The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.
Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?
My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.
In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.
Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.
I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.
On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.
It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.
…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.
….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.
….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.
And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.
……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.