The life of an academic has more scheduled cycles than most professions. Each fall is a clean slate. New students flock to a class that begins with a fresh start by the instructor. Semesters offer a framework for a beginning, a middle, and an end, all in a short four months. Examinations and final papers are delivered and graded, and grades are submitted to the registrar’s office. The semester is over. A break occurs. The next cycle then begins.
Fall semesters are doubly filled with ends of cycles. The calendar year ends roughly when the semester ends. Such co-occurrence breeds a type of reflection, a looking back on recent events and attempts at synthesis of meaning.
This was a rough year, in our country and on our campuses. We live in a world of widespread conflicts, clashes of beliefs and of economic statuses. Ethnic and racial tensions seem ever-visible. Many people, even those not directly involved in these tensions, seem unsettled. Inequalities on every dimension abound. Across all groups, feelings of disenfranchisement seem more ubiquitous.
Of course, technological change powered by and aiding globalization appear correlated with these issues. It seems clearer now how these two forces, so important to wonderful new benefits to the world, also bring new problems. For example, we now know it is easier to expose ourselves only to information that is compatible with our prior beliefs, given the segmentation of information media.
We at Georgetown are part of this world. It affects us, even while we are attempting to affect it.
But as we reflect on the semester and the year, I think we also possess a set of values that can help us see a way forward. Here at Georgetown we acknowledge that we have been privileged. That privilege brings with it a responsibility.
Many of the world’s problems, complex and large as they seem, are rooted in inter-personal and inter-group conflicts. Georgetown can draw on a 450 year tradition of a search for empathy, understanding of differences, and inculturation of our work within environments quite different from ours. These values seek engagement with the world, especially when aspects of it frighten us. Honesty about our ignorance of others and humility in our approaches serve us well in this engagement.
Reflecting on the year of 2016, it seems urgent for all of us to attempt to understand those who are not in our own group. We need to reidentify what we all share in our worldview. We need dialogue to understand how very different perspectives than ours can be held.
In short, being “women and men for others” cannot succeed when we know too little of the “others.” And so, before we change the world, we might give a little attention to changing ourselves and how we relate to the “others” among us. Indeed, starting with those around us might be a great training ground for our work in the wider world.