Late Night in Cabin 10, In Which a Sleepy Chaperone is Overrun by a Cadre of Middle School Nocturnals...
I stepped outside to jot down some thoughts. In retrospect, it was an apt metaphor for what follows.
First, pardon the cheese and the cliché-
What is the source of universal truths? To what corners must we travel to see their genesis? How far back in to the past? How do they change as they migrate from border to border? Is the change legitimate or the result of requisite differentiation? Are they truly universal if they change? Is immutability a criteria? Who are the arbiters and taste-makers? Are the truths whims that strike the fancy of many? Are they politically expedient? When values clash, when morals conflict—without political context, how do we act? Does a believer in freedom have the moral obligation to fight for perceived universal freedoms even when the fight crosses physical and cultural borders? Do believers in theocratic structures have the authority, divinely ordained, to impose their will, within their borders, on non-believers or adherents to a different faith? Do they have the authority to impose their interpretation on believers whose beliefs are nominally different? Beyond self defense, is there a point when I'm allowed to assert my will on another?
These are conundrums that many debate or, for discomfort or passive aggression, simply gloss over. They are issues of individual agency vs. robotic acquiescence. Of the scope of power, and the consequences of righteousness. Certainly, my bias lies with advocacy for freedom, but I’m truly perplexed by those with philosophically thoughtful beliefs that are contrary to my own. We often forget, in the midst of passionate diatribes, that perfectly reasonable people don’t always agree. Some loathe the hijab while many Muslim women make the conscious decision to don it. Some loathe Socialism while others, not for lack of facts, can imagine no better way.
The essential question: how do we allow and account for difference, even if it fundamentally assaults our beliefs? The undeniable, foundational precept that governs my perspective is the unqualified—or minimally qualitied—foundation of individual agency—agency without fear of recourse. A consequence and necessity of such a position is a society that allows the free circulation of ideas, and that embraces dissonance. And the individual should trump any state or private institution.
My 6th graders just finished reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver. In the novel, a community has adopted a principle of “Sameness” to eliminate diversity and conflict. In reaction to a novel that is viscerally frustrating to all of us, the students are creating their own utopias. Right now, they are making manifest the philosophical debates we have at the dinner table or with friends, that the Enlightenment Philosophes debated for nearly a century. Right now, their English class is the laboratory in which they can play with and implement their ideas, the safe place in which they can evaluate the efficacy of their choices. They are addressing the essential social question of the novel and reality: how do we deal with diversity while promoting a functional and ideal society? Inevitably they’ll fail. They choose homogeneity and strict rule over diversity, freedom, and a little chaos. I think such a response is instinctive and, at first glance, a little intuitive; the more I control, the more I can control. But we know humans lack predictability, and we aren’t truly alive without some degree of self-determination and the opportunity to create. Aren’t cultures the hallmarks of humanity? Our forefathers and mothers chose the counter-intuitive option: to respect the dignity of men and women, and all of the messiness that comes with it. In class, we welcome the failure as a teaching point; it will lead to the next idea, and the next, and the next. At some point down the line, a student may hit on something that works. I often think the children will be the ones to solve this philosophical conundrum. So it is in The Giver, in which Jonas, a 13 year old, has the wisdom and uncorrupted ideals to establish a better way and save generations.
This is a culture that I want to live in, whose values I espouse. One that values me and us. The best world is the one in which individuality is encouraged but is balanced with broad, galvanizing common goals. We need something to trump the trivial, which will re-frame our social debates and perspectives. Therein lies the secret to dealing with diversity—finding the common goal. This isn’t simply a question of utility. Our hyper-rational modern tendencies make it easy to overlook the human toll.
What is a life deprived of its full stock of self-determination? An anti-intellectual existence akin to that of an ant or a jellyfish, in which value, emotion, fulfillment, and altruism aren’t even in the script. Each time someone is deeply beholden to another or to a system, that person is an automaton, a program. And that person is suppressing natural and healthy drives and impulses.
Although the solution to such conundrums remains elusive, we must keep asking the questions. And we must look at how our neighbors around the globe deal with them.
And we must look to our children, who like to stay up late and play.
Director of Altamont's Global Initiative
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