Students need to hear opinions they disagree with, Zeigler said.
By Janie Medelez
Former college President Robert Zeigler told about 20 students at the Wesley Foundation Oct. 30 that the nation is united by five enduring values.
The values are freedom, community, exploration, responsibilities and character, he said.
These came from the book “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism” written by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner and published in 2017, which formed the basis for his lecture at the weekly Hot Potato luncheon.
“We are a nation of dreamers and fixers. We have looked at our land and people and said time and time again, ‘This is not good enough; we can be better,’” Zeigler said.
This referred to a quote from Rather, a good friend of Zeigler’s and former anchor for CBS Evening News. Zeigler was a history professor before he entered the administration of this college. He retired in 2015.
“I hope young people like you will say that, and I hope your children and grandchildren will also say that,” he said.
People should never be satisfied that they have done enough, he said.
“The first time I read this book, I came away with an optimistic outlook,” he said. “Then after reading it again and thinking about where we are right now, I was not so happy.”
It’s a book that tells people about where they’ve been, where they need to be and where they’re going, he said.
“I would like for us to think about where are we as a country. Are we better? Are we worse? Are we asking that question or can we do better?” Zeigler said.
Zeigler outlined the elements that compose each of the values:
Voting, dissent and a free press are elements of freedom.
Voting is critical to freedom because if people don’t vote, they are not going to have a voice, and complaining afterward is ineffective.
Dissent is the right to disagree with each other and still be respectful toward each other’s point of view.
A free press is critical for survival, he said.
All U.S. presidents have had a general respect, love-hate relationship with the press.
“Thomas Jefferson, who wasn’t always friendly with the press, made the comment that if he had to live in a society that had a government and no free press or had a free press and no government, he would choose the one with the free press and no government,” Zeigler said. “When people hear a positive story, they think the press is wonderful, but when the story is not positive they think the press is not so wonderful and maybe should not be so free.”
Zeigler said the elements of community are inclusion, empathy and immigration.
He described inclusion in the U.S. as the only place in the world where people can come from everywhere, and if those people accept U.S. values and the precepts on which the nation was established, they can become Americans.
“You know, people can’t just become an Englishman or a Frenchman that way. That is a unique and amazing thing,” Zeigler said. “So we are inclusive and have always been inclusive. I hope we stay inclusive.”
Empathy is the sense of being able to understand and not just sympathize but feel other people’s pain and feel it to the extent to try to do something about it.
He talked about the shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., Oct. 27 as an example on how as a nation people empathized with those who were hurting and had lost loved ones.
People wanted to something to help those who were grieving.
Concerning immigration, Zeigler quoted Rather, ‘We’ve always been a nation of immigrants. We’ve always accepted immigrants.”
There was a time when people criticized and were afraid of immigrants because they were worried immigrants would take their jobs.
Zeigler said he wonders where the nation is heading with this issue today.
The elements of exploration are science, books and the arts.
Science is part of exploring the frontier, he said.
It’s this part of curiosity that is part of nature, he said. Taking land that belonged to the Indians was a byproduct of curiosity and was not a good thing, but overall curiosity is good, and it is something people need to nurture.
“Everyone can have their opinion, but not everyone can have their facts,” Zeigler said, referring to a quote from Daniel P. Moynihan.
There is climate change, and that’s a fact, he said.
That is not something people can make go away just because people don’t like it, he said.
People have not yet learned how to discern facts from fiction, he said.
“It’ a wonderful thing here at this college and this is that this college is pushing information literacy,” Zeigler said.
Books are essential, he said.
“Not all readers are great leaders, but all great leaders are readers,” Zeigler said, referring to a quote from Harry S. Truman.
The arts include literature, music and painting.
Zeigler shared a story about a symphony appealing to a philanthropist for a half-million-dollar donation. The philanthropist said he would give the “whole million if I don’t have to attend the opera.”
“I guess people can appreciate the arts without necessarily liking it,” he said.
The elements of responsibility are the environment, public education and service.
People are responsible for the environment to take precaution to protect it, he said. They can do the little things like recycle and they don’t have to be crusaders. They just have to be a little bit thoughtful about it, he said.
“Public education is absolutely critical,” Zeigler said.
People are all responsible, they pay their taxes and they should support their public schools.
“Jefferson was the first one that said an educated populist is an absolute essential for a democratic society to survive,” Zeigler said referring to a quote from Jefferson.
Zeigler asked the audience what Rather meant by service.
Answers were volunteering, elected public service such as school boards and working with the local PTA at a grassroots level.
“I’ve often thought, but this isn’t certainly not a very popular view. But I think that young people, when they get out of high school, community college that there ought to be some community service required, like for a year or so,” Zeigler said. “People should feel a sense of belonging, a sense of contributing to society.”
Zeigler said the elements of character are audacity, steadiness, and courage.
Audacity is thinking big, having big ideas and dreams and proposing things that seem impossible, Zeigler said. It also includes the steadiness to stay with things and not give up easily.
Zeigler said people should have the courage to stand up for what is right and speak truth to power.
“The late John McCain, I thought he was a remarkable person. I didn’t agree with his politics. People can be remarkable and have different politics and still agree to disagree, and that is where we need to get back to, to learn how to disagree in an agreeable way,” Zeigler said.
“Sometimes these values are under attack, and historically that’s been the case,” he said. “I think they’re universal; they’re human values.
“I think now is really a time to talk about the things that tie us together and that unite us,” he said before the presentation. “These values that we’ve had from the beginning kind of bond us together. Sometimes we adhere to them more than others at times.”
He thinks people are at a point where they don’t trust science and people don’t trust research because of the internet. It puts information at people’s fingertips and they then become the “experts.”
He advocated listening to ideas and opinions one does not agree with.
“It so easy to hear just to what you want to hear,” he said. “I force myself to try to listen to the things I don’t agree with just to hear the other side. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s important to do so.”
About 60 percent of the people of this country get their news from Facebook, he said.
“I think technology is making it worse, and none of us really want to hear the views we don’t agree with,” he said.
“Colleges campuses and universities really scare me because they have these protected spaces,” he said.
He said students should not be protected from hearing things they might find insulting, disagreeable or offensive.