The Power of Education to Unite and Heal
January 7, 2021
Dear Stony Brook University community,
As our community and nation reckon with the rioting and chaos that besieged the United States Capitol Building yesterday, we are naturally experiencing a combination of shock, fear, disgust, and anger. Instead of a day intended to mark the peaceful transfer of power, we witnessed a day when the United States Capitol was violently assaulted and civic duty halted. Like many of you, I watched in horror as the symbolic heart of democracy was attacked by a hatred and rage that is antithetical to what we aspire to be as a nation.
And like you, I’m searching to put this in context. As a historian of the Civil War period, I know that no such insurrection has ever before occurred at the Capitol Building, even when our country was at war with itself. In fact, the nation has experienced no such attack since the British burned the unfinished Capitol in the War of 1812. Since then, the Capitol has stood as a powerful symbol of America’s democratic institutions. How do we heal as a nation in the face of the latest assault on our core values?
I believe that as scholars and members of a university community, we have a profound role to play going forward. American higher education has always served as a means to educate informed citizens who will go on to lead productive lives and participate in their own self-governance. That historic role leads me to the certainty that we have it in our power, as a community, to reassert and fight for the values of our democracy. We must be a place of healing and unity, and an institution that reinforces our nation’s most cherished ideals, including equality, justice, freedom of expression, peaceful dissent, and lawful participation in the workings of our government.
Never has it been more important to protect and cherish these principles on our campus, where care, respect, and civility must guide our interactions with each other. Never have our expertise and scholarship been more needed to inform how our country can solve our greatest challenges, including the pandemic, economic threats, systemic racial injustice and social inequality, climate change, and the partisan divisiveness that has badly frayed the fabric of our national identity and challenged our democracy.
We must dedicate ourselves to the work of sustaining democracy. It’s going to take all of us at Stony Brook — every faculty and staff member, every clinician and student — to support each other in this challenging time, to live up to our mission, and remember that our community has the power to unite, heal, and lead the way to a stronger future. As a country, we are at a moment of profound questioning: Who are we as a nation and a people, in what do we believe, and what do we want our shared future to be? Yesterday’s events remind us of how precious and precarious democracy and freedom can be, and how important it is to work to preserve them. We as a community have the power to work together and recommit to Abraham Lincoln’s exhortation that this nation “shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”