Guest Post by Kathryn DeSutter
Jan. 26 — As has happened during many — if not all — of this symposium’s events, Saturday morning’s panel discussion, featuring Billy Parish, Majora Carter and Bill McKibben, began with reflection.
Professor Isham challenged the audience to reflect on what these past days during the symposium have taught us. In notebooks provided by the MCSE, we completed the phrase, “for me, a life well-lived is…”
After hearing a few responses, McKibben pointed out a common theme: a “very deep instinct to be part of something larger than ourselves.” The panelists — and many audience members —nodded in agreement.
Parish then distilled his philosophy down to a few short phrases: “Follow your purpose with people you love; celebrate often.” Parish spoke openly about his joy at being able to work alongside people he loves.
When Carter took the mic, she offered some comforting advice for those who might feel overwhelmed by the challenges that have been laid before us during the course of the symposium.
“We live in this world where people believe that you’ve gotta be big or go home. I don’t feel that’s realistic most of the time … It nurtures [us] when we are actively living a life where we are working to support something that’s bigger than us. And it doesn’t have to be an enormous thing — it could be as simple as being kind to someone.”
Carter explained that everyone has something to contribute — “you just have to be open to doing it.”
McKibben related how the history of 350.org empowered ordinary people to help. He explained that the name “350” was chosen partially because Arabic numerals cross language boundaries and enabled the organization to work across the world.
Panel moderator and Faculty Director of MCSE Jon Isham then called on faculty members to reflect on the tension between “learning by doing” and a liberal arts education that takes place only inside the classroom.
Associate Professor of History Kathy Morse acknowledged the “productive but difficult tension” between the practice of study and the act of taking knowledge into the world.
Assistant Professor of Dance Christal Brown explained that within the context of her dance program, “their energies affect one another.”
Carter commented that she was encouraged by this discussion, although there were no easy answers. “We do need to have the hard conversations,” she said. She explained that outside of a liberal arts college, it’s difficult to find a setting to talk about topics like race, class and gender. “I think it’s important to be in a place where you have the luxury and be in an environment where you can talk about those things.”
Isham then called on students to elaborate on the recent initiative JusTalks, and Carllee James ’13 explained that this provided students an opportunity to “discuss things that are often left out of the classroom.”
After a brief discussion of the value of integrity, Isham asked audience members over the coffee break to use the exercise “2 stars and a wish” to reflect on 2 positive learning experiences and one that left room for improvement.
After the break, a high school student named Marcelo talked about positive experiences he had in school, but lamented that standardized tests “teach us what to learn, not how to learn.”
Audience members shared other insights from the symposium. Barbara Ofusu – Samuah ’13 explained how the interaction that had taken place moments before between Professor Brown and Majora Carter — two women of color in positions of power — had inspired her. Jeannie Barlett ‘14.5 said she had learned different models of social change, and a student from Haverford had learned the humbling lesson that, “it’s not about having enough, it’s just about using what we have to make a difference.”
Parish then interjected his own provocation: in all of the discussion about learning experiences, the topic of technology had not yet been addressed. “The liberal arts education began in a very different time,” said Parish. “When I think about the core competencies we need to develop to be successful in an age where computers are doing things that humans used to do … teamwork, critical thinking, writing, coding, engineering, design … there are new competencies that we need to be training people to learn and to be successful going forward. It’s another layer of context that I wanted to add into the conversation.”
A student then questioned Parish, if our liberal arts education doesn’t give us an engineering degree, how are we training to work with technology?
Carter suggested that perhaps a more important question may be, “do you have the desire to be innovative?”
McKibben took another perspective. “At this point, lack of engineering solutions is not our problem,” he said. He argued that technology can get in the way of actually thinking or connecting with other people. As the conversation veered, he challenged us to think of the internet as architecture — a form for building something larger than itself.
Another student in the audience asked the panelists if it is necessary to fundamentally change some of the systems that currently exist in the world.
Carter answered with a hopeful perspective. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop climate change or to stop poverty, but every single step that we take of progress toward those goals is a good one.”
“The perfect is the enemy of the good,” she said. “Do something and get something done. And understand that you’re bringing people along and up with you as you do it.”
McKibben echoed her sentiments. “Do as much as you can, but not bite off so much that it’s pointless. The point is always pushing as hard as you can and being as strategic as you can.”
In closing, a student asked the panelists how they balance their accomplishments and high-powered jobs while still maintaining a sense of self. This gathered laughter from the panelists and audience members alike. I felt relieved at the honesty of the question.
Carter took the mic first and explained that she’s learned to let some things go. “Things just drop — that’s just life in the fast lane,” she said. “I’m going to disappoint people; I’m going to disappoint myself, even. You do have to take time for you and present a model for what is healthy and happy.”
Parish reflected on his time at the Rockwood Institute which taught him “leadership from the inside out.”
“I’m not going to be effective in my work out in the world if I’m not strong from within,” he said. He also talked about the misnomer of the term “balance.”
“Balance makes me anxious. Balance means you’re always trying to keep things up in the air. A different way I’ve started to think about this is design — life design. I have a very detailed work plan that incorporates a lot of ways I want to spend my time.”
McKibben’s final words encouraged the audience to “get out into the natural world. It’s a nice, effective reminder that you’re actually a very small part of something very large.”
In closing, Isham offered a quote from Ashoka founder Bill Drayton: “Give yourself permission.”
The audience was then given permission to leave, and all left the space ready to engage with the ideas discussed.