An Open Letter to the Great Test Generation, Including the Class of 2020
have journeyed far to arrive at this point in your life. Further than you
realize, perhaps. The elements that constitute your physical being traveled
hundreds of lightyears across the millennia to arrive in their current form as
your body. Folk singer Joni Mitchell put it best: “we are stardust.”
are other parts of you beyond the merely physical. Those, too, have a long
story. Indeed, your story isn’t just your story. Your life is the latest
chapter in the story of your family. You are the descendant of survivors. Those
who came before you, your ancestors, lived, loved, worked, and risked their
lives, some of them more than others, so that you could be here today. Some
crossed borders, even oceans, to give you a better life. All made sacrifices.
All made mistakes, some moreso than others. But, in one way or another, all
lived so that you could live. In innumerable ways, who they were has given shape
to who you are. Never forget that.
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Although unique in its scale and intensity, the Holocaust was not original. Less well known, contemporaneous actions by Stalin in the USSR sought to eliminate entire groups of people (specifically Ukrainian peasants by means of well-orchestrated famine) to accomplish the goals of the state. After the Holocaust, many have offered the twin vows “never again” and “never forget.” Yet, ever again, people seem to forget. 1970s Cambodia. 1980s Iraq. 1990s Bosnia and Rwanda. Early 2000s Sudan. Late 2010s Iraq (again). Today Myanmar—or, if not yet, probably soon. At least in the short-run, it is more comfortable for many of us to forget, to ignore, and to avoid learning such things in the first place.
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Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom
What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.
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Personal Correspondence in Christianity
Christians have always read each other’s mail. Many have written profound letters with every intention of a broader audience reading them. Now that tradition may be at risk, although a few simple steps provide plausible solutions.
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The Kingdom of God vs. the American Dream
“You ought to be happy, healthy, fit, wealthy, comfortable, and popular. All you need is the right state of mind.” Substitute the phrase “God wants you to be” at the beginning of the message, and there you have the core message of not a few television preachers. The message runs deep in U.S. culture. It strikes at the heart of the latest iteration of the “American Dream.”
Physical and financial prosperity are not wrong, but they are spiritually perilous, for they distract from things that actually matter. The message of easy living has its appeal because it is exactly what many of us want to hear. It claims to offer empowerment to the powerless and wealth to the poor. Yet this is ultimately a false hope, for its focus is on the outwardly visible measures of Success, that falsest and most American of all the false gods.
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The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)
The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.
As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.
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Gender, Sexuality, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 5 of 7)
Many people in the world face the persistent threat of sexual assault and see their career prospects diminished because of their gender, as a recent study shows. Some of these same individuals—but also many others—face ridicule and rejection because they find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. Some face similar treatment because they find themselves from a very early age alienated from their own bodies, understanding their gender identity to be other than their biological sex.
And then there is the rest of humanity. Some of us have the luxury of being able to ignore others’ struggles and to deny that gender and sexual identity define our lives in significant measure. Not all of us do ignore or deny their impact—and none of us should—but many can and some do. Straight, non-trans men, that’s us.
Ironically (and perhaps unfortunately), the cause of justice for women, including transwomen, for transmen, for gays, and for those who reject traditional binary definitions of gender and/or sexuality, depends in part measure on us.
I am not advocating the idea that women need men more than men need women. Neither am I proposing an androcentric noblesse oblige. Rather, I am drawing attention to the facts that those who are straight, non-trans, and male have been among the greatest perpetrators of injustice against those who are not, and that those of us who are not perpetrators are too often silent. People need people, and humanity needs all the people—or at least the vast majority of the people—to be on board with solving its most pressing issues. Issues of justice relating to gender and sexuality are no different.
You do not even need to believe that non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality are moral to recognize that you and people like you, including your faith community, have been complicit in failing to love all people and love them well.
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Simone Weil’s Blasphemy Against Popular Culture
When Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011, there were numerous public outpourings of grief. Makeshift shrines dotted the globe. There is no doubt that his less-is-more technological aesthetic improved the technological and aesthetic experience of many people. When his engineers presented plans for a mouse with three buttons, he insisted that they pare them down to one. When other operating systems required users to memorize arcane codes to accomplish the most rudimentary tasks, he led a team to create a simple and visually engaging interface that has remained the industry standard. After his company seemed to be yesterday’s news and the mobile phone industry seemed immune to substantial innovation, he masterminded an entire genre of devices as powerful and versatile as they are compact. In short, Steve Jobs led his company to develop hardware that was beautiful and easy to use.
This is a bad thing. Here is why. We already live in an era defined by a shortage of time and an excess of distraction. Those of us affluent enough to own an iSomething – and yes, relative to the standards of the rest of the world, this is a mark of affluence – face an even greater degree of temptation. When you feel happy, it may be more tempting to share that information rather than embrace the fullness of that moment and that feeling, as the recent story of the distracted driver and ensuing car wreck illustrate.
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