I should be clear at the beginning of this post that I am a college professor. I am also on the liberal-ish side, so the question in the title of this blog post is especially important to me.
And I am going to answer it, but first I want to tell you about one of the scariest days in my life. It relates to the blog post title, I promise.
First let me give you some back story.
Once Upon a Time…
I was raised in a strong and loving conservative family. My Grandpa thought Ronald Reagan was akin to one of the twelve disciples, and following his lead, growing up I though Ronald Reagan was the greatest ever.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that until well into my young adult years, I didn’t totally believe that Democrats actually existed.
I mean, a part of me knew they did. But I had just never met one, at least not that I was aware of.
I was raised in the best historical values of the Republican party–values like hard work, love for family, respect for the Constitution and the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. I still hold a lot of these same values today.
Even though I was raised around really committed Republicans, I was lucky that my family emphasized kindness, love, compassion for the poor, and generosity. My family was not at all wealthy–my parents were ministers and teachers. We rarely had money for extras and luxuries, but one of my strongest memories growing up was that my parents consistently gave money to those in need.
I grew up thinking both that hard work and responsibility are important and that it is also really important to help those who are struggling.
The older I got, the more interested I became in political philosophy and social problems. Since I was young, I remember being burdened (or blessed–depending on how you look at it) about how to solve social problems like poverty, homelessness, and food scarcity. My desire to help solve these problems intensified as I got older.
“Migrant Mother”, Dorothea Lange
As I grew up, I remember hearing some Republicans around me say things like, “If people are poor, it is their own fault. They just needed to work harder or smarter” and “Poor people on welfare are lazy.” I will call this view the Work Hard and You’ll Succeed View.
This was a different view of the poor than the one I grew up with, and I wondered for a while if it was true. In some ways, I am sorry to say, I felt comforted by it. After all, if people’s suffering and poverty and homelessness was just their own damn fault, that meant I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. Honestly, it would often have been a relief not to worry. It also meant that if I just worked hard (which my family had always taught me to do), I would be guaranteed success.
And this brings me to one of the scariest days in my life.
One of Those Days that Changed Me Forever
When my husband and I first got married, he worked at an outreach center in one of oldest and poorest neighborhoods of the city where we live. Many people who lived in the neighborhood were descendants of immigrants from Appalachia who had left that area of the country when their land was destroyed by coal mining or by U.S. policies that destabilized farmers’ abilities to make a living.
The neighborhood could be characterized as a very poor, semi-working class neighborhood, and there was a lot of drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse, and poverty. Much of this was due to folks’ inability to find a stable job and to provide for their family. A high percentage of the folks who grew up there never finished high school, primarily because of a lack of opportunity and stable family support.
I remember a woman who worked in the center saying one time that kids that grow up in the neighborhood often do not escape it unless they have some kind of meaningful connection outside the neighborhood like a good school or caring teacher or mentor that showed them the way out.
My husband worked at the center for about ten years, and we attended the church associated with the center for about six of those years.
We spent a lot of time with the folks in that neighborhood, and I met so many people I will never forget.*
I remember a young woman who had suffered almost every conceivable disadvantage in life and yet remained so sweet and kind and defied the odds to go on to college. I don’t know how she did it because if I had been in her place, I think I would have given up early on.
I met a young man who was trying desperately to succeed at education and go to college one day. I watched his family become uncomfortable with his success and try to sabotage him at every turn until he gave up and sank into depression.
I knew a family there that was relatively stable and building a good life for themselves, and then the father was falsely accused of a crime, and the ensuing events caused the family to spiral into chaos.
I knew a father that worked three jobs and tried as hard as he could to be a good model for his children, but his family could barely make ends meet.
I remember one day after attending church in the neighborhood, we had a potluck. I was sitting next to a woman in the church. I will call her Penny.
Penny had a really hard life. Both of Penny’s parents were mentally ill and rarely had work. She grew up in poverty. Her dad was illiterate, and her mom was only semi-literate. They couldn’t help her with school work. They never had money for special outings or vacations. Penny had barely left the neighborhood her whole life. She often didn’t have enough to eat growing up. She had suffered abuse.
Amazingly, despite all of these hardships, Penny worked extremely hard at several jobs. She attended church regularly. She had a quirky and delightful sense of humor and a propensity for conspiracy theories.
That day as I sat beside her listening to her story, I had a strange moment in which time slowed down, and I saw myself in her eyes. I suddenly realized, “She is just like me. At our most basic level, we are the same. We just grew up in really different environments.”
I realized suddenly that I could have just as easily grown up in her shoes, and if I had, I would be in the same exact place she was in now–except, I wasn’t sure if I would have done as well as she had.
And this scared me. It scared me a lot. I realized suddenly and very clearly that the Work Hard and You’ll Succeed View was false.
I mean, it wasn’t that there wasn’t some truth in it. Of course hard work matters. Of course people often benefit when they work hard and work smart. Of course good character and trying hard are important.
But I also realized that the family, neighborhood, and life conditions someone is born into have a profound influence on a person’s life. And sometimes people have a really hard time in life, not because they aren’t working or trying hard, but because the life circumstances into which they are born and over which they have no control often give them serious handicaps that put them far behind their peers who came from more stable families and communities.
I also realized the precariousness of life that day and how someone–someone like me or my family or friends–can work really hard and then suddenly, through no fault of their own–face a severe and enduring setback because of a stock market crash or a sudden job loss or a catastrophic accident or illness.
This was one of the scariest days of my life because I realized how fragile life is and how vulnerable we are.
I am also extremely grateful for this day because it gave me a greater understanding of poor and marginalized people.
It was also the day in which my political views began to change.
I still believed in family. I saw how much a strong, stable family (or lack of it) affected children in the center neighborhood. But I also realized how organizations funded through taxes like strong public schools and social services like food stamps, WIC, and Head Start programs could make the difference between a child escaping or being stuck in generational poverty.
I still believed in individual and church generosity. But I also realized that individual and church generosity alone could not address the educational, health, food, and other needs of the poorest members of society. I realized that government, individuals, and church all needed to be involved in the solution to these problems.
I still believed in hard work, but I realized that if people did not have stable education, jobs, and social support, their hard work often does not bring them the pay-off it should and that they deserved.
I still believed in the Constitution, but I realized that the Founding Fathers would certainly have wanted us to interpret the Constitution in a way that makes sense in contemporary society, rather than interpreting it as though we still live in an agrarian society in the 1700’s.
I developed what some folks would call liberal views. About ten years after this, I went back to grad school to earn my PhD in philosophy, specializing in ethics, philosophy of education, and, no surprise, political philosophy.
I now teach at a local college, and I guess you could say–given what I have told you above–that I am a liberal professor.
How the Poor Can Save Us
Last year I taught a course called Theories of Economic Justice. I chose a reader that contained an equal mix of both conservative and liberal views of economic justice, and I assigned my students to read articles from both perspectives and to argue for their position, making sure they addressed weakness in their political perspective and did so in light of the strengths of the opposite perspective.
I shared my experiences in the center neighborhood, and I also had my students read read a book called No Salvation Outside the Poor by a Latin American theologian, John Sobrino.
In the book, Sobrino argues that while we often look down on the poor and consider them failures or defects, it is through the poor that we are saved.
The poor in our society often point out to us the aspects of our society that are cruel, unjust, and that put certain people at an unfair disadvantage. These are diseased and destructive aspects of our culture. If we pay attention to the stories of the poor and their lived experience, we will often realize that they point out our own cultural problems, and we can better understand how to address them.
Do I try to make my students liberal?
Although I hold more liberal political views, I want my students to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a wide variety of political positions, and whatever political and economic views my students develop, I want them to do so with the most severely and economically disadvantaged in mind.
I want them to realize that at a basic level, we are the same, and life is fragile and vulnerable.
Are College Professors Trying to Make Students Liberal?
I imagine some are. After all, college professors are human beings and imperfect. But I think a lot of college professors realize what most of us know deep down inside–that it takes compassion, listening, empathy, creativity, dialogue and understanding–especially with people who are different from us and especially to the poor and marginalized–for us to create the kind of society that cares for all of us. And sometimes it is uncomfortable and frightening to listen to these kinds of views, but it is worth it.
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*All of the stories in this post are based on real people and events, but some of the details have been changed for privacy purposes.