It’s difficult to get through a day at this moment of history without being exposed to some anxiety among those around us. Many people feel that things are a bit “out of kilter;” folks are on edge. Cable news outlets are reporting record viewership; people talk about the need to detach from the continuous news feed. Little of the news they see is uplifting.
Some of this comes from political actions here in the US, but reports from outside the US seem to demonstrate a similar unease. There are reports of higher stress levels among students in higher education. Incidents of conflicts among racial, ethnic and religious groups seem to be rising. People seem afraid to talk to one another unless they already know the other agrees with them on key issues. While the US has seen weakening trust among the people toward institutions, there seems to be a more widespread breakdown of trust among individuals. Questioning the motives of another person seems more acceptable, even expected.
Durkheim forwarded the notion of “anomie” as a negative outlook formed by a society that offers little moral guidance to its members. Some of the examples of stressful events seem to be violations of a set of norms that were uniformly honored in earlier eras – how strangers interact with one another; what defined deference to one another; what allegiances bonded together those in a nation-state or a community or a city block.
Given these developments, higher education institutions clearly have a new obligation. Since they educate the next generation of leaders and the society is exhibiting these new features, they need to devise ways to arm students with the necessary skills to lead in such a society. I’ve written earlier about the importance of skills in talking with those who have different perspectives than you. It seems most important in navigating this new society.
However, the more I reflect on this, it is not merely a set of skills – at least, the skills alone will not improve the society. Real listening to another person requires a set of values animating how we approach another person. The Jesuit notion of “presupposition” seems useful here. It’s necessary to approach another with the respect for their humanity and legitimacy because of our shared origins. Assuming their good will and their attempts to find truth facilitates a genuine listening to them. Because each of us share day-to-day struggles, each of us fails and picks ourselves up, each of us cares about those close to us – we share much of the joys and challenges of being human. Arupe’s call to be “women and men for others” enlarges the group of those for whom each of us should care — from those who are close to us to a much larger set.
Anomie is a state of normlessness that is painful. For norms to be sustainable (or re-established), shared values are key. Higher education institutions, if they are to help prepare students for leadership in such an endeavor, need themselves to be certain of their shared values. In this regard, Georgetown has the great advantage of a set of values that animate our work. Following them, we know why we need to train leaders for a world that has lost its way in the midst of fractured and isolated groups.