Are Americans settling?


Davis Cohen

It was my freshman year at Middlebury College, where I spent 2015-16 before transferring to Vanderbilt. After a slew of town halls discussing, among other divisive topics, non-Mexican students wearing Mexican garb to parties, the atmosphere on campus was roiling with racial and social tension. At Vanderbilt, we experienced our own version of this in January 2015, when hundreds of students marched against hate speech, and later in 2016, when the university removed the Confederate inscription on Memorial Hall.


As a rift over the Middlebury administration’s handling of campus activism became evident, the division among students was mirrored within the faculty. During a meeting with my dear, 83-year-old econ professor, it became clear that he didn’t understand the social movements going on around him. One of his remarks stuck with me: regarding the students who protested an upcoming campus concert by the rap artist Felly, who is known for songs with racist lyrics, he questioned their motivations, saying, “They should’ve seen how it was 50 years ago.” The comment was not made in anger or frustration. I took it as puzzlement. It made me think: How do we as Americans view progress?


If you look back even 30 years ago in the United States, there were 9.8 homicides per 100,000 people, compared with 5.3 today. The poverty level was 12 percent; today, it is 7 percent. We emitted 35 million tons of pollution per year; today that number is 21 million. Back then, the U.S., by many measures, was objectively worse off than it is today. That’s great. But are we content with living with these same statistics in 30 years?


Being grateful for the present is one matter. Comparing the present to the past as a means of glorifying the present is another entirely. Doing so prevents change and hinders progress. Instead, the present must be compared to our imagined future. Without comparing the present to where we want to be decades from now, change will be viewed not for the sake of progress but rather as an unnecessary and unwanted act.


For example, we often see politicians and government officials attempt to justify cuts in school funding by glorifying the present state of our public education system. Recently, Betsy Devos, United States Secretary of Education, did just this. By comparing the current high school graduation rate of 84.1 percent to the 71 percent rate our nation produced 30 years ago in order to request elimination of several educational programs she failed to see a more important statistic – that the U.S. high school graduation rate does not even rank in the top 10 among countries worldwide. A 10.5 percent reduction in the federal education spending in the President’s 2019 fiscal year budget request is evidence of our failure to imagine a high school graduation rate of 95 percent or better.


We have seen monumental improvements in other areas of American life. For instance, reported yearly hate crimes have dropped from 10,000 to 6,121 over the last 30 years. However, to sit back and assume that the frequency of hate crimes will gradually decline simply due to past trends is not only foolish, but also lacks the urgency needed to reduce the number tenfold. In fact, reported hate crimes have increased 10 percent in the last two years. By failing to envision our nation as one more free from these offenses, we signal that individual lives are dispensable.


After transferring to Vanderbilt, I was on the lookout for signs of the same pattern of settling here on campus. Instead, I found Future VU, which the Vanderbilt administration launched five years ago with the goal of designing a framework to enhance the “shape of higher education.” The program envisions a complete restructuring of the residential facilities, the creation of innovative interdisciplinary courses and increased funding toward international faculty and financial aid. As Vanderbilt students, it is easy to take the administration’s forward thinking for granted. But to do so would be a mistake. We should note the ambition of such thought and, more importantly, understand our responsibility as students to make sure Vanderbilt continues to compare the present to an ideal future.


The social responsibility to promote this type of thought is especially pertinent at a time when we as Americans are settling. Progress toward better education, toward social equality, toward whatever it may be, requires activism, frustration and ambition— the fuel of change. This is the antithesis of complacency.

Thinking back to the conversation I had with my old professor, in response to his suggestion that activists look to the past, I now realize I should have replied: “No, I think you should see how it will be in 30 years.”


Davis Cohen is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]