Who’s the joke on? Reflections on Williams’ observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Julian Bond – icon of the struggle for civil rights past and present and the keynote speaker for the inter-faith worship service in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – opened his address with a joke. Although many people have claimed to be students of King, he said, only he and five others can really claim this distinction because they were the only ones to take the one formal class King ever taught. The audience laughed, knowing full well that King’s formal teaching was the least of the great lessons he delivered.

This laughter troubled me, however. Considering the small size of the audience (it filled less than a third of the seats in Chapin Hall) and especially its composition (overwhelmingly non-student), perhaps we should consider Bond’s opening remark not as a joke but as a challenge. The College community should act in a fashion that permits it to call itself a student of Martin Luther King, Jr. with a straight face. You can’t judge a college’s character by the lackluster turnout for one event, but it ought to raise some questions.

A belated, rather thin publicity campaign might help account for the sparse attendance, but it proved sufficient to attract many townspeople. If they could find time on a Monday afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that Williams students could not spare the hour and a half out of the laid-back Winter Study routine.

I fear that the disappointing student attendance has more to do with our ignorance and apathy and the College’s refusal to address these facts. Members of the campus community have engaged in a discussion about race for as long as I have been at Williams, but this sporadic discourse, limited in both its subject matter and its participants, is insufficient. This liberal arts college’s atmosphere of rigorous critical thought should provide an ideal place for getting deeply familiar with aspects of these realities, but structures for taking advantage of this atmosphere are not currently in place.

The creation of a lively exchange across the campus community dealing with contemporary social issues such as race requires holding more events like the speeches delivered by Bond and Cornel West in the fall semester, combined with offering a variety of courses for learning about these issues. Some of these courses should include experiential components, an approach to education that the College has so far failed to employ; an attempt to study social issues without gaining some direct experience of them is very incomplete.

Of course, this begs the question, if so few came to Bond’s talk, what will make people take part in the programs you advocate? It’s difficult to make issues seem pressing at a place that feels as isolated at Williams, which is why I think some decisive policies on the part of the administration are necessary. Two possibilities are a participation requirement and participation incentives such as awarding PE credit for community service. I would prefer another approach, but a college with an extensive PE requirement should have no difficulty justifying a civics requirement.

I have yet to hear an argument for students’ academic freedom that adequately compensates for the heavy cost of our ignorance regarding society’s ills. Bond mentioned numerous instances of government agencies deciding not to collect information on matters such as racial profiling and minority contractors, in hopes, he claimed, of making racial problems go away. If we graduate from college without learning about pressing social realities, these problems do not exist for us and we cannot contribute to efforts at solutions but might in fact hamper them.

Any student of King knows that just thinking about justice in an academic situation is not nearly enough: activism is necessary. I know students have varying degrees of awareness of the kinds of problems Bond discussed, but the infrequency of campus activism indicates that few act on their knowledge. Several factors could increase student involvement in addressing social issues. Gaining deeper understanding of social issues would immediately increase students’ desires and capabilities to tackle our greatest problems.

The College could set a strong positive precedent by publicly confronting some of the social problems in which it is implicated. This could mean divesting itself of holdings in morally dubious enterprises; at the very least the College should respond to those who argue for such divestment. Williams College could also clarify its relationship to Williamstown – what obligations do the institution and its students have to the area? – and thereby lead by example the exploration of social responsibility.

Potential activists might hesitate because they do not know how to address the problem that most concerns them. Nobody will ever have the definitive solution to social problems, unlike many academic quandaries, but the former tend to steadily worsen if left unaddressed while the latter can sit untouched for years without negative consequences. The surest path to solutions is trial and error in the real world, gathering experience upon which to found future assaults on our society’s problems. The civil rights movement encountered many setbacks and required contributions from a wide array of activists, not just King, to accomplish all it did.

A Williams diploma signifies tremendous potential. Williams graduates will go on to exercise considerable influence in the world. If we leave here without a strong start on a social consciousness, our potential is impaired. Not only do we lack a faculty vital to good citizenship, but also society sorely misses the contribution we could make. Not everyone should become a career activist, but we all must contribute in some manner to correcting social injustices, and this begins with education.