Dear Siena community,
I wanted to share an op-ed that I submitted to the USA Today Network reflecting upon the tragic events in Washington D.C. last week and my view on our path forward as a nation.
The Network published the piece "America is Unity: Yes, We Can Heal" on several of its online platforms across the Northeast earlier this afternoon. It is scheduled to appear in print editions in the coming days, and is on offer to sister Gannett publications in other states, and to USA Today itself.
Although we are still in the midst of very challenging times, I truly believe our best days lie ahead. All of us at Siena College have an essential role to play as we work to build a better tomorrow for our community and our country.
Here is the unedited version:
When we formed our nation two and a half centuries ago, we as a people committed to representative governance, based on democratic principles and rule of law. In doing so, we changed the course of human history for the better.
The violence at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was completely antithetical to our nation’s most sacred values. The sanctity of our national seat of government – which has always welcomed peaceful debate and protest – was heinously violated precisely during the approval process of the Electoral College vote count. It was no coincidence that this shining hallmark of our republic – the peaceful transfer of power – was chosen as the moment to breach the walls of the Capitol.
I have been blessed with the great privilege of leadership in three separate careers in my life. The first was as an Army colonel in combat and humanitarian missions. The second, as a three-term elected member of Congress. My third is as a college president.I reflect on these three life paths as I continue to observe the current political crisis, and it has further reinforced for me the closely-held belief that an educated citizenry is crucial for a democracy to flourish. It is, as Thomas Jefferson said, “a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
He and his fellow Founders of our republic – inspired by the Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu and others, understood the importance of education and the cultivation of virtue as protection against tyranny. They saw it as the best way to raise up each citizen to his or her highest potential.
Education is not just the consuming of dates and data. A true education at the elementary, secondary and college level enables all of us to think and speak critically, to fully process that which we are taught, and most important of all, to enter into dialogue with those whose life experience and belief systems are different from our own, in pursuit of common ground. And the ultimate goal for us as educated Americans? The peaceful mediation and resolution of differences discerned through elections and forged by our elected leaders. Democratic principles are the basis of our union and the foundation for our motto E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.
Our Founders were wise and aware of humankind’s extraordinary beauty and potential, but they were also cognizant of the dangers that lurk deep in our nature if not checked by transparency and accountability. Hence our separation of powers and auxiliary checks against the accumulation and abuse of power. We must face the fact that the centralization of power in the executive branch that we have embraced over the past century is weakening the bonds of our republic, leaving us vulnerable to demagoguery and the cult of personality.
When our representatives are at the center, and by constitutional design work together, we as a people stay together. When we centralize power in the executive, we deny ourselves the crucible of teamwork and move further away from the reasoned rule of law toward the passion of mob rule, the consequences of which were witnessed this week.
Progress and virtue, worldly success tempered by selflessness, present one of the greatest gifts the American experiment has given to humankind. When this nation of farmers and immigrants was born to self-govern, the world paused in wonder. As young and imperfect as our nation is, we serve as a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. The light from that beacon sputtered slightly on Wednesday with the storming of our Capitol. But that light was not extinguished, nor will it ever be.
We need to steep our nation’s youth in education – inspiring our students to ponder the original reasons why America was brought forth and, yes, to ask the hard questions about why it has not always lived up to the enlightened goals in our founding documents. Once those crucial questions have been asked, we can then move on to the all-important task of seeking answers. How do we facilitate the American Dream for every single American? How do we create a more just, peaceful and humane society, where each person can rise and contribute to that society to the best of his or her God-given ability?
We face serious challenges for sure, but I know we can overcome them.
As he was departing Independence Hall in Philadelphia following the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman, “What have we got?” “A republic, if you can keep it,” was his witty yet earnest reply. Franklin knew that other republics throughout history – including the great societies of Greece and Rome – had foundered in fiscal and moral decay.
Only in unity – social, racial and political unity – can we keep our republic, and make it better than it’s ever been. American government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We have created these current problems, and together – as an informed electorate – we can solve them. We can heal, and we can move forward as a better nation.
Christopher P. Gibson is the president of Siena College. He holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University, taught at West Point and Williams College, and is a decorated Army combat veteran who served as a U.S. Representative from New York from 2011 to 2017, before self-imposing term limits and returning to academia. He is the author of "Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream".