From the Editor

From the Editor: An Awakening at New College

Susan Burns reflects on how the school's culture of critical thinking can create dramatic personal change.

By Susan Burns December 26, 2018 Published in the January 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Former white nationalist—and New College alum—Derek Black.

Image: Getty Images

Real change is hard and terrifying and rocks the very foundation of identity. We have a story of such transformation in this issue, one chronicled in Eli Saslow’s new book, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post, tells the story of a New College student, R. Derek Black, who enrolled as a leader in the white nationalist movement, then renounced his racist beliefs before graduating.

I took special interest in this story. I’m a New College alum, and Black’s transformation took place on the same paths I used to walk. I understand New College’s power to create personal change, because it changed me and many other alumni I know.

I was not typical New College material, or at least I didn’t think so at the time. I was raised by two stable parents in an all-white, upper-middle-class suburb. Neither parent had gone to college, and academic success took a back seat to hard work, common sense, owning your own business and providing for your family. We had a belief in the American Dream, and my father was its embodiment. He grew up poor and started a business that expanded to three states. College, to him, was ivory tower elitism. My mother ran the home. It was a safe, warm and loving bubble. My future—and the future of my two sisters—would be much the same, we all assumed. Marriage, family, home, homogeneity. And then I discovered New College.

Susan Burns

Image: Lori Sax

From the moment I stepped on campus, I realized this world was different from the one I had been raised in. The students were cosmopolitan and intellectual. The academic expectations were intense. Professors and fellow students challenged (to put it nicely) shallow arguments and thinly researched papers in the classroom and at parties. Critical thinking and debate were the currency of discourse. It could be daunting and demoralizing when your work didn’t rise to the school’s standards of academic rigor.

My favorite professor, Dr. Peggy Bates, a feminist who received her Ph.D. at Oxford University and had done her research in Africa despite having polio—she walked all over the sprawling New College campus with a cane—brought me into her office after I had turned in my first disastrous paper. “Let’s start over,” she said, handing me a paper covered with her signature green ink. “You must learn to think before you ever put something down on paper.”

Not only did I learn to evaluate ideas and express them clearly, but I also began to see a world of new possibilities. Peggy encouraged me to travel, to push through barriers that had limited women, and, more than anyone else, influenced me to go into journalism. My years at New College were exciting, but they were also difficult as I confronted my own values. I  remember how tough it was bringing home some of my new ideas—so foreign and often a repudiation of how I was raised—to my father. I’m thankful he was curious about life and was willing to entertain fresh and unsettling ideas.

Still, whatever surprise I felt after enrolling at New College and whatever changes I experienced were tiny in comparison to what happened to Black, who had lived all his previous life in the insular world of white nationalism.

I talked to Saslow and Black about Black’s dramatic change. They told me it took three years, some determined New College students and a culture of critical thinking to reverse his perverse belief system. Could this be replicated in other settings? I’m not sure. But it does give me hope. Change happens in complicated, unexpected ways. As an alum, I’m especially proud Black’s progress from hatred and racism to understanding and openness happened at New College. You can read about that transformation here.

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