We went to the movies yesterday. The show started with a preview of “Monument Men,” George Clooney’s flick about a group of art experts whose mission was to save European art masterpieces at the end of World War II. Clooney describes the mission as (paraphrasing), “saving the foundation of our civilization.” Then, the movie began: “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a true story about self-absorbed criminals who operated under the dictum, “the best way to get rich is to ignore the rules.” This wasn’t a cautionary tale, but a celebration of a con man’s success. The protagonist, who was responsible for stealing more than $200 million from investors, wound up spending less than two years in jail and is now being promoted on b national news and elsewhere as a “motivational speaker.” Interestingly, this movie celebrating sociopathic greed had the biggest crowd of any we’ve been to this winter.
When we got home, we got the news that three people had been killed during a shooting at the Columbia Mall, near where we used to live. We were reminded during the news coverage that there had been at least one public shooting incident—in a school or other public place—every day last week. Later, I read that a Penn State-Altoona student from Russia had been arrested that same day for building a weapon of mass destruction in Altoona, about 45 miles from our home.
That got me looking for facts. Between December 2012—the month of the Sandy Hook/Newtown elementary school massacre—and December 2013, there were 12,042 gun deaths in the United States (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html). Mother Jones reported that, during that same year, at least 194 children have been shot to death; of these, 103 were murders, 84 were accidents, 3 were suicides, and 4 had unclear motives (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/12/children-killed-guns-newtown-anniversary). Within a single year, the death of so many children at Sandy Hook has faded from the public consciousness—and conscience. We simply don’t connect with those lost lives. We don’t see them as our children, our neighbors, our fellow citizens. They became, in just a year, statistics—facts out of context of the reality of daily life, while murder in public places became an almost routine part of life in America.
We know that culture is changing not just in America, but around the World as a new global information society matures. However, that’s no excuse for the way Americans have become accepting of everyday violence in our society. What holds a democracy together is not just the idea of individual liberty, but the understanding that we live in a community: we establish government so that each of us can protect all of us. Today, we seem to be turning responsibility for community over to the so-called free market. Corporate and industrial interests, rather than community interests, carry the day. It is time for us to ask: what is our proper relationship—as individual Americans—to the community in which we live? Wendell Berry has made that question the focus of his work for many years. In It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lectures and Other Essays, he writes:
For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of pre-emptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And in affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy. (Kindle version, pp. 13-14)
How, in this global economy, can we create affection—a pre-emptive sympathy--for our local community and the neighbors who live in it with us? How can we imagine our place in this new environment?
Here’s a thought: William Irwin Thompson some years back wrote about a model for understanding our place in the world—the “expanding communities” model. It assumed that, over the history of human existence, humans have had to expand their understanding of their relationship with the world. It is a cultural process that mirrors what we all go through as we mature. As small children, our immediate family is our community. As we grow, that expands to our neighborhood, our school, our town, and then as we grow, we become part of broader communities—our state, our nation, our region, etc. With each step, we assume a broader public identity and personalize or privatize the older identify.
Let’s take that idea of expanding communities as the basis for a civics-oriented general education that begins in pre-school and continues into graduate education. Early on, the goal would be to help young children imagine and gain an affection for their school as their public community and for their family as their private community. In elementary school, we would help students imagine their relationship to increasingly broader communities, and, in high school, help them see their role as citizens, voters, tax payers, workers by teaching civics, the Constitution, and how we have, as a society, solved the problems of democracy. Then, as we move into college, we would focus on ensuring that students imagine the impact of their chosen professional in the community and help them develop a sympathy and affection for how they will contribute to that community.
Such a curriculum must also include a service component—certainly from high school forward and, perhaps earlier. The purpose is to engage students in a community so that they begin to develop an awareness and, one hopes, an affection for being part of a specific community. Ideally, a year of service—not necessarily military service, but many avenues of service to the community—could be a natural transition from high school to college or vocational training. Similarly, upper division internships and practica in professional programs would help students better understand the professional community that they are preparing to join.
It has been a while since educators have seen that kind of continuity as a common thread of responsibility across institutions. Industrialized education has tended to fragment learning, making general education a sampling of disciplines, separate from their professional studies, rather than a preparation for exercising one’s profession in the community. Too often, general education is like Monument Men—an attempt to save the past—rather than a way to help students of all ages and interests to imagine their community and their role in it. Our job, as Berry notes, must be to help students imagine their place in the world so that they can develop a responsible relationship to it. In this context, “affection” stands as a context for learning that motivates and guides students. “Knowledge without affection,” Berry writes, “leads us astray. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope” (p. 34).