Dr. Marcia Chatelain on higher education, democracy, and the future

Marcia Chatelain

Religious Studies alumna Dr. Marcia Chatelain delivered a powerful message about higher education, democracy, and the future as she was honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award during A&S week. You can read her remarks here:

"Thank you so much for this incredible honor and I’m especially grateful to Signe Cohen of Religious Studies, who in cahoots with my mentor and friend Jill Raitt prepared this nomination. I am also grateful to the faculties of Women’s Studies, Black Studies, and the School of Social Work, who have long supported my work and have invited me to share my research and my experiences overs the years.  My learning inside of classrooms in arts and sciences, as well as Journalism and the honors college was enhanced by the learning I was able to do at the women’s center, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender resource center, and the various programs of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Academic Retention services and the McNair Scholars Program.  And I’m so excited to be able to take many strolls this weekend down memory lane with my husband, Mark Yapelli.  I have spent my professional and personal life finding ways to repay my student debts—not student loans—but the debt that I owe the state of Missouri and her taxpayers for underwriting my undergraduate education and providing the resources that have made so much possible for me. And this award encourages me to continue to do this.

As a professional historian, I have had the opportunity to not only conduct archival research and academic scholarship for my peers and students, but I have tried to use my voice to remind the public that higher education is not the enemy of the state, rather it is the place where we are in service to the public good. In this moment, in a moment in which the attacks on higher education are coming from statehouses, the White House, houses of worship, and sometimes from inside our own institutional house, we, as citizens of an academic community, must understand that we must fight for the humanities and the arts, with the intensity in which we clamor to receive funding for the sciences.  Our fates are intertwined and our times demand it. 

Without well-trained historians, we will continue to endure political rhetoric that misleads and manipulates the public into misunderstanding the faith, faults, and facets of the nation’s founders.  Without scholars trained in religion, voters will believe the lies about a rise in the implementation of Sharia law on the local level and we will continue to see conflations—like those made between Muslims and Sikhs in xenophobic and racist news reporting.  Last week’s tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida would have taken even more victims if it were not for the medical science that allows people to survive gunshot wounds, but in the absence of scholars to frame the student walkouts in protest of our nation’s abysmal gun laws-- within the larger story of youth activism and social change, we cannot fully understand the urgency of now and the depth of their courage.

I appreciate returning to Columbia and seeing the improvements to the university’s Sanborn Field campus and our continued expansion of science research, and nothing can replace the experience of seeing three paintings by Salvador Dali at the Tiger Hotel.  The arts and the sciences, only make sense together, if they are appreciated, valued, and funded in proportion.

The University of Missouri has experienced some very public and very difficult challenges over the years.  We heard the voices and cries of students ignored and underserved by the university, and a young man was so moved by the demands of his time that he deprived himself of nourishment to raise the level of consciousness about what this institution was not able to do.  As our university grapples with lost opportunities, hurt feelings, and tightening resources, I’ve remained in awe of the perseverance and dedication of the community members and students who continue to search to finds ways for Missouri to make real the institutional values of respect, discovery, excellence, and responsibility.

If my reflections tonight sounded particularly political, it is because they are.  There is nothing neutral about educating for the public good.  Bipartisanship is about an agreement about the importance of facts, rather than an acceptance that one can manufacture their own whenever it is convenient.  And no work that uses the public’s resources can ignore that we are subject to the political whims of those who do not respect or understand our work. 

When we fight for the humanities, the arts part of the relationship, we fight for the ability to express ourselves and to understand the expressions of others.  We resist the misinformation and disinformation campaigns that undermine our hopes that democracy can actually live and evolve, and we fight for the future of ours disciplines, and the possibilities of future generations."