In our first-year Paideia course, this semester's already crackling with energy, ideas and delight, because of some unexpected correspondences between the world inside and outside the classroom. As we've been reading Cristina Henriquez’s "The Book of Unknown Americans" and discussing her portrayal of a Latino migrant community in Delaware, we've also been reviewing the daily headlines in the New York Times: waves of Middle Eastern refugees streaming toward Europe, sleeping in train stations, pleading for passage away from ISIS and their countries' other troubles, and sometimes meeting death on the road. Every day a new picture arrives: people pouring off a ferry big enough for cars, people squeezing themselves through the doors of trains and famously – and chillingly – the tiny limp body of a three-year-old boy, washed up on a shore and borne away in a Turkish policeman's arms.
When Cristina Henriquez visited Luther for our opening convocation, she talked about an old and rich idea: stories connect human beings with one another, because they activate empathy in our brains and our hearts. "What is it like to be you?," asked with honest, openhearted curiosity, is one of the most powerful questions we can ask of one another, because it moves us beyond rigid oppositional boundaries and into the glorious complex mess of actual human beings living actual lives, where easy answers and simple choices can be rare. Think of how often we tell each other stories–not just offer "facts"–to help each other see why we believe what we believe, or why we're making the choice we are. Neurologically, we now know that stories on the page can be equally powerful. Scientists have found that reading literary fiction, with its human nuance and specific detail, can activate our brains in ways that help us see and understand others more fully. Like a liberal arts education, or learning in general, it expands the self from the inside by expanding your view of the world beyond yourself.
In talking about "The Book of Unknown Americans" and the ideas of empathy it raises, my students and I also got into a very important question: when I see suffering in the world, like that of the migrants on the front page of the New York Times every day, what can I do about it? How do I deal with the feelings of powerlessness and sadness that come to me, a 19-year-old, when I look at the world that seems so frighteningly beyond my control? Is "raising awareness" of that suffering just a cop-out, a substitute for real action? What actions are within my power to take, right now?
Some answers to this might come from modern technology–making donations to charities, starting a hashtag or site for people to find more information–but more might come from our college's namesake, Martin Luther. Deep in his theology (which we've taught in Paideia before) is the idea that you don't have to have "special training," which in his time meant becoming a priest or a nun, to serve God and your fellow humans–every single person, by fulfilling their daily role in their families, jobs, passions and relationships to the best and most generous of their abilities, can serve God and their fellow humans right where they are. This is at the heart of Luther's notion of "vocation"–in responding to a calling, a desire to contribute to the world and help heal its deep needs and griefs, you don't have to have special training. Your good actions and generosity–and empathy–ripple outward where you are, leading to consequences, particularly over time, that you can't see. And just as importantly, they reflect back inward, building a self with a bigger, wider, more resilient, flexible, and generous capacity for reflection, thought and action. That is the self on which you'll draw for future contributions to the world that you may not be able to see right now–particularly at age 19–but building that self begins with each book you read and each classroom conversation you have and each fact you learn about the ongoing stream of human endeavor in art, science, mathematics, history, literature, music and beyond. Learning to see yourself as a part of something larger and to place your own questions and observations in the larger "story" of human history builds in you capacities that will lead to great things, further down the path you are on right now. Therefore, as ineffectual as it can sometimes feel, empathy is not useless. Knowledge of books, events, ideas, the world is not useless, because it builds a self with humility, curiosity, and a perspective on human beings throughout time. And over time it can also build the snowballing will to act for change, the gathering conviction that you too have a vision of the way things ought to be.
We left the classroom that day feeling encouraged, books tight in our hands, ideas buzzing. Yes, even we, inside our minds and lives that can feel so small, can fulfill the greater purpose of education, which lasts our whole life: becoming a self with something constructive to say.