On Walls: A Letter to the Incoming Class

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

The tower of Michel de Montaigne


I’ve been asked to write an essay for the in-coming St. Mary’s College of Maryland class about “the importance of intentionally promoting civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas in these challenging times.” During orientation, students will be divided up into groups and asked to devise a short list of principles they’d like to have guide campus conversations and exchanges, including on social media. This essay is meant to serve as a spur.

I’ll be polishing this as it need sharpening. I’ve drawn on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the poetry of Lucille Clifton

 On Walls: A Letter to the Incoming Class

If you’ve paid any attention to America’s political developments over the past year, you know that there’s been a lot of talk about walls. GOP nominee Donald Trump has proposed both a literal wall to keep out Central American immigrants and a bureaucratic wall to keep out Muslim immigrants. Unfortunately, the wall talk hasn’t stayed confined to the political sphere but has been seeping into high schools and colleges. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof talks about the following incident in his hometown high school in Forest Grove, Oregon:

But in the middle of a physics class at the high school one day this spring, a group of white students suddenly began jeering at their Latino classmates and chanting: “Build a wall! Build a wall!”

The same white students had earlier chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Soon afterward, a student hung a homemade banner in the school reading, “Build a Wall,” prompting Latinos at area schools to stage a walkout.

This essay is not only about about Donald Trump, however, because it is not only rightwing conservatives who construct walls. Whenever people prematurely judge others and refuse to enter into dialogue with them, walls go up. If the right is often guilty of stereotyping, the left is often guilty of stereotyping the stereotypers. Another New York Times columnist, David Brooks, has accused the Left of “moral preening,” asserting their moral superiority by labeling others as racist, sexist, or homophobic. Those who smugly believe that they are right and others are wrong have also set up walls.

It’s worth recalling that the primary purpose of walls is to keep us safe, and safety has a special meaning in higher education. Students must believe that they inhabit a safe space where they are free to explore ideas, relationships, identity issues, and the like. Walls have long been associated with higher learning. In 1571 Michel de Montaigne renovated and redecorated a special tower, which housed his library and into which he withdrew to pioneer a new literary form, the reflective essay. A number of ancient colleges were surrounded by walls and today, to choose one example, Columbia University has walls that separate it from the rest of Manhattan. The “ivy league” colleges owe that moniker to the ivy that climbed up the walls of colleges like Harvard and Princeton.

Sometimes, as in the case of St. Mary’s, there’s not a literal wall but the idea is the same: students need a bucolic retreat to retire to in order to explore ideas. It can seem like a violation of the very spirit of a college when the world’s fractious battles intrude. Shouldn’t we do everything to keep that fractiousness at bay?

But colleges, of course, are made up of people who come from this other world. In fact, if we work too hard to keep that world out, we don’t prepare ourselves to face it. If we admit only those people who get along because they resemble each other, and if we suppress any differences in the name of harmony, the walled enclosure can become a trap. You will hear a lot about the “St. Mary’s Way” and “St. Mary’s nice,” but if the Way and the niceness are maintained only by pushing under disagreement, there can be no exploration. Worse yet, a university education threatens to become irrelevant.

The key is to develop a community where people can have disagreements while respecting each other. We need healthy interchanges in college and, if we practice having them in college, there’s a good chance they’ll transfer to the society at large.

Two literary authors who explore these issues are the 18th century novelist Daniel Defoe and the 20th century poet Lucille Clifton, whose poetry we see posted around campus.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one of the great works about walls. Crusoe, of course, is shipwrecked on a desert island, and the first thing he does once he establishes himself on the island is build a fortress. His walls become more and more elaborate, even though there is nothing on the island itself that can harm him.

Then, however, there is a development that is a version of what you will be experiencing as you move into your residence halls: Crusoe gets a roommate.

This is how it happens. Crusoe discovers that his island is a place where cannibals sometimes come to kill and eat their victims. Crusoe saves one of these cannibals and names him Friday. Although Friday is deeply grateful for the rescue, Crusoe initially doesn’t trust him and retreats behind a wall. Here’s the description.

I made a little tent for him in the vacant place between my two fortifications, in the inside of the last, and in the outside of the first.  As there was a door or entrance there into my cave, I made a formal framed door-case, and a door to it, of boards, and set it up in the passage, a little within the entrance; and, causing the door to open in the inside, I barred it up in the night, taking in my ladders, too; so that Friday could no way come at me in the inside of my innermost wall, without making so much noise in getting over that it must needs awaken me; for my first wall had now a complete roof over it of long poles, covering all my tent, and leaning up to the side of the hill; which was again laid across with smaller sticks, instead of laths, and then thatched over a great thickness with the rice-straw, which was strong, like reeds; and at the hole or place which was left to go in or out by the ladder I had placed a kind of trap-door, which, if it had been attempted on the outside, would not have opened at all, but would have fallen down and made a great noise—as to weapons, I took them all into my side every night. 

Eventually Crusoe overcomes his prejudices and decides to trust Friday, taking him into inner sanctum. To be sure, by 21st century standards there’s still a lot to be desired. Crusoe thinks that he is morally superior to this cannibal, even though he himself has been a slave trader. He is oblivious to the fact, so anthropologists tell us, that Friday would have come from a culture as complex as his own. Yet because Crusoe and Friday develop their relationship, there is a possibility for growth. At one point Friday even manages to shake Crusoe’s confidence in some of his Christian beliefs. Once you start opening yourself to people who are different from you, all kinds of things are possible.

The other author I look at, Lucille Clifton, taught at St. Mary’s for a dozen or so years and was one of America’s most beloved poets.

Lucille was intensely aware of the walls that discrimination sets up and she called them out whenever she saw them. She was fond of saying that her job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable—which is to say, using the language of walls, to comfort those who felt shut out by walls and to render uncomfortable those who were ensconced safely behind walls.

Sometimes in her poetry she calls out whites who want for students of color not to make them uncomfortable:

as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with

At other times, such as in “wishes for sons,” she utters a wish fulfillment for men who fail to sympathize with menstruating women:

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.

But she doesn’t only limit herself to whites and to men. There are any number of Clifton poems where she calls out the whole human race, including herself. In one poem she speaks up for cockroaches and worried about her own desire to have them dead:

cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.

when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country

and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.

it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.

i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.

now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.

Lucille was essentially arguing for a true liberal arts experience: step out of your own perspective and into that of others. If you are walling yourself off from people–or insects–unlike yourself, then you are limiting your understanding. St. Mary’s offers you the challenge of facing up to your discomfort, seeking to understand the reasons for it, and moving beyond it.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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