Let optimism, not pessimism, determine course of semester

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Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

I love this time of year, especially in Texas. While our friends in New York and Boston endure mountains of snow and frigid temperatures, we benefit from beautiful, sunny and mild days. Everything seems possible in this climate at this time of year.

Our political moment offers a unique opportunity for new beginnings. In Washington we have a new Congress, with new leadership in the Senate. Our president is entering his last years in office, when he will look forward to his lasting legacy, not another election. In our state, we have a new governor and a new legislature that will be in session for the next half-year. Our University system also has a new chancellor. Many of the leaders who matter most have reason to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, to try new things and to plan for the long game.

The American founders anticipated these moments when they designed a system of government that rejected hereditary power and required changes in leadership at regular intervals. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wanted stability and experience in government, but they also wanted a cycling of talent, of ideas and of virtue. For them, a republic had to remain fresh with seasonal adjustments to established ways of thinking. “Aristocracy” meant dull consistency; “democracy” meant reasonable and experimental reforms in governance. 

We have the opportunity to pursue reasonable and experimental changes today, inspired by our founders and enabled by the new beginnings all around us. Do not believe the naysayers who claim things cannot change. Their cynicism is shallow and self-fulfilling — if you think change is impossible, it will never happen. Optimism offers a much more productive way forward. That is what separated our nation’s founders from many of their opponents who denied dramatic possibilities.

Our current times are another founding moment. Partisanship will not go away anytime soon, but citizens have elected new leaders to help us escape the stunted imagination, low expectations and self-defeating tactics of recent years. We are almost universally frustrated with our insufficient accomplishments as a society, and we are hungry for something bigger and better. This assessment is evident to me every day when I speak to people around the country, and especially when I look in the faces of my students. I am teaching more than 300 undergraduates this semester, most of whom are freshmen, and they have the nervous energy, steely determination and smiling optimism of people who are ready to pursue ambitious dreams for our society. They are not cynical, despite what they read on their electronic devices. They are hopeful because they are smart and understand the potential in our people.

We should encourage precisely this kind of optimism in our University community. Changing the world and seizing opportunities for change are what we are all about. Making our society a better place is the core purpose of a university.

There are three steps I would like to see students and faculty undertake in our bright new semester. First, we must become well-informed about the major issues of our day. For all the intelligence on campus, students and faculty tend to think in narrow, often narcissistic ways. We have strong opinions, but often far less evidence and reflection behind them than we claim. If we want to change the contemporary world, we need to understand it better and that is both a core research and teaching mission.

Second, we need to share what we know better. Cynicism has encouraged more shouting and shut ears than conversation and listening. Ask yourself how infrequently you have a real in-depth discussion with someone who sees the world in fundamentally different ways. Those discussions need to occur early and often if we are going to pursue change. Our campus should become a cacophonous town square, crowded with diverse people sharing what they know and what they want.

Third, and perhaps most important, we must become men and women who are politically engaged – “In the arena,” to use Theodore Roosevelt’s famous phrase, “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” 

In this sunny and mild Texas season, let us devote ourselves to making our new beginnings the start of something big. Let us leave the cold and timid souls behind as we pursue the promise of change, renewal and even greatness.

Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He writes about foreign policy.