end, we are all human. We should care about each other, we should wish each other well, we should hold each other up because it makes us better people. It makes us stronger.
I think that those 14 words buoy me when I am down, when I am crushed by others who fail to acknowledge other human beings and their emotions, their desires, their thoughts. These words carry me through the toughest topics and the most intense debates. At the end of the day, you should still care about others despite whatever you are arguing. These words certainly helped me when it came to the issues I have with my professor. They reminded me that the most important thing for me is caring about others, even when an authority figure is disregarding them.
My professor’s stance on the people we are learning from immediately reminded me of my freshman year. It also reminded me of what it was like to be confronted with a position or ideal. When all else fails, when logic and reason and evidence can’t seem to convince someone their difference of opinion is founded in the wrong place, perhaps we could tell them they should care about others, and hold those that hurt others accountable. In my mind, we have an obligation to care about those around us. To consider what other people think and feel, and make sure they are understood. So next time someone says something that disregards other people, speak up, and say, “I don’t know how to tell you that you should care about other people.”
Sam Schmitz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.