Pianta: Charting a path forward after Charlottesville

This op-ed was originally published in The Washington Post on Monday, September 25, 2017.

As an educator, citizen and particularly as a member of the Charlottesville and University of Virginia communities for 30 years, I was deeply troubled and saddened by what happened here last month. Hate visited our community. The words and actions of the neo-Nazi, white supremacists and Klan who came here incited violence that led to the tragic loss of life. And now Charlottesville sadly joins the list of cities whose names are synonymous with the dark side of American history.

As a dean of a school of education, in the university founded by Thomas Jefferson, a man and an institution with mixed records on race, it is not surprising to find myself talking with students and colleagues about diversity, free speech, equity and justice. And after what happened here in August, I have a far deeper awareness that these topics are not abstractions and the discussions are not another academic exercise, here in Charlottesville or elsewhere in America.

Both here and around the country, we see the beginning of a rededication to facing issues of social and economic justice with greater moral clarity. In our mission as a school of education, we have a special responsibility to work that fosters human development, recognizes and embraces human assets and potential and creates opportunity for all, particularly those who have been left out, left behind and too often are targets of discrimination and hate. With this responsibility, we must provide our students, and those they eventually serve, with the skills and knowledge to engage in the kind of civil discourse and action that build community. At no time has it been so clear that our public educational systems and institutions are essential to civil society — to helping prepare a generation to understand and learn from the lessons of history, to more fully embrace diversity in all its forms and to engage in the hard work of promoting equity and justice.

But before we move on to what’s next, it is worth pausing to reflect on what we in Charlottesville witnessed and experienced and what that tells us about the work ahead. The role and value of leadership in civil society could not be more evident — both for its presence and its glaring absence.

The issues are much larger than our small community, but events here revealed the oft-hidden reality of evil that can lurk underneath the surface of politics and rhetoric. We heard the vile chants and saw the horrible violence. But we also witnessed goodness, compassion and courage.

It is fashionable to characterize college students today as “snowflakes” — looking for a “safe space” or wanting to avoid speech they dislike. I will admit to holding that thought myself a few times. But not anymore. In fact, I wonder if youth also provide us with opportunities for moral clarification. Here in Charlottesville, in the face of brazen and extraordinary challenge, our students stood their ground and stood up to those in the torch parade. Many students joined our community the next day to meet speech with speech. And days later, thousands of students and community members returned to UVA to quietly protest the white supremacists and reclaim the ground, holding candles, singing – and showing – Amazing Grace. A week after seeing the worse of America on display, these students showed the very best of this country. And they showed one of the qualities of great leaders: moral clarity.

Our students’ actions stood in sharp contrast to our national leadership. By failing to unequivocally denounce supremacist groups and instead offering some twisted equivalency between those spewing racial hatred and those who protest against that hatred, President Trump again showed his lack of a moral compass. And the policies and behaviors of his administration – eviscerating voting rights, demonizing immigrants, gutting supports for poor people, and ignoring basic human and civil rights – are both an affront to civil society and an invitation for real leadership to emerge elsewhere.

We deserve better; our youth deserve better. As an educator, I truly wonder what America’s schoolchildren think about their leaders. Shouldn’t our presidents speak for all of us and represent the very best American ideals, particularly at times of crisis? Shouldn’t they embody and reflect some sense of moral clarity? From where and whom will leadership emerge? Charlottesville was his test; he failed. Our students did not.

We must rededicate ourselves – as educators and as citizens – to the work of inclusion and equity, and to improving civic education. To unflinchingly examining and owning a history that can neither be erased or replaced while also claiming a better, improved future. We must resolve that those who lost their lives that day in Charlottesville shall not have died in vain.

“There is much to be done, there is much that can be done,” Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. It is true today. Make no mistake, there is no cheap grace here. Thoughts and prayers will not suffice. There are no easy answers, only hard work and vigilance. But this Charlottesville community and our university students are now engaged in this work in a new way, exploring what leadership can look like, and we should be grateful for their example as we face into what lies ahead.

Robert C. Pianta is the dean of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.