On Aug. 5, something terrible happened in the state of Wisconsin.
In an attack described as “a domestic terrorist-type incident,” a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page burst into a Sikh temple in Milwaukee suburb Oak Creek and opened fire with a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun. The attack ultimately killed five and critically injured several others, prompting serious self-reflection and questioning among the citizens of Oak Creek, Sikh communities across the United States and most recently, scholars attending the Annual Conference of Southeast Asia here in Madison.
Those who attended the conference – academics from a variety of institutions across the country – pondered the question of what to do in the wake of the crisis. Specifically, they asked themselves how communities could prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. Unsurprisingly, they found their answer in education.
Rashmi Bhatnagar, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, emphasized the importance of education at a community level. Donald Davis, an associate professor in the department of Languages and Cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin, extended that line of thought to Madison, stating “students should take the great opportunity they have to learn at a great university like this one to educate themselves on Sikhism and Islam … Doing that could cause [the lack of knowledge about other cultures] to diminish.”
It’s hard to disagree with the principles behind these modes of reasoning. If we all knew more, hated less and embraced inclusion and acceptance, our communities would have a better chance of avoiding these tragedies. If one believes that violence comes from fear and that fear comes from uncertainty, it follows that addressing the misconceptions at the root of that uncertainty is a means of preventing violence. Not surprisingly, those in the business of knowledge tend to see it as a silver bullet for dealing with society’s ills.
However, as tempting as that ethos is, it’s important to ground it in reality. Students lead busy lives. Most of them are relatively non-violent and mentally stable individuals who do not have the time or background knowledge to go educate themselves on the differences between Sikhism and Islam. I also suspect that a large number of them simply do not care.
It’s important to note that this is not an excuse – it is a reality.
Students, at this university at least, are not required to learn the differences between world religions. They are not required to attend any of the numerous talks given every year on this campus about tolerance or community participation. If a student’s course of study involves the creation of novel fertilizers, the development of faster and more powerful microchips or an examination of the latest disease outbreak models, they may go their entire undergraduate career without learning about the topics elaborated on at this conference.
UW does have an ethnic studies requirement, which mandates participation in at least one course that provides some education in diversity, but this is hardly enough if the university is serious about providing a rigorous diversity curriculum.
The ethnic studies course that I took, Anthropology 104, asked less of me than any class I have ever enrolled in at UW. It required just one out-of-class requirement, which I could have finished at almost any locale of my choosing, and the final took less than 15 minutes for me to complete.
Philosophies of non-violence advocating more education are theoretically powerful, but realistically incomplete. There are many avenues – each with its own pros and cons – which the university could travel down to make strides toward this goal. At the very least, I suggest UW make its ethnic studies requirements far more rigorous.
Current requirements mandate levels of engagement that are practically non-existent. I am not suggesting that the school should seek to control students’ lives, but if the university is serious about combating future violence, it should act in accordance with the platform of community education described by Dr. Davis. Until then, such appeals are empty rhetoric.
Nathaniel Olson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in political science, history and psychology.