Dr. Michael Sanow-Finding Our Humanity: Leading Students to Community Engagement
(Excerpts from Keynote Speech, Service Learning Symposium:
" Building Bridges, Making Connections: Colleges and Community Uniting in Partnership", December 2003)
I. The Meaning of a Simple “Good Morning”
I would like to start today's presentation with a short story entitled:
“Good Morning, Herr Muller”
Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic Rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties. Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat, and carrying a silver cane, the rabbi would take his morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law. During his morning walk it was the rabbi's custom to greet every man, woman, and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial “Good morning.” Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.
Near the outskirts of the town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Muller, a Polish Volksdeutsche (ethnic German). “Good morning, Herr Muller!” the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields. “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” would come the response with a good-natured smile.
Then the war began. The rabbi's strolls stopped abruptly. Herr Muller donned an S.S. uniform and disappeared from the fields. The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry. He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.
One day during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood on line with hundreds of other Jews awaiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death. Dressed in a striped uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked liking a walking skeleton. “Right! Left, left, left!” The voice in the distance drew nearer. Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton, and steely voice who played God and decided who should live and who should die. He lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:
“Good morning, Herr Muller!”
“Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” responded a human voice behind the S.S. cap adorned with skull and bones. “What are you doing here?” A faint smile appeared on the rabbi's lips. The baton moved to the right-to life. The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.
The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, “This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man.”
This story was based on a conversation that Yaffa Eliach had with an elderly Hasidic person.
( Source: Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach, Oxford University Press,1982.)
I think that there are certainly some lessons we can learn from this story, that are about the importance of taking the time to acknowledge another and how even in the most inhumane setting, that there is a glimmer of humanity that seeps out from this connection that had occurred in a previous existence.
II. What is the Ideal Society?
The political philosopher John Bordley Rawls theorized that the ideal society should be constructed according to a straightforward principle that has come to be known as the “Rawls test”: would the best-off accept the arrangements if they believed at any moment they might find themselves in the place of the worst-off? Slavery, for instance, would not pass the test because slave owners could not in good faith say they would prefer the arrangements if the roles were reversed.
The question I raise is how this definition of an “ideal society” relates to our own vision and how this definition assumes our willingness to recognize and acknowledge our common humanity.
III. Why Search for Meaning?
Why do we search for meaning in our lives? How much do we rely on religion to provide us with answers? Are there other ways we can come to answers to this question and the other related universal questions that have challenged people through the ages? Philosophy has offered answers about the meaning of life and thoughts about the “ideal society” as exemplified by the quote from John Rawls that I just read.
Many of us are in other disciplines in the Social Sciences, Humanities and Natural Sciences that don't directly confront these universal questions. Yet we raise them and think about them in our work if not directly, indirectly. Or in my mind, we should raise them. Not only do we ponder questions about the meaning of life, but hopefully we wrestle with the ethical issues we face in our lives and in our contemporary society. I believe that we can wrestle more successfully with these issues when we do this in the context of our own wrestling with how we see and relate to other human beings with whom we share our worlds and this planet.
IV. How Do We Define Humanity? Are We A Part of Humanity?
In asking this question, I am raising for our consideration whether we see ourselves as members of the “human” community in which our common problems and struggles are more important than what divides us. This is about seeing others as our equals and as members of the same species first, rather than our seeing these others as distant relations or creature from a distant planet and hardly our equals.
It is about seeing them as our brothers and sisters.
V. What Are the Human Characteristics That Are Critical to Appreciating Our Shared Humanity?
I would like to posit several for your consideration and our discussion.
First, Compassion: Compassion is about having feelings for others, their problems, their concerns, their dilemmas. Compassion is about expressing these feelings in ways that demonstrate that you understand and care. It is about being willing to listen and be there for them.
The second characteristic is Understanding: This is not about having sympathy for others; it is not about just saying you understand so you can avoid really understanding or get to the next stop in your day. In my mind it is about developing EMPATHY. The Sociologist Weber used the term verstehen and defined this empathic understanding as a learning what it means to walk in someone else's shoes, to see the world through someone' else's eyes. Empathy is about understanding that there are other lenses people use, which work for them. This is not only about moving beyond our ethnocentrism to cultural relativity, but in doing this we are finding new ways to view the world, finding new ways to view others and being led to ask new questions. I believe this opening up of your mind leads to opening up of your heart.
The next characteristic is Respect: Respect is about being willing to not judge others. Respect is about being willing to not devalue others. Having self-respect is necessary to our being able to respect others. I also believe that learning to respect others can lead to a higher level of respect for ourselves.
The next part of this picture is about our Seeing the Other and their Differences. First, we have to "recognize our own prejudices". We have to not treat others as invisible. We have to stop objectifying others. This is about being willing to stop and recognize the differences. It is about acknowledging the differences, and ties back to the importance of Respect. We need to then come to respect the differences and, learn not to devalue them.
Related to this is our "seeing the other in us"; the other as a model to learn from rather than to judge. This is about recognizing that as different as others may seem to be from us, they also have many more similarities to us. We will then be willing to not only recognize, but acknowledge these similarities.
This is about seeing that others, who may seem so different from us and who live in such different worlds may live their lives, develop a value system and have ways of seeing the world and living, that we may learn from, value and possibly be a model for us that could take us to new places in our own lives.
The real step in this growth process is realizing that we can all learn from others, if we are willing to value them.
So we have now actively moved from Devaluing to Valuing. This process is about realizing how our biases get in the way. This is about realizing how we let our biases distort our view of others. This is about how we let this distortion lead us to devaluing, dehumanizing, mistreating, harming, oppressing and denying others their rights and often a basic existence. This is about realizing how harmful devaluing can be to others, our community and society and to ourselves. This is about coming to a place where we realize that it benefits us all more to value others and see them as players in our world rather than as challengers or threats.This valuing challenges us to trust those who we may never have thought to be trustworthy, because of our biases and lack of seeing them as our brothers and sisters.
This connects to our Recognizing the Value and Importance of Community Engagement. I believe that our becoming engaged in our community, other communities and our society will be invaluable in leading us to understand and appreciate others. Our working with others for mutually beneficial ends or to accomplish a task that helps others can not only teach us and our students about community and the importance of working with others, but can lead our students to find new meaning in their life, that will contribute to their personal growth, empowerment, and sense of self worth.
This is why I believe that service learning can be such a valuable pedagogy, not only in engaging our students in relating their course work to the “real world,” but in broadening their own sense of the world and their place in it.
In order to be successful in this process we have to take the risk to step outside one's comfort zone. There will always be risks in our lives. One of the biggest will be moving beyond our comfort zone. Moving beyond what feels right and what is secure.
In taking theses risks we will find the challenges that result in moving out of one's comfort zone. The first challenge for us and for our students is learning how to feel secure with others that our different from us?
In doing this we have to learn that we can develop trust with others that are not in our comfort zone? This can be frightening and will provide us with a great challenge. But I believe this engagement with others will lead us to not only know others but also know ourselves and leave us in a new comfort zone, one that is wider and more embracing of other members of the human community.
VI. Is This Not What Education is About?
This process is critically related to wanting and valuing personal growth. This vision as I have discussed is about finding our humanity and leading our students to find their humanity.
To do this we have to figure out ways to facilitate and lead our students to a place where they will find through their learning in the class and as part of a service learning assignment that it is exciting to grow in these ways. It is about encouraging them and stimulating them to desire to continue to learn, grow and value this learning and growing.
This can then lead to our recognizing that wanting growth can lead to empowerment, both personally and as a member of a community and a citizen of society. Perhaps a lot of people and our students in particular cannot even dream of what benefits will accrue from the empowerment they will gain.
This empowerment is about self worth, self-esteem, having a sense of identity and purpose and finding meaning in one's life. This meaning is so enhanced by being engaged with others and can be so empowering!
This is then hopefully the real benefit for our students, for our society, and for humanity!
I share with you testimony from my students this past semester in three sections of a Sociology course I taught, entitled Racial and Cultural Minorities. These examples of my students' testimonies demonstrates how service learning can be related to Finding Our Humanity as I have discussed. (See Student Comments on Service Learning.)
As a way of concluding this presentation I would like to link this searching for truth and meaning and our finding humanity to a paradigm for learning. I believe we are, to say the least, tiptoeing on tenuous ground when we assert that our definition of truth, or in the present conflict we as a nation find ourselves in, that our definition of evil, is the only, or correct one.
I believe that if we are going to learn from history, and live and work, in ways to repair our world today, we must struggle to learn about and not turn away from confronting the individuals and societies that have existed throughout history that have caused suffering, hardship and great loss to millions of people. Equally important in enabling ourselves to “confront evil” is our coming to know the victims, their stories and their souls. We can do this from reading and listening to their stories. Engaging in communities, doing service learning can be the first step in this process.
Theodore Adorno, said, “a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” Our engagement in communities is certainly a way for us to begin to learn the truths of people's lives.
This may then take us on the path to confronting the forces of dehumanization and destruction and finding ways to make the world better for all humanity.
We as individuals and as a society should always be wary of judging others. I believe that once we start judging others based on superficial knowledge or stereotypes, it is easy to move on to distrusting them, to demeaning and hating them, and can more easily than we might believe lead us to justifying killing, even mass killing or genocide. Before you know it we are in a place where we could all become perpetrators of evil.
So how do we as educators reach our students and help them on the path to finding their humanity? First can we teach them that “becoming” educated is more than having a diploma as proof of our accomplishments and realizing that education should not only be the beginning of the path to accomplishing life long goals. It is realizing that it should be a way of opening themselves to the world, to the possibilities out there and to an appreciation of all those other people who face similar and different challenges. We as educators should lead our students to realize that formal education can be the first step in making learning a part of their lives and that education begins, not ends, with the formal phase of studying to get a degree.
I believe we should lead our students to recognize that every day is an opportunity to learn and grow. This is about finding new questions to ask and new challenges to contemplate in books, newspapers, the arts, films, and music. This is about learning from our family, especially the older members, by taking the time to be with them and hear their stories. This is about learning from those others in our community and beyond. It is about engaging in service in our communities that can open many new doors.
As I have said earlier this is about encouraging our students to be willing to enter new places beyond their comfort zone. This is about exploring those places and finding the exploration to be an adventure. If we are going to proceed on this adventure, we cannot just be satisfied with conventional questions and answers. It is about encouraging them to let those curious bones in our bodies develop, rather than wither!
This adventure will lead them and all of us on new paths as individuals. In our coming to know ourselves through learning about others we will come to appreciate our common humanity.
It is also about realizing that, who we are is hardly set in stone. It is about learning that we should always be open to new ways of knowing and defining. Once we start learning and exploring, we may never quite be the same. This is scary for many of our students. But think of how scary it is to be stuck in quick sand and never being able to get out.
This is about communicating that since life is so unpredictable, that you are not going to sit and wait for it to pass you by. It is about getting involved in your community and finding out about other communities. It is about extending yourself to people in those other places, even though it may seem to you that they are from another planet.
It is about being willing and not afraid to ask “ethical” questions about what is happening in our communities, our society and the world today. It is acknowledging that we may have been wrong and that we can do better.
It is about seeking to find ways to repair our society, by getting involved.
It is about coming to realize that our personal growth can only come if we make a choice to value it.
It is about grappling with hard issues everyday and coming to wrestling with the reality and universality of human suffering throughout history and in our world today.
It is about opening our eyes and minds-- Trying to find the answers to our life's dilemmas and the reasons for the world's tragedies requires that we first affirm that it is important to do this. Secondly, that we are willing to make this part of our life's purpose and vision. And thirdly, that we see ourselves as a member of this society and not a bystander.
Let us encourage our students to stand up for what they believe, but also realize that they may be wrong and others may see the world in other and equally valid ways. Perhaps they will then begin the journey in earnest of finding their humanity.
VII. Some Key Concepts Related to Finding Our Humanity
OBJECTIFICATION - Relating to another person as if they were an object, rather than a subject. An object is something you "do something to," not "something that does something." An object is acted upon, while a subject is the actor. If we objectify others, treating them as objects, we deny them an identity or an ability to control their own lives, we see them as someone we can control, violate, harass and treat as less than us. We deny them dignity, integrity, selfhood, identity and validity. For example, treating another as a "sex object," rather than someone with whom we have mutually reciprocal loving relationship.
INVISIBILITY - Treatment of members of a minority group as if they do not exist. No matter what the situation, acting towards a person as if he or she is irrelevant, of no consequence and "part of the scenery." Treating them as if they were a "non-person." Not considering another person, even though he or she may be critically affected by a decision or an action. Invisibility is essentially a total devaluation of the worth of another. Even if on an occasion, a person may be seen as a member of a category, the person would never be seen as an individual with human qualities and attributes. "I'm invisible...because people refuse to see me...When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me." (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, Vintage Books, 1947, 1948,1952, 1972.)
TAKING THE ROLE OF THE OTHER - Imagining the world from the perspective of another. This taking the perspective of the other is a basic part of all interaction. If one is able to place his or her subjective biases aside, one can begin to try to see the world through another's perspective. This form of empathetic understanding requires a special kind of objectivity, one that is difficult to achieve and involves "walking a mile in another man's shoes." The end result may not only enhance our understanding of others, but may be the first step in better and more honest communication.
Michael Sanow is professor of sociology and Chair, Center For Service Learning, Catonsville Campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.