Presidential Address: “Honors and the Universal Citizen”
In 1971 the great Hannah Arendt published her monumental and last book The Life of the Mind, a book (which is much more than a book) that analyzed the act of thinking in the contemporary world. Of course, our conception of the contemporary has evolved greatly since 1971, but Arendt’s analysis still holds up today. In the beginning of that work she states:
“Living beings, men and animals, are not just in the world, they are of the world.” Let me quote that again: “Living beings, men and animals, are not just in the world, they are of the world.[i]
What, exactly, does it mean to be of the world? I think we come closest to an understanding of this when we begin to really investigate what it means to think, and think deeply, which means reflectively and not in terms of data. If human beings are of the world then it stands to reason that our capacity to think places us simultaneously inside and outside a hermeneutic circle. One can be, one must be, in the world and of the world, simultaneously. This is perhaps what Samuel Schuman was reaching for when he wrote that honors students were people too. In other words, we need to re-think the concept of student (and, indeed honors itself) holistically, and not solely from a disciplinary perspective.
In his series of lectures on thinking Martin Heidegger makes the following declaration:
“Most thought-provoking in our though-provoking time, is that we are still not thinking.”[ii]
Heidegger was writing in the 1950s, but he could have been commenting on contemporary society. Heidegger’s statement may seem more than a little odd given the velocity with which technology is “improving” our lives. Through technology we are more connected than ever, and the world has indeed grown smaller, more intimate. But, I fear, that technology has also made us less aware of the differences that divide us. Specifically, given the recent turn toward the far right in the global political arena, those divides are increasing, growing ever wider. It has also made us a lot less self-aware. In other words, I fear we have become less aware of ourselves and our place in society. With the advent of social media we have reduced ourselves to avatars, to personas with no souls. In Arendtian terms, we are no longer of the world, just in it.
And yet, as I walked around the various panels this morning, I was amazed by the work that is being done by you. As young scholars you are certainly reacting to and reaching toward the larger intellectual conversation. You are all doing good work. But is this enough? Is it enough to conduct your research, take part in the odd conference here and there, and perhaps even publish on occasion? Is it enough to want to succeed in a world that is already so preoccupied with success? One wonders about responsibility and commitment, especially in the age of the selfie.
A few years ago I was sitting right where you are now, listening to Margaret Roman deliver her own Presidential address in Philadelphia. I remember how inspired I was listening to her words, and that I wanted to do more, that I felt inspired to do more. On the morning we were to leave, I had about an hour to kill so I decided to walk around Liberty Hall one last time. It was a clear and cool morning, and as I threaded my way up from the hotel I came across two homeless men sitting on a bench chatting away. All of their worldly possessions were lying on the ground next to them. I heard once again Dr. Roman’s call to action. Not being in a position to do much, I went across the street to a café and ordered two large coffees. I gathered up enough cream and sugar, and then made my way back to the homeless men sitting on the bench. I was hesitant to approach them because I didn’t want to offend them. I sheepishly went up to them and offered them the coffee. They looked at me for a second, only a second, and said, “No thanks.” I was left with two large coffees and a bag of sugar and cream. I was dejected, or perhaps a better word is rejected! Okay, so things didn’t go as planned, but it was not enough to deter me from trying again. My feelings became irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things.
The reality is that we often do good deeds because we know that it will make us feel good, or, worse still, it will look good on a resume. You may argue that the intention is irrelevant given the overwhelming need for such deeds, but, again, we may tell ourselves this in order to feel good about what we do. Honors, especially in this region, has always been an organization with a strong sense of commitment, of attempting to bridge the various divides that separate us from one another. But is it enough? The answer is no, but then, we can only do so much in a world that needs so much. As an educational organization we are first and foremost interested in academics, in scholarship. But I would ask that we ponder the words of Arendt and Heidegger over the coming year. To re-consider why it is we do what we do, both academically and civically. I want to be clear: I am not trying to dismiss these things, nor am I asking you to give them up, I’m simply asking you to re-think the divide that separates thinking and action.
Last year the theme of our annual conference was “Migrations,” and we explored that concept on a number of levels. At the time Europe was under a deluge of migrants attempting to reach a promised land. We recall the images. This year our theme is “Bridging the Divide,” a theme as important and timely as migrations was last year. With all of the political rhetoric concerning walls, I am proud to stand here among you taking part in a conversation about bridges. Moreover, this year’s theme is a wonderful continuation of the conversation that began last year. All of which brings me to my theme: an honors community that also strives for a universal citizenship. I use the word “universal” rather than global because the concept of globalism has been corrupted by the free market and as such has become bankrupt. The term universal also transcends the geopolitical boundaries of nations, nationalisms, and passports. By taking part in the thinking that goes on in conferences like this, indeed, in our respective programs, we are acknowledging the fact that we are engaged with others in a conversation that seeks to further develop that conversation. But let is not keep this within our regional or national honors organizations. Instead, we must extend our thinking in various ways and in various modes, we must aim to go beyond the borders of our own comfort zones.
The fabulous Elena Ferrante remarks:
“Borders make us feel stable. At the first hint of conflict, at the least threat, we close them. The border serves to gather us into a unit, to diminish the hidden centrifugal thrusts that undermine our identity. But it’s purely appearance. A story begins when, one after another, our borders collapse.”[iii]
The interdisciplinary nature of honors is itself resistant to the concept of borders, and I would caution this region about staying within the safety of its own borders; be it disciplinary or regional. Let me offer another personal example.
In 2012 I traveled to Prague to take part in an interdisciplinary conference whose theme was suffering. For three days about twenty people from various disciplines, some academic, but most not, met to discuss this common theme. For three days I sat next to an intellectual from the University of Tehran in Iran. We chatted, mostly small talk, nothing political, and it was pleasant enough. On the last day of the conference we each were asked to say what we liked most about the sessions. Everyone had interesting things to say, but when my turn came I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: “I loved the fact that an Iranian and an American can sit next to one another for three days and actually get along.” It was simple, yet effective. We all clapped. And this is my point: I see honors as a bright light illuminating the darkness of oppression and intolerance, to say nothing of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia to name only a few. As I write these words gay men are being rounded up, arrested, and killed in Chechnya. As I write these words chemical weapons have once again been used in Syria, killing so many innocent men, women, and children. As I write these words one of my son’s best friend, a 12 year-old legal immigrant from Bosnia is afraid that the current U. S. government is going to deport him for being a Muslim. As I write these words our current President is working to stifle the freedom of the press. As I write these words the people of Flint, Michigan still lack access to safe drinking water. As I write these words women are still not being paid as much as men.
Our true calling, our true mission, if we can call it that, is to strive to become universal citizens, citizens of a shared and engaged humanity. The essence of our universal citizenship is the concept of care, of compassion, of a willingness to speak the truth to power, in the way suggested by Edward Said. My hope for you, for all of you, is that you transcend the current that would force you to become nothing more than thoughtless consumers in an age of unprecedented greed. There is hope here, there is intelligence, and there is determination. In one of my classes this semester we are currently reading Cesare Pavese’s brilliant novel The Moon and the Bonfires. One of the characters, Nuto, a peasant from the north of Italy, remarks that “The world is badly made and you have to remake it.”[iv] It’s a refrain that seems to carry on generation after generation. Nevertheless, I find the sentiment to be true. “The world is badly made.” But, with all of you doing the work you do, by continuing to engage in the world and to resist the ghettoization of the world (in the way that Salman Rushdie defines the term), I see a bright spot on the horizon. But what we do at conferences is not enough. We must remind ourselves that we are just as much of the world as we are in the world.
I would like to leave you with some words from Margaret Atwood’s astounding 1988 novel, Cat’s Eye:
“Now it’s full night, clear, moonless and filled with stars, which are not eternal as once was thought, which are not where we think they are. If they were sounds, they would be echoes, of something that happened millions of years ago: a word made of numbers. Echoes of light, shining out of the midst of nothing.
It’s an old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by.”[v]
[i] Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. Orlando, Florida: A Harvest Book. 1978. (page 20).
[ii] Heidegger, Martin. What Calls for Thinking? Trans. J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 1968.
[iii] Ferrante, Elena. Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions. 2016. (page 326).
[iv] Pavese, Cesare. The Moon and the Bonfires. Trans. R. W. Flint. New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2002. (page 33).
[v] Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. New York: Doubleday, 1988. (page 446).