The danger of extremism

Extremism seems to be everywhere these days, from the inflammatory political rhetoric of “us” vs. “them” to the abject poverty found in some of this nation’s cities and towns. And the extremist rhetoric and acute inequality are only getting worse, said Penn President Amy Gutmann, speaking at a March 30 conference sponsored by Penn’s Fontaine Society and Graduate Student Center.

The solution, she believes, may lie in education.

“We at the University of Pennsylvania stand for equal educational opportunity,” said Gutmann to a rapt audience of graduate students, Penn professors and panel speakers from Princeton, Harvard and elsewhere. “We should not be shy about saying how important it is for our society to invest in education.”

Extremist rhetoric often belies a single-mindedness that divides the world into them and us. Gutmann posited an example: “We’re the party of salvation …and everybody else is a barbarian.” The more educated people are, the more subtly they think about issues, she added—which is integral in an incredibly diverse world.

Extreme inequality between those who “have” and those who “have-not” makes this period look much like a “second Gilded Age in this country,” she added. That’s most striking when looking at education: Some privileged children have access to world-class instruction, while many others do not. In fact, disparities in education, health care and opportunity are most evident in African-American and Latino communities.
“I think that we can’t stop with education because once we’re educated, we have to speak truth to power,” she said. Each of us has an obligation, both locally and globally (“to coin a phrase,” she joked, referring to a tenet of the Penn Compact) to overcome such inequality.

Gutmann, a political scientist and philosopher, was asked by a doctoral student if she believes there is a need for a “liberal movement” that would bring issues of inequality into the mainstream conversation. “We really do need a transformative moment,” she said, where those who have the resources work with those who do not. “I think we’ll see it,” she said, referring to the 2008 presidential election. “We’re going to see the American people looking …to a candidate who can speak not just for the privileged but for all people.”

Another audience member asked Gutmann’s opinion of philanthropic billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. “You use every means you can get to combat injustice,” she responded. “We have to be pragmatic moralists in this regard.”

The conference, titled, “Extremism in American Social and Political Life,” featured Penn professors John L. Jackson, the Richard Perry University Associate Professor and one of five Penn Integrates Knowledge scholars; Ann B. Mitchell from the School of Nursing; and Chonika C. Coleman of the Graduate School of Education, among others, speaking about polarities in the economic, social and political fabrics of society. “To not take extremism seriously,” said Jackson, “is to box yourself into a corner.”

Originally published April 12, 2007.

Originally published on April 12, 2007