As we head into what students and other academics call “Thanksgiving Break,” I’m reminded of the rhythms of the academic calendar and how they intersect with our nation’s holiday calendar and the changing of the seasons.
Once the Thanksgiving holiday nears, academics know there isn’t much left to the fall semester. Faculty and students start looking to the end of the term and measuring what remains to be accomplished against a diminishing number of days. In a perfect world, the Thanksgiving holiday would come in the middle of the term and provide a healthy break. As it is, it provides a break right in the midst of the busiest time—and that’s healthy, too.
Thanksgiving is the first of our winter feast holidays, and its simplicity has made it very popular, particularly since no particular religion is a pre-requisite to sharing in the celebration. Because of its Americanness, it has also been particularly popular with immigrants.
In recent years, a trademark image of Thanksgiving has been political arguments around the table; this theme measures the depth of division in our contemporary politics and discourse. This year will provide no shortage of potentially incendiary topics from sexual harassment and assault to a controversial tax bill (with serious stingers for higher education) to the investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election. It used to be that the best way to avoid controversy was to turn on Thanksgiving sports—but, ouch, that’s the NFL. And to top it off this is the first year the NFL Thanksgiving game features the Washington Redskins and their controversial name on the least appropriate day possible.
When our political discourse is so fraught, it may seem hard to be thankful for our democracy and our diversity—but that is exactly when we need to embrace those values and embrace sitting around a table with people different from ourselves. Like an increasing number of Americans, I will sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner with a family that includes different ethnicities and religious backgrounds—and no one will think it the least bit odd. It is just who we are as an American family in the twenty-first century.
Let’s hope that all our students, faculty and staff take home with them a nuanced appreciation of how we negotiate difference, how we both listen openly and speak our minds, how we respect our fellow human beings. At Sage and throughout higher education, we teach all those values, but we also witness, in myriad ways, how they are fraying in contemporary society. It’s nice to have a few days off, but there is no shortage of work for us to do.
Thanksgiving is also a time to be thankful for the bounty of life and the planet we share with all living things. Unfortunately the condition and future of the natural world is as much at risk as our democratic discourse. For perspective and solace, I turn to Wendell Berry and this little poem:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Best wishes for a restful and renewing Thanksgiving.