Hampshire College in Massachusetts made headlines after the recent presidential election for choosing not to fly the American flag on campus any longer. Today, the flag is once again flying high above the Hampshire campus in Amherst, and the school’s president, Jonathan Lash, claims the decision to remove the flag was not politically fueled.
Where I come from (which just so happens to be nearby to Hampshire College in Massachusetts) we call that lying.
After the election in which Donald Trump won the presidency, the American flag at the center of campus was flown at half-staff, before being pulled down and burned by students on Veterans Day. Lash informally permitted these actions, justifying them in a statement to the New York Times by saying that to some students, the American flag represents “a powerful symbol of fear they’ve felt all their lives because they grew up in marginalized communities, never feeling safe.”
While I can’t fault the school’s administration for the behavior of young (and in my opinion, foolish) college students burning the flag… the decision to allow them to lower the flag in what is traditionally known as a symbol of respect and mourning for a fallen “principal figure of the United States Government” was clearly politically motivated and a gesture of utter disrespect for not only those who have fought and died for the flag, but for all of us that live under it.
I know there are plenty of rants about flags floating around the internet right now, and I don’t intend to add to what is essentially two groups of people yelling into empty space, so let me make my position clear: American citizens have every right to protest, burn flags, yell about hating the president and claim Harry Potter is anti-American, but when state funded educational establishments start playing politics because their leaders don’t have the political acumen to remain unbiased in the eyes of their students, it creates a politically hostile environment.
Just imagine being among the minority of students on that campus that voted for Donald Trump. Would you be comfortable being the lone voice of dissent as your school’s faculty openly supported disrespecting the symbol of our nation because they didn’t agree with you? College campuses like Hampshire’s, widely criticized for their use of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” don’t seem particularly concerned with protecting the fragile well-being of those with differing political ideologies from their own. The message this sends to prospective students is clear: at Hampshire College, you’ll be offered a welcoming and positive learning environment… as long as you voted for the same candidate as the school’s president.
Hampshire College is located right in the middle of the region of this country I call home. My wife is from Northwestern Connecticut, I’m from Southern Vermont and my final duty station was in Central Massachusetts. I attended college at Framingham State University, only an hour or so from the Hampshire Campus. While on the funeral honors team for Central Massachusetts, I attended a number of funerals in Amherst to fold flags and present them to the grieving widows, mothers and children of Marines that served our country under the very flag Jonathan Lash seems to value so little. This story strikes right at the very heart of me… but to be honest, when it first broke, I simply didn’t care.
Attending school as an undergrad in a liberal area of the country can be tough for a thirty-year-old Marine veteran. I met plenty of professors with politics that ran counter to my own, and at one point, I even walked out of a class instead of continuing to disrupt the professor’s lecture when I couldn’t stomach his accusations about the “American war machine” any longer. A few of these professors, however, ended up being among the greatest educators I’ve ever met. As I continued into graduate school, I maintained communications with them. Heck, I just spoke to one of the most liberal professors I know on Facebook the other day… but there was a defining characteristic that separated them from educators like Jonathan Lash: they respect that I have a different viewpoint.
When I heard about Hampshire College pulling down their flag, I knew there would be an uproar. I knew Fox News and others would feature the story as an attack on America, its veterans, and the sacrifices people have made in the name of our nation… but I knew the truth of the matter was that one small-minded man, so set in his own beliefs that he was blinded to the perspectives of others, permitted young (foolish) kids to act out when they collectively didn’t get their way.
The president of the college, Jonathan Lash, is responsible for the flag being flown at half-staff as a sign of disrespect for the president-elect. He is responsible for allowing the students to pull the flag down off the pole and burning it. And he is responsible for the backlash that resulted. If at any point he had the clarity of thought to appreciate that the oppressive environment he was cultivating was exactly the type of environment he and others like him claim to so strongly oppose, he would have put an end to it. Unfortunately for him and the students that attend his university, Jonathan Lash was just too small-minded.
But one man isn’t an attack on America. It’s a sad story out of Massachusetts about a person who violated his own pretentious ideals about inclusion and fairness, and some dumb kids that followed suit. If Lash didn’t have a campus at his disposal, he would have taken the flag down in his front yard and none of us would have cared.
Lash claims that, because his father served in the Army during World War II, he appreciates and values the flag, but his experiences teaching at a liberal arts college in one of the whitest areas of the country have shown him the “genuineness and depth of the fear of people who have grown up with racism,” causing him to “be able to maintain both ideas in my heart at the same time.” Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I chose to look into the demographic data for Hampshire College and its surrounding community.
Amherst, Massachusetts has a median income of nearly $60,000 per year and a community that is predominantly white. The city boasts a population of nearly 38,000 people, of whom only 4.8 percent are black. Hampshire College has a little over 1400 students, of whom only four percent are black. The city is pretty safe; statistically speaking you are less than half as likely to be the victim of a violent crime in Amherst than you are in most of the rest of Massachusetts.
So I guess spending the last six years in a predominantly white, middle class town with even fewer minorities attending his college than live within the community (by percentage) was what taught Lash about the fear minorities must experience when they see the American flag.
Again, I’d like to make it clear that I don’t fault Lash for having a political position, nor am I suggesting that race isn’t an issue in American culture. What I am suggesting is that educators need to exercise at least some semblance of objectivity in the execution of their profession. If we want colleges to be a safe haven for ideas and learning, some of those ideas should be able to run counter to the politics that the school’s administration values internally.
But again, if you ask me, this is just another sad story about a small-minded man.
Featured image courtesy of The Boston Globe.