Welcome back to the first term of 2024! I hope you are all vaccinated for the latest COVID strains that are rapidly making their way through the population.
Elon Musk, however, worries about that other one – the Woke Mind Virus (WMV). Please don’t get a vaccine for that. In fact, it’s likely you already have WMV coursing through your brain since you are at an institution of higher learning – your beloved university – a breeding ground, according to Musk. You might ask, “What’s WMV?” Great question. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Musk has a hard time describing it. He highlights suppression of free speech as one of its earmarks. Hypocritically, he wants people to stop talking about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), our history regarding slavery, and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) concerns: “The Enemy” as Musk’s pal Marc Andreessen terms it. He labels all these to be antimeritocratic, a leap that is hard to understand. Are we to believe that anything that might have social consequences automatically has a negative effect on the productivity of workers, or holds people and companies back from achieving greatness? Having concern for our fellow populace creates the highest productivity. It allows for every individual to work to their potential without the shackles of prejudice, discrimination, and an unjust society. It provides for equal opportunities for everyone to succeed, adding to the collective productivity of the whole. “Do the right thing” for shareholders, your workers, and the community, is the conclusion Andrew Winston came to in the Harvard Business Review article, “Why Business Leaders Must Resist the Anti-ESG Movement,”
Musk recounts a story of a friend’s daughter who only could recall one thing about our first president, and that was that he was a slave holder. Without details or context, this seems a shame if that is the only fact that comes to mind. Musk blamed this on woke minds of the school system. Woke or not, we should know the good and the bad about historically prominent figures. What we don’t know about the story is anything about the school, teacher, student, curriculum and point in time. We also don’t know what equivalent, “non-woke” students might recall of our first president. Knowing any one fact alone is unacceptable. But what is wrong with knowing that George Washington had slaves? It can be a teaching moment about the time, place, society, norms, and failings of someone we look up to. It should foster debate and discussions of right and wrong, and of balancing great accomplishment with deplorable acts, even when perhaps what we understand as deplorable acts were normalized at the time. Understanding our country’s history and failings in a clear, truthful, and unvarnished light allows us to recognize what worked and what improvements must be made for a more productive future. If questioning and delving into facts that are difficult, challenging, and don’t fit a narrative is woke, then bring it on! Respectful debate is the lifeblood of humanity. Rewriting history to convince ourselves that we are always in the right and nothing we do or did was wrong, is pure propaganda that limits our ability to do better. Philosopher George Santayana’s words ring true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The opposite of being enemies of our society, this is strength and prepares our students for difficult issues that will arise over their lifetimes.
Musk equates wokeness with communism. There is no equivalence here, but rather fear mongering like was witnessed with the Red Scare and McCarthyism. The Red Scare times right after WW1 and WW2 were a result of extreme fear of any change to our capitalistic society. The result was a dramatic violation of the freedom of speech, focused on anything that could threaten unfettered capitalism, such as organized labor or social welfare. Are today’s non-woke spokespeople like Musk so insecure that they resort to name calling and insist on limiting free discourse? How exactly does having a social conscience lead to having all things belong to the state as in communism? There is no reason a highly profitable company can’t also care about its workers, its community, and the environment. We know that doing those things can help make the workers more productive, enable the community to be happier with the company and its products, and ensure a resilient and sustainable company for the long run. No one is asking for the state to take over companies or profits. Yes, there is a government that needs to be funded for national security, education, basic welfare, and national priorities. Do we dare mention that some of those priorities include funding for Mr. Musks very own companies? Who is subsidizing new charging stations for electric cars? Who is paying SpaceX for missions? Yes, that would be his woke-minded government.
We welcome you back to a learning environment. You are here to become a better person. To be educated in a field or multiple fields. To become a critical thinker, independent of the social media echo chambers and those slanted news stories intent on sowing confusion and misinformation. To choose a purpose and a path. To make friends, have stimulating conversations, and to have fun. Reject those who tell you it’s not worth it, or that you can get an education from the internet. It has always been true that knowledge is available, previously in books and periodicals, now more available in electronic form, but you must recognize that truth is comingled with sometimes hard to detect falsehoods and counterfactuals, especially now with the existing abundance of deep fakes. You can indeed learn many things outside of a formal learning institution, but it deprives you of debate with others with differing backgrounds and views of the world. Your university strives to tell the truth, to answer questions with research and analysis, and to always, always validate sources. Yes, we’re not perfect, as many headlines will attest. But those headlines (even if they are high profile) are not representative of the abundance of teachers and professors who dedicate their lives to understanding the past, operating in the present, and shaping the future with research to teach you the most important things they know.
So, catch the virus. Be woke. Be the best you can in art, culture, business, science, health, leadership, social justice, humanities, civics, the law, and all things leading to a better world.