Expanding the Brandeis bubble

October 13, 2017

The socio-cultural conditions at Brandeis create a community starkly different from the rest of the country, and we should be aware of that.

I come from a town east of Pittsburgh, on the border of what some call “Pennsyltucky.” “Pennsyltucky” refers to the center and northwestern regions of Pennsylvania, the more rural portion of the state. When people speak about Pennsylvania, they are almost certainly talking about Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. People hardly pay attention to the center or the northwestern region, where there is not much of interest to our urban-centric country. Granted, the center of the state is home to Penn State University, one of the largest universities in the country, but it is surrounded by the Appalachians and the farmland between them. In the view of most people, there is not much happening in central and north Pennsylvania.

“Pennsyltucky” is the home of the dissatisfaction that elected President Trump and turned the Rust and Coal Belts solidly toward him at the polls. Our school has “social justice” in the abstract embedded in our coursework and culture. Parts of the country are suffering from social injustices due to entrenched economic interests and the vicissitudes of the world market as well as inefficient welfare services. However, the problems we see in the news still focus mainly on urban centers and not on the flyover states. It is almost as if the cities are just waiting for the rest of the problems in the country to “go away,” while college students engage in the more “elite” issues of the cities.

Talking about the 2016 election at this point might appear like beating a dead horse, but the lessons I learned about my own political beliefs, where I grew up, where I go to school and what our political system is truly able to accomplish (or not) have no equal in my experiences so far. I did door-to-door election polling in my home state and the surrounding region during the summer of 2016, and it was clear Trump struck a chord months before anyone thought he would win, especially in former manufacturing areas.

Before this election, people where I grew up did not feel either party represented them, which caused tension between them and the left-leaning elites who they felt were ignoring them. The past election let the tension loose, and its result is a bunch of journalists pretending to care about these people, a few books being written in a way that seems to patronize and romanticize those who live outside of the cities and suburbs and a new political climate that may not produce any substantive change for them.

Poor, rural communities in Pennsylvania are suffering from a lack of opportunities and a lack of hope. Not only are communities wrecked without jobs, but they are dealing with a widespread opioid epidemic, which is claiming so many lives, and there still has been no substantial action. The opioid epidemic has been persistently worsening for at least the past eight years or so, and it has been reduced to a talking point. Too many lives have been lost and only a few on the state and local level have the resources to combat the problems right in front of them.

And here we are, at a school where very few students have experienced the issues faced by rural Pennsylvanians. We come mostly from coastal regions, New York, Massachusetts and California. Many of us have the same left-leaning political persuasions, usually only varying in how radical they are. We might care about issues like the opioid epidemic, but they don’t hit too close to home. The crisis affects all levels of income, but it hits the poorest the most. Oddly enough, there has not been much talk in the campus activist community about how to attack this huge problem. This is not the only rural-centric issue that our community could address, but it serves as a pressing example of a problem not we are not discussing on elite college campuses.

The Brandeis curriculum could help expand the minds of our students beyond the city. In particular the DEIS-US requirement regarding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the United States could expand the horizons of future students. If the new Gen. Ed. requirements are implemented as they are looking now, there could be an opportunity to introduce these issues into our social justice consciousness. Things like this make me wonder what kind of activism our courses encourage if they allow people to be so unaware of what the rest of the country is dealing with. Then again, few people here have ever lived farther away from any city other than the suburbs, and many of us are not even from the States. Hopefully, future Brandeis students will be exposed to the issues the rural Americans face.

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