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Speeches & Media

Bridging the Divide

Examining democracies has never seemed more compelling or more urgent.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2022

Earlier this fall, the Pew Research Center released a study affirming what even a quick glimpse at this nation’s op-ed pages makes painfully clear: the U.S. is profoundly divided along nearly every imaginable dimension. “The United States stands out among 17 advanced economies,” the researchers wrote, “as one of the most conflicted when it comes to questions of social unity.” “The country is hugely divided on how much it should change and how fast” reads a headline in The Washington Post. A piece in New York magazine proclaims “We are Two Nations, Divisible.”

If colleges and universities serve, in the words of Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels, as engines of “purposeful pluralism,” it stands to reason that one of our core purposes is to prepare students to bridge such divides. Examining how to do so is a key focus of our 2021–22 Year on Democracies.

The Year on Democracies, proposed by Professor of Film and Media Studies Alex Keller, director of our Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, and co-led by Keller and Provost and Dean of Faculty Michael Thurston, is an immersive examination of notions of democracy around the world. Across the campus, members of our community are analyzing democracies through a range of lenses—governmental, philosophical, cultural, organizational, ideological, and methodological. They are doing so in courses and course clusters, exhibitions, films, performances, and lectures. Funding is available, and every individual, department, and team in the Smith community is invited to participate.

We need to continually attend to our capacity for dialogue and ability to engage provocative ideas.

Faculty have embraced the opportunity of this themed year, offering more than 50 democracies-linked courses. Communicating With Data, a cross-disciplinary offering in computer science as well as statistical and data sciences, is addressing topics of “data democratization and how data-driven communication has influenced, and been influenced by, democratic processes.” An education department course titled The American Middle and High School is examining the ways schools might need to change if they are to serve as “potential crucibles for perfecting democracy.” This spring, a Spanish course titled Through the Jewish Lens: A Latin American Story will engage students in discussions of how democratic societies would have approached the challenges of dictatorship in Latin America, fascism in Europe, and the Holocaust.

We launched the Year on Democracies with a memorable visit by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in September. In her remarks, she reminded us that democracy is not static but “something you must always build upon,” and she shared her thoughts on issues such as voter suppression, the role of governments in addressing climate change, and the impact of misinformation in politics. Following Speaker Pelosi, the next speakers in our Presidential Colloquium series were noted ERA activist Carol Jenkins and award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa. (As a reminder, alums are invited to watch the Presidential Colloquium series via the college’s Facebook page.) LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the voting rights group Black Voters Matter, delivered a powerful keynote address at our 2021 observance of Cromwell Day in November. She urged each of us to “radically reimagine our attachment” to systems of politics and government. “Democracy is not the end goal for me,” she explained. “It is a means toward a world where every person’s humanity matters.”

In the United States and around the world, the health of democracy is often linked to issues of voice and representation. Whose votes are counted, and whose are suppressed? Whose voices are heard, and whose are silenced? In a democratic society, we need to continually attend to our capacity for dialogue, our ability to engage provocative ideas. Smith has never shied from asking consequential questions and tackling complex urgent problems. Such topics and questions lie at the heart of the liberal arts. In the context of Smith’s academic mission, examining what we mean by “democracies” has never seemed more compelling or more urgent.