Special Reports

Commentary: Hope and Care Can Bridge the Divide

February 26, 2017

I grew up in Seven Mile, Ohio, a sleepy village on the Great Miami River in what is now popularly known as the Rust Belt. My great-grandparents had moved to Butler County, Ohio, from Kentucky back in the 1930s, hoping to find jobs, and I had often heard stories about the "hillbilly" lives and traditions they left behind in those hills and hollers. So when I went to Kentucky for college, I was expecting a long-awaited homecoming with kinfolk.

Instead I was in for a profound cultural shock. I arrived at Transylvania University fully underprepared for both the rigor of the classroom and the stark liberalism shared by most of my professors. My grandma had poured my grandpa’s retirement money into my tuition and even taken out a student loan so I could go to the "smart school." Many people I know weren’t as lucky, and dropped out of regional colleges, repeated the cycle of broken homes, or fell into severe drug addiction. Without the help of some incredibly caring advisers, I probably would have dropped out, too. As a first-generation student who had never met a real Democrat before (former House Speaker John Boehner was the congressman for my Ohio district), I had constant fears of not belonging.

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Those fears have helped me understand why colleges today, like much of the nation, face a deep cultural divide. The campaign leading up to Donald J. Trump’s election has brought rural-urban tensions to a disturbing boiling point. And fear is fueling uncertainty for all Americans. Today, first-generation students from rural areas across the nation are facing more scrutiny and pressure than I can imagine. And so are their professors.

Yet I believe that colleges, which are a microcosm of the chronic issues that divide us, are in a unique position to help close that divide. Higher education — or, more specifically, the relationships I had with my professors — fundamentally changed my life. The unknown of academe was soon replaced with the familiarity of caring instructors. Through individualized attention I was able to see how education could help me serve my community.

The transfer of ideas can provide a political and cognitive baptism for students and faculty members alike, regardless of their political affiliation. Despite what many Americans may think about the educated elite, professors are invaluable to our freedom, teaching the critical thinking and reasoning that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed would keep our republic from sinking into ignorance. Liberals do indeed have a connection with the Founding Fathers.

Most important, education is a great equalizer in any democracy. No politician will set us free from our individual plights, but knowledge has the power to release us from partisan political bondage.

There are some solutions we can work toward during this divisive period to better understand rural, first-generation, and politically conservative students, who fear they will be marginalized or misunderstood by their professors. I encourage all professors to think about why an 18-year-old would vote for Trump, and to show empathy toward all students. Please try to understand the immense pain that many people in small towns are facing as fathers lose their jobs, sisters overdose on Fentanyl, and grandmothers go broke under the financial burden of raising their grandchildren.

I saw Trump as a natural running mate to Genghis Khan, but I know the people from my hometown aren’t ruthless. Or homophobic. Or misogynistic. Or racist. They are scared for their lives.

Faculty members have the power to befriend, and even love, a generation of young people who are looking for hope. For example, most rural students have a strong sense of community. Professors can tailor individual courses by asking detailed, intentional questions to gain an understanding of what skills each student could bring home to help their kinfolk.

A lot of students leave for college and never go back to their rusting towns and broken families. Regretfully, I am one of them, but I eventually hope to work as a high-school history teacher and help students like me realize their dreams. A collective "brain drain" will do rural areas no good. Accounting majors can help struggling families find tax relief. Local farmers need agronomists to better the soil quality. And our roads desperately need trained engineers.

Faculty members truly have an awesome responsibility. My professors gave me hope that a child from nowhere could go somewhere — and never have to leave his roots in doing so.

I don’t think I’m alone.

Jonathan Tyler Baker is completing a master’s degree in history at the University of Kentucky.