John J. Petillo Resisting the seeds of hatred
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.
John J. Petillo is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.