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Mark PhillipsMay 14, 2024
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

During the American Civil War, the military surgeon Theodore Calhoun recommended ridicule as a means to curb the nostalgia of Union soldiers who longed for home and peace. This supposed remedy reminds me that when President Biden was beginning his term of office and spoke of finding hope in his memories of elected representatives who negotiated in good faith across party lines, critics mocked him as a quixotic sentimentalist.

I don’t know enough about politics in Washington to say whether Mr. Biden’s urging of political compromise has been sincere, but I do recall that not terribly long ago, before opinion polls began reporting pessimism about our national future, it was easier for American citizens to disagree about most political issues without lobbing anger, ridicule and fear from separate trenches. We now distrust opinion polls almost as much as we do one another, but perhaps we can remember how to believe in hope.

Of late, I have been reflecting on a small skirmish and reconciliation I witnessed years ago. I was employed at St. Bonaventure University in a scholarship program for underprepared students from low-income families. One of my responsibilities was to teach an introductory course on academic skills such as note-taking, as well as to encourage close reading of challenging texts, participation in classroom discussion and appreciation of a broad education. In one class, the students and I discussed an excerpt from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The conversation began well, but when we examined the author’s claim that it is absurd to regard women as “the womb,” a male student announced he would expect his wife to stay home to care for their children—a statement that abruptly divided the class into hostile camps.

With mostly men on one side and women on the other, recrimination quickly supplanted intellectual curiosity. I could not calm the agitated students. One left her seat to shout at another, and—fearing they might have a physical confrontation—I edged between them. My next group of students, having encountered those from my earlier class, were already arguing about gender roles as they entered the classroom. I again was unable to direct attention back to the text of The Second Sex.

Later that day, a math instructor asked me about my morning classes; after their departure from my classroom, students had entered hers arguing. I explained the dispute but admitted, “I don’t understand the anger.”

The next time my earliest class met, several of the students resisted moving on to the humdrum topic of note-taking. Fortunately, the young man who had set off the argument about gender roles raised his hand and said, “Let me tell where I was coming from yesterday. I lived in the projects when I was little and my mother worked nights and couldn’t afford a babysitter. My brother and I were alone. We were always scared. We didn’t live in a safe place.” I asked whether he would stay home with their children if his spouse were the higher earner, and after a long pause, sounding reluctant, he said he would.

The students suddenly sought to understand each other, becoming again a group of friends. “Now I’ll tell where I come from,” a woman said. “My mother lives with a man that abuses her, and she won’t leave because she doesn’t have a job and can’t support our family. I plan to have a good job.” A man who had been mostly silent in my classes and had not joined the argument of the previous day said, “One reason I would want my wife to have a good job is that my father abandoned our family. After that, we were poor. If something happens to me, I don’t want my family poor.” Across the room, a woman said, “I wish you guys would have told us before.”

I postponed the subject of note-taking, and we continued our examination of The Second Sex. Civilly.

As someone who grew up in an unsentimental, working-class family and lives in a hardscrabble region of rural America, a.k.a. “the real world,” I suspect I am foolish—depressingly close to knowing I am foolish—to grasp at hope for our dangerously divided nation while recalling one incident of reconciliation reached in the bubble of a college classroom. Perhaps such a memory can serve as little more than my personal, fleeting escape from the fear, selfishness, pain, indifference and loneliness that contribute to our caustic and occasionally violent political divisions. Yet perhaps an encouraging memory like this is something each of us needs before national reconciliation can begin to be possible. Many of us can recall an experience similar to what I witnessed in a college classroom, and though I am inclined to ask, “What does that matter now?”, who can live long without hope? Can a democracy?

It happened nearly 20 years ago, my witnessing of an isolated reconciliation in what now seems to have been a different country. Yet if not in our individual and collective pasts—in “reflective nostalgia,” to use the writer Svetlana Boym’s phrase for a tentative and examined form of longing—where do we find hope for reasonable cohesion when friendships are strained by political disagreement and some families avoid political discussion altogether? What can motivate elected representatives to negotiate in good faith when their voters fear or refuse to hear other voters?

By remembering how a group of students mended a fracture, I still possess some hope for national reconciliation, for a diverse rapprochement that begins in friendships and families. Without reconciliation, the final American commonality may be a threnody for our lost nation.

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