Re­sist­ing the seeds of ha­tred, and find­ing a bet­ter way for­ward

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - OPINION - John J. Petillo is pres­i­dent of Sa­cred Heart Uni­ver­sity in Fair­field.

It is painfully ap­par­ent that many in our coun­try have lost sight of our orig­i­nal roots and have con­ve­niently for­got­ten that most of us hail from grand­par­ents or great-grand­par­ents who came to Amer­ica from dis­tant shores es­cap­ing op­pres­sion or poverty and seek­ing free­dom of choice, liveli­hood and ex­pres­sion.

When our an­ces­tors ar­rived here, they spoke a va­ri­ety of lan­guages, ate un­fa­mil­iar foods and of­ten looked and dressed dif­fer­ently. It was dif­fi­cult for them to find work, and their chil­dren were not al­ways wel­comed, ei­ther, though they had the ad­van­tage of be­ing ag­ile learn­ers and able to adapt to our cul­ture more eas­ily. It was as if all mem­ory of their own fam­i­lies’ mi­gra­tions had been con­ve­niently erased. And the fires of in­tol­er­ance and fear were fanned by ma­nip­u­la­tive politi­cians and small-minded neigh­bors basted in ig­no­rance and ashamed of their own sim­ple be­gin­nings.

Then, as now, as­sim­i­la­tion was the goal. There was not a threat to break away, to self-gov­ern, in­jure, steal re­sources or sway oth­ers to their causes or be­liefs. Those who en­tered through New York Har­bor and El­lis Is­land af­ter Oct. 28, 1886, passed the Statue of Lib­erty — a gift to Amer­ica from the peo­ple of France. The statue is in­scribed with the Ro­man nu­mer­als for July 4, 1776, when our Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence was es­tab­lished, and bears the well-known pas­sage that in­cludes the iconic: “Give me your tired, your poor, your hud­dled masses yearn­ing to breathe free.”

That cer­tainly is not the mes­sage vis­i­tors to Amer­ica or refugees seek­ing asy­lum, free­dom or a bet­ter qual­ity of life in the United States are now get­ting, whether they are ar­riv­ing from south of our bor­der, from Europe, the Mid­dle East or any­where else.

Col­lege stu­dents study fas­cism, big­otry and in­tol­er­ance, learn about world re­li­gions, cus­toms and pol­i­tics, sing the virtues of free speech and em­brace dif­fer­ences. Uni­ver­si­ties honor the tra­di­tion of de­bate and give voice to those who see life and its spec­trum of col­ors dif­fer­ently from our cho­sen palette. At Sa­cred Heart, we be­lieve to do less is to dis­honor our mis­sion as a lib­eral arts in­sti­tu­tion and a uni­ver­sity steeped in the Catholic in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion and the good news of the Gospels.

Peo­ple with dif­fer­ing views and philoso­phies are in­vited to cam­puses to speak to stu­dents and cre­ate a plat­form for dis­cus­sion and learn­ing. Uni­ver­si­ties know that ed­u­ca­tion is the an­swer to open­ing eyes, hearts and minds. These in­sti­tu­tions are a di­verse com­mu­nity, bring­ing to­gether stu­dents, pro­fes­sors and ad­min­is­tra­tors from across the world. This gamut of thought, phi­los­o­phy and cul­ture adds value in the class­room, on our cam­pus and oth­ers across the state. Through the out­reach we do work­ing with stu­dents and ed­u­ca­tors in lo­cal school sys­tems, work-study place­ments, clin­i­cal ro­ta­tions, re­search and mar­ket de­vel­op­ment for mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and pri­vate com­pa­nies, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­grams and busi­ness in­cu­ba­tion, we seed in­no­va­tion and the spirit of col­lab­o­ra­tion, di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion.

And we start with those who will have the great­est im­pact on long-term change, chil­dren from grades K through 12 in our neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Through men­tor­ing, go­ing into their class­rooms, stu­dent teach­ing and invit­ing many to par­tic­i­pate in ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams on our cam­pus, we hope our out­reach will brighten their op­por­tu­ni­ties for higher ed­u­ca­tion and a promis­ing fu­ture.

Still, we un­der­stand that there are many who may not view the re­press­ing of these lib­er­ties, the re­stric­tion of voices, dif­fer­ing re­li­gious or cul­tural be­liefs, or ed­u­ca­tional or gen­der in­equities as a prob­lem. Those be­liefs, how­ever mis­guided, are part of the free­doms Amer­i­cans take for granted. Our fore­fa­thers fought and died for these free­doms — as have many gen­er­a­tions to fol­low — but never was there a guar­an­tee that these rights and lib­er­ties would al­ways re­main con­sis­tent, un­chal­lenged or un­am­bigu­ous. To­day’s hos­til­ity in the pub­lic square gives tes­ti­mony to those bi­ases.

These con­flicts and in­equities are es­pe­cially dis­turb­ing as we come out of the hol­i­day sea­son and share our hopes for a kinder, gen­tler, less con­tentious 2019.

Our repub­lic is con­stantly chang­ing, and it is our re­spon­si­bil­ity, as ed­u­ca­tors, par­ents and Amer­i­cans, to change with it, but for the bet­ter. We must sep­a­rate the chaff from the grain. We must en­sure that the spirit and phi­los­o­phy that sep­a­rates Amer­ica and her al­lies from those who wield power like a blud­geon will never be di­min­ished or ex­tin­guished. We must con­tinue to en­thu­si­as­ti­cally wel­come those hun­gry and yearn­ing to breathe; oth­er­wise those words will be as cold as the stone upon which they are chis­eled.

Our fore­fa­thers fought and died for these free­doms — as have many gen­er­a­tions to fol­low — but never was there a guar­an­tee that these rights and lib­er­ties would al­ways re­main con­sis­tent, un­chal­lenged or un­am­bigu­ous.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Pres­i­dent John J. Petillo speaks at Sa­cred Heart Uni­ver­sity’s 2017 com­mence­ment cer­e­mony at the Web­ster Bank Arena in Bridge­port.

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